Alexander Rossi

ST. LOUIS – A collection of stars from the Verizon IndyCar Series and rising talents from the Mazda Road to Indy ushered in Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta & Valvoline weekend with a fan festival on Thursday night.

The happening took place at Ballpark Village adjacent to Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, allowing fans to enjoy activities including autograph sessions, racing simulators, show cars and casual conversations, to a variety of unique games like cornhole and Giant Jenga. More than a dozen drivers attended the two-hour event.

Downtown St. Louis is minutes from Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois, site of the Verizon IndyCar Series race weekend.

Ed Jones, driver of the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, couldn’t contain his competitiveness, winning both a game of cornhole and the “football thing,” which had him considering challenging – with a laugh – for a roster spot with an NFL team.

Max Chilton and Ed Jones“It’s a great way to promote an event,” Jones said of the fan festival that saw a large turnout.

“I think Gateway has put in so much effort in making the race a success. We saw that last year and I hope that this year they’re rewarded again for the massive fans that come out and have as great an event as it was last year.

“We’ve been interacting with the fans, juggling TV and radio (interviews), playing cornhole, remote-controlled cars. It’s just really good to see this many people interested in the race, and hopefully they all come out on Saturday night.”

The fan support also caught the attention of Ryan Norman, the Andretti Autosport driver in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires.

“I feel like this city supports this race a lot, so it’s definitely great to see the fans come out and get to meet them face to face and have some time to talk with them,” Norman said.

“There’s a simulator here, so we’re able to run times and kind of show fans what we do. I think this is great. Definitely helps support the race and get people excited for it.

“It’s one of my favorite weekends.”

One driver particularly eager to return to the 1.25-mile oval is Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud.

The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion took in every moment of the fan festival to take pictures with fans and talk racing, as well as teach some of the attending Indy Lights drivers that Jenga is one of his “core strengths,” thanks in part to his seasoned training in the “Penske Games” videos.

“I think that makes a big difference when you have approachable drivers that can give some time like that,” Pagenaud said.

“The promotions are incredible here. The racing last year was phenomenal. We have a history of really good results on short tracks, so hoping for a really good race this weekend. Hopefully, we have as exciting of a finish, but hopefully I’m on top of the podium this time.”

The recipient of a late bump-and-run while leading saw the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet pilot finish third as teammate Josef Newgarden went on to win in last year’s 248-lap race.

“The goal is always to win,” Pagenaud said. “With Team Penske, we prepare so hard that that is the goal, there’s no other goal than winning. You can be satisfied with a third place, but really, the goal is to win in any situation, especially with our situation in the championship.

“We need some big points to finish in the top five and just keep momentum rolling for next year and really go for the championship.”

Tickets remain available for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Live coverage of the race begins at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Gateway Fan Fest