Jerry Savoie: How a Louisiana alligator farmer took a big bite out of the NHRA’s biggest race

(Photo courtesy NHRA)
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When Jerry Savoie left the starting line in Monday’s final round of Pro Stock Motorcycle competition in the NHRA U.S. Nationals, it would not be surprising if he said, “See you later, alligator.”

The 56-year-old Savoie knows a few things about gators – the real kind – away from the racetrack.

He’s one of the biggest and most prolific gator farmers in the business, deep in Cajun country in Cut Off, Louisiana. While other farmers tend to herds of cows or raise chickens, Savoie’s “flock” numbers around 60,000 live, chompin’ gators.

Dealing with gators on a daily basis has helped keep Savoie on his toes and develop such quick reflexes that when the “go” light turns green on a dragstrip, he and his motorcycle reach speeds approaching 200 mph in about seven seconds.

Dealing with alligators also keeps Savoie tough: a gator bit him about three weeks ago, but Savoie shook it off. Nothing was going to keep him from his date with destiny at the U.S. Nationals in Brownsburg, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis.

Savoie’s opponent in Monday’s final round, pole-sitter Chip Ellis, fouled when he red-lighted, giving Savoie an easy 7.011 seconds, 193.02 mph winning run.

It was Savoie’s third career win on two wheels (plus five career runner-up finishes). His first national event win came last year at St. Louis, and he’s won two races this season aboard his aptly named White Alligator Racing Suzuki: Englishtown (N.J.) and Indy.

Maybe there’s something to the phrase, “the third time is the charm,” as Savoie finally earned the prestigious U.S. Nationals win in his third final round in the NHRA’s biggest race of the year. He finished runner-up in both 2011 and 2014.

“It’s a great day,” the soft-spoken Savoie said. “I think God for being here. The last round wasn’t the way we wanted to win (with Ellis’ red-light), but we held our composure and had a good day. We were blessed.”

When asked by NBCSports.com how he was feeling after the biggest win of his career, Savoie offered a very emotional back story.

He typically awakes each morning between 1:30 and 5 am before tending to his crop of gators. A week before his win in Indianapolis, he had just sent an early morning text to fellow motorcycle team owner and longtime friend Junior Pippin (owns Ellis’ bike), who is battling cancer.

“I sent him a text telling him it’s four o’clock in the morning and I’m thinking about you and praying for you,” Savoie said. “It makes you think, life is really short. We’re all here and exist in just a moment, and before you know it, that moment might be gone.”

Savoie’s wife then joined him at the kitchen table – and his story continued.

“My wife and I were having coffee around 4:30, 5 in the morning,” Savoie said, choking up. “I said, ‘Vonnie, if I die today, don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve accomplished everything in my life I’ve ever wanted to, financially, family, racing was big on my bucket list, fly my own plane, I’ve done everything.

“From here on out, whatever God brings, whatever God gives me, it can happen. Here we are at the U.S. Nationals, and I told everybody all week that we wanted it bad, we wanted it real bad. … It’s just unbelievable.”

Savoie was rather soft-spoken in his post-race press conference, but one look at his rough hewn hands tell the story of a man who has worked hard all his life.

He dabbled in drag racing back as a young man, but the responsibilities of a family and his growing business kept Savoie out of a motorcycle saddle for more than three decades.

Yet even though he stayed off a bike for that long, Savoie nonetheless still kept up with the sport, intently following the careers of fellow Louisianan Angelle Sampey, the winningest female motorcycle racer in NHRA history (41 wins), and ex-motorcycle racer turned Top Fuel champ Antron Brown.

Now he’s enjoying the rewards of all his hard work, both on and off a two-wheeler. What’s more, now that he’s won Indy, next on Savoie’s bucket list is potentially winning the PSM championship this season.

“All my life, I’ve dreamed,” Savoie said. “I’ve watched Angelle, Antron and all these guys. “I took 33 years off, never sat on a motorcycle during that time. Then I came out here professionally to win one race, and now I’ve won three races.

“To win the big daddy of them all, man, I am humbled, so humbled.”

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Starting lineup grid for IMSA Petit Le Mans: Tom Blomqvist puts MSR on pole position

Petit Le Mans lineup
IMSA
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IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship contender Tom Blomqvist put the Meyer Shank Racing Acura at the front of the starting lineup for the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Road Atlanta.

Blomqvist turned a 1-minute, 8.55-second lap on the 2.54-mile circuit Friday to capture his third pole position for MSR this season. Earl Bamber qualified second in the No. 02 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Ricky Taylor was third in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing, which enters Saturday’s season finale with a 19-point lead over the No. 60 of Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis (who will be joined by Helio Castroneves) for the 10-hour race.

PETIT LE MANS STARTING GRID: Click here for the starting lineup l Lineup by car number

PETIT LE MANS: Info on how to watch

With the pole, MSR sliced the deficit to 14 points behind WTR, which will field the trio of Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Brendon Hartley in Saturday’s race.

“We really needed to put the car in this kind of position,” Blomqvist said. “It makes our life a little less stressful tomorrow. It would have given the No. 10 a bit more breathing space. It’s going to be a proper dogfight tomorrow. The guys gave me such a great car. It’s been fantastic this week so far, and it really came alive. I’m hugely thankful to the boys and girls at MSR for giving me the wagon today to execute my job.

“That was a big effort from me. I knew how important it was. It’s just awesome for the guys to give them some sort of reward as well. It’s always nice to be quick. If you do the pole, you know you’ve got a quick car.”

Though WTR has a series-leading four victories with the No. 10, MSR won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and has five runner-up finishes along with its three poles.

The strong performances of the ARX-05s ensure that an Acura will win the final championship in IMSA’s premier Daytona Prototype international (DPi) division, which is being rebranded as Grand Touring Prototype in the move to LMDh cars next season.

Taylor qualified third despite sliding into the Turn 5 gravel during the closing minutes of qualifying while pushing to gain points.

“Qualifying was important for points,” Taylor said. “Going into it, if we outqualified the No. 60 Meyer Shank Acura, they had a lot to lose in terms of championship points. So, we were trying to increase the gap over 20 points which would’ve made a big difference for tomorrow. We would have loved to get the pole and qualify ahead of the No. 60, but in the scheme of the points, it didn’t change a whole lot. I’m feeling good since it’s such a long race, and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura team does such a good job strategizing and putting us in a good position.

“I’m very confident in our lineup and our team compared to them over the course of 10 hours. I’d put my two teammates up against those guys any day. I think we are all feeling optimistic and strong for tomorrow.”

In other divisions, PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports (LMP2), Riley Motorsports (LMP3), VasserSullivan (GTD Pro) and Paul Miller Racing (GTD) captured pole positions.

The broadcast of the 10-hour race will begin Saturday at 12:10 p.m. ET on NBC, moving at 3 p.m. to USA Network.


QUALIFYING

Results

Results by class

Fastest lap by driver

Fastest lap by driver after qualifying

Fastest lap by driver and class after qualifying

Fastest lap sequence in qualifying

Best sector times in qualifying

Time cards in qualifying

PRACTICE RESULTS: Session I l Session II l Session III