The Little Caesars Pizza was the first thing I noticed. A brand-new building. Beautiful brick. I knew why it looked so fresh.
Two and a half years ago, it was burned to the ground. Little Caesars. Ferguson, Missouri.
In the early 2000s, I lived in St. Louis as a regional reporter for FOX Sports Midwest. It was golden era for St. Louis sports, with Mark “Big Mac” McGwire launching moon shots and the Rams doing the bob-and-weave as the “greatest show on turf.” Across the river, Indy cars were racing at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Things have changed since then: Mac is now assisting hitters in San Diego, the Rams’ new turf just a few hours up the road now in Los Angeles. INDYCAR hadn't run Gateway since the Little Caesars was in its original building.
On Saturday morning, before working the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline that night for the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, I set out in St. Louis to see the changes of the landscape I once called home. The old Busch Stadium has been replaced, Rams Park is now a public sports complex and Gateway is enjoying a repave that makes it one of the faster short ovals in the country.
But, Ferguson. What about Ferguson?
It's less a town and more simply an incorporation in St. Louis' north city. Just under three years ago, it was the epicenter of American social combustion: a people boiled over with what they deemed injustice, a justice boiled over while serving its people.
I wanted to see. I wanted to see the rebuild. I wanted to meet the people. I once dwelled just a few miles from Ferguson, but had to face the reality that I'd been living a world away.
I took a left at the Little Caesars. I saw the Ferguson market, read the plaque that memorializes Michael Brown and read the sign in front of a still-stained strip mall. "Rebuild Ferguson."
I have no mechanical inclination. I can't build things and must hire help for things as simple as programming my Fitbit. Yet, in the shadows of that shiny new Little Caesars, I figured I could do my part to lay my own brick ... by talking to residents of Ferguson.
I noticed Leland standing by his car, diligently inspecting the yardwork of his junior, Andrew. Neal looked on as I walked up the drive. That's when I introduced myself to Andrew.
And we talked. For a long time. I had questions for them. What was it like to see your neighborhood in smoke? How did it feel to see your street on national television? What is Ferguson now, compared to three years ago? Have things improved beyond the Little Caesars?
Leland told me about raising Andrew in Ferguson. Neal told me of the lessons Andrew has passed along to the third generation. We talked about St. Louis, its political climate and the issues of the world today. It was wonderful. It was refreshing, encouraging, enlightening and informative.
At the end of our time together, two things happened that I won't soon forget. Andrew, who had fielded my questions for more than 20 minutes, had one for me.
"I notice your shirt says INDYCAR," he quipped. "Did that repaving at Gateway really let them get to 190 (mph)?!"
And then, Leland thanked me. Thanked me for stopping to talk. The gratitude was all mine.
I told Andrew, yes, the repaving at Gateway helped create better racing. Just as the rebuild in Ferguson, in this case, helped create better understanding. It began as a conversation about race. It ended as a conversation about racing.
Andrew told me he was looking forward to listening to the race that night. I hope he enjoyed it as much I enjoyed listening that afternoon.
Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.