How 57-year old alligator farmer and part-time NHRA drag racer Jerry Savoie beat the factory teams at their own game.
Nobody ever told jerry Savoie that at 51, an age when most racers are well past their prime or retired, he couldn’t become a competitive rider in the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle class. And nobody ever told Savoie that he couldn’t build a privateer team that could not only compete head-to-head with the mighty factory-backed Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson squad, but also beat them at their own game. As stubborn as Savoie can ben, he probably wouldn’t have listened even if he’d been told all of those things and that attitude has served him well since the Louisiana-based alligator farmer is now the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Pro Stock Motorcycle Champion.
To read this in Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine, click HERE
By Kevin McKenna
Photography by Matt Polito
Savoie’s story is a good one and it begins in the rural town of Cut Off, Louisiana, about an hour’s drive south of New Orleans. An avid motorcycle racer as a teenager, Savoie quit racing in order to build a business and raise a family. He didn’t throw his leg over a motorcycle for the better part of three-decades but always felt the he had the ability to compete at a high level. In 2010, with his alligator farm now a multi-million enterprise that supplies prized skins to top-level shoe, handbag, and watchstrap designers like Gucci and Prada, Savoie embarked on an unlikely journey.
“I went to George Bryce’s drag racing school to see if I could ride a pro stock motorcycle,” Savoie said. “I’ve always felt like I could do anything I put my mind to and that’s something that I’ve tried to stress to my son, Gerald. Before I went to the school, I talked to one of my friends and I asked them, ‘Do you think I can do this? Can I ride one of these bikes? I didn’t want to just ride one; I wanted to be competitive. I wanted to be able to win just one race. Anyway, I went to the school and rode the bike and afterwards I asked Mr. Bryce, if I thought I could do it. He told me, ‘If you ride the way you did on our school bike, I guarantee you will win a race.’ That’s all I needed to hear.”
Armed with Bryce’s endorsement, Savoie built his own team. He hired a full-time crew chief, Mar Peiser, bought a bike, a transporter, and all the necessary support equipment. Money was never the issue, nor was work ethic; Savoie is one of those rare individuals who can function at a high level on as little as four hours of sleep. He’s up before the sun every day and regularly puts in 15-hour days running the alligator farm. As far as the race against Father Time—that was another matter. In his 50s, Savoie needed to drop about 15-pounds in order to be competitive and he needed to learn the ins and outs of the highly competitive pro stock motorcycle class.
In his first few seasons, Savoie did surprisingly well. He reached the final round of the sport’s marquee event, the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, and finished a respectable eighth in the final points standings. Along the way, Savoie beat world champions Matt Smith three times, Eddie Krawiec twice and scored a win against Andrew Hines proving, if nothing else, he wasn’t afraid of top-level competition.
Winning a few rounds is one thing and contending for a championship is quite another. While Savoie steadily worked towards his goal of building a championship-winning organization, it seemed the he often drifted further from his goal. A switch from a Suzuki to a Buell V-twin proved to be disastrous and eventually, crew chief Mark Peiser left the team and was replaced by veteran Tim Kulungian. Under Kulungian, Savoie’s team began to show a marked improvement especially after they began getting a handle on their fuel-injection set-up. At the 2015 Dallas round, Savoie made the quickest Suzuki pass in the history of the class when he rode to a 6.74 and the eventual victory.
“Tim is a genius,” Savoie said. “He analyzes everything and he picks it apart. He looks at the data from every run we make and he makes tiny changes that all add up in the end. I don’t know where I’d be without him. This championship is as much his as it is mine.”
Savoie’s championship run wasn’t as unlikely as many people might assume. A year ago, he was also in the thick of the battle until the final day of the season. Savoie could have toppled the Harley-Davidson dynasty last year but his bike spun the tires in the second round of the season-ending race in Pomona and he lost the championship to Andrew Hines. While he prepared for 2016, Savoie didn’t’ forget the lessons learned a year earlier.
“We knew how to win races and we thought we knew how to win a championship,” Savoie said. “We could have gotten discouraged by what happened last year but we didn’t. He just went back to work and tried to make the motorcycle better. Tim learned some new stuff; he’s always learning and we just told ourselves that we were going to be better this year than we were last year. We were able to do that.
