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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