“I know that I’m a year older now but I still feel good; I knew I could still ride the bike and do it at a high level. I’ve never had any doubts about that. We always felt that if we kept working hard and never gave up, good things would happen to us.”
Savoie’s preparation and attitude paid off in 2016 when he reached the final round at back-to-back rounds in Atlanta and Englishtown, N.J., Even though he lost both finals, he felt that the team was continuing to move in a positive direction. Savoie ultimately didn’t win a race until the start of the Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s six-race playoffs. He was trailing both Hines and Krawiec but closed the gap after winning the St. Louis round. A runner-up finish in Dallas made the battle even tighter and after Savoie ran the table at the penultimate round in Las Vegas, sweeping all 130 available points by qualifying on the pole and posting the quickest run of each session, the championship battle headed to Pomona in a virtual three-way tie.
Given the strength of the three championship contenders, many expected the race for the title to come down to a winner-take-all final round and Savoie figured to be one of the finalists. It didn’t exactly work that way. In qualifying, Krawiec led the field, while Savoie was second and Hines was fourth, behind Lucas Oil Buell’s Hector Arana Jr. On race day, all three riders advanced past the first round of eliminations. Things got interesting in the second round where the championship was ultimately decided.
Savoie was first up and took care of business when he rode to a convincing victory against Steve Johnson’s Suzuki. Savoie watched on a TV monitor past the finish line when Star Buell’s Angelle Sampey ended Hines bid for a record-setting sixth championship with a close 6.789 to 6.912 victory over the Harley rider. In the next heat, Victory Gunner’s Matt Smith left the starting line ahead of Krawiec by three-hundredths of a second and that proved to be the difference in a 6.904 to 6.871 holeshot victory. At the finish line, Smith’s bike was ahead of Krawiec’s by just one-thousandth of a second and that was enough to clinch the title in Savoie’s favor.
“I never thought it would go down that way,” Savoie said. “I didn’t think it would be over before the semi-final round. Angelle has been hit or miss lately but I thought she had a chance to beat Andrew because he hadn’t hit a home run all weekend. When she beat him, I can’t say that was too surprising. Then, when Matt [Smith] put it on Eddie; I didn’t see that one coming. I was down there screaming, ‘Come on Matt.’ When he won the round, I didn’t even realize I’d won the championship. It took a while for it to sink in. Who would have thought that both of the Harley-Davidsons would lose like that? Not me. It all started to sink in when my brother came down and gave me a big hug and we both started crying. My dad was a big drag racing fan. He would have loved this.”
In Monday nights’ championship banquet, Savoie delivered a heart-felt speech that left many in the crowd in tears.
“I am just so humbled to be out here at my age,” he said. “Just to be able to go down the track is special. When I started this, I just wanted to win one race. That’s all. I just wanted one win to prove that I could still do this. A championship was far more than I ever dreamed of. Out here, we are all family—one big family. Every time I come to the racetrack, I’m surrounded by love and that gives me confidence. It’s an amazing thing.
“Back home, I raise alligators and people around the world know me and all the big companies want my skins because we don’t cut corners and we deliver a great product. I don’t think I’m better than the rest; we just do things the right way. That’s the same with racing. I always feel like others can do this just as well as I can but then you watch them come out and not succeed. I’m just an old country boy and it still doesn’t sink in that I can be successful at my age. It just proves that if you surround yourself with good people good things will happen.”
Savoie once threatened to quit drag racing after he’d accomplished his initial goal of winning one race. Apparently, that plan has been abandoned because he’s already hard at work figuring out a plan to defend his title. Part of that plan includes adding a teammate, fellow Louisiana resident and 2010 world champ LE Tonglet as part of a two-bike Suzuki team.
“LE is the real deal,” said Savoie. “He can ride and he’s a great person. I’ve known his family for more than 30 years. I realized a long time ago that you need to have two bikes out here so you can get all the data from both of them. If you look what’s out here there are two Harleys, two Victory bike, and two Lucas Oil Buells and they all win races. We feel like we need a second bike but the situation had to be right. In LE Tonglet, we think we have the right situation. I can just imagine where we’d be if we had two Suzukis as good as my bike all year long. I’d have to think that LE would have been right there at the end battling with us for the championship. I’m already excited about next year. It’s going to be awesome.” CN