Gator Guy Savoie Eyes GatorNats Championship
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
In Jerry Savoie’s work-a-day world, straddling his 58-year-old body over the tank of a Pro Stock Motorcycle at speeds approaching 200 mph qualifies as borderline mundane. That’s because Savoie’s other profession _ alligator farmer _ might be viewed as borderline insane.
One of drag racing’s bona fide characters, Savoie will launch the defense of his 2016 NHRA Pro Stock Bike world championship from pole position Sunday at Gainesville Raceway, site of the 48th annual AMALIE Motor Oil Gatornationals. Savoie earned the ninth pole of his career Saturday with a quarter-mile pass in 6.753-seconds at 198.99 mph aboard his White Alligator Racing Suzuki in the third of four qualifying sessions.
Savoie will race Karen Stoffer and her Suzuki in the first round of eliminations at the historic Florida facility, with FOX Sports 1’s live telecast beginning at 1 p.m. (EDT).
“We’ve never run well in Gainesville, but (crew chief) Tim Kulungian has really been working hard to figure that out,” said Savoie, a resident of Cut Off, La. “I think that will help and going in, I feel like we’ve got a good shot. I would love to win the Gatornationals because it’s the first track I rode a Pro Stock Motorcycle. An alligator farmer winning the Gatornationals would be awesome. It’s one of the closer races for us, and we’re excited and pumped-up to get things going this season.”
Savoie won two of six Countdown to the Championship races last season en route to overhauling Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammates Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines for the title.
Savoie clinched at the season-ending 52nd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., after advancing to the semifinals while nearest contenders Krawiec and Hines were knocked out in the quarterfinals. Ironically, Savoie never led the point standings until he secured the title. But he made his championship intentions known early in the season by racing to runnerup finishes at Commerce, Ga., and Englishtown, N.J.
Savoie entered the Countdown fourth in points but suffered a first-round loss in Concord, N.C., and fell to sixth. After that upset, Savoie and his team hit their stride and went on to win at Madison, Ill., and Las Vegas as well as a runnerup finish to Krawiec at Billy Meyer’s Texas Motorplex in Ennis. Savoie also was the No. 1 qualifier at three consecutive events at the end of the season.
“It’s just amazing, man, that this could possibly happen,” Savoie said at season’s end. “We knew going into Dallas (The Plex) we could run really well. We had some misfortune early-on. Nobody really knew about it. We tried to keep everything a big secret. But we knew for sure that we had the bike to beat.
“Here’s the thing. In the past years, the Harleys would run you down. They couldn’t 60-foot, but they could run you down. Now Vance & Hines has worked so hard to give us the power to be able to compete. With Tim tuning the bike, everything started clicking. We knew they couldn’t 60-foot with us. If they can’t 60-foot with you and they can’t run you out the back door, you’re going to win races.
“If we would have won Dallas, we would have been way ahead in the points. We always do great at the end of the season. Tim is the best. These guys _ I’m not a world champion, we are world champions _ all of us, not just me.”
Savoie’s championship capped his comeback from a 30-plus year break from racing, a period during which he built his business and raised a family in the heart of his beloved Cajun Country.
“You know, as a young boy _ a lot of people don’t know, they say I never pat myself on the back and say how good I could have been or was _ but as a young boy, I did pretty good at drag racing on the streets of Louisiana,” Savoie said. “Set a couple of national records. It was all good.
“The fire always burns in you. Once a drag racer, always a drag racer. Even though you don’t continue racing, the fire continues burning in your body. I always wondered if I was ever good enough. It played a toll on me, ‘Was I as good as Angelle (Sampey, three-time PSM world champion)?’ Angelle was a young girl growing up, she baby-sat for me. When she came up, I was like, ‘I would only dream of doing something like that.’
“Thirty-two years didn’t sit on a motorcycle. Later in age, worked really hard, was able financially to put together a team. A friend, Paul Miller, I went and talked to him and asked him if he thought I was any good. He said, ‘Absolutely. It’s never too late.’
“I went and called (team-owner) George Bryce, who I went to school with. George Bryce put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, ‘Brother, if you ride like that on race day, I promise you you’re going to win one of these races.’ My goal was only to win one. My dream never was ever, ever _ even last year _ to win a championship. It was just to come out here and compete, beat up on people, try to be the best. God has blessed me in so many ways. It’s an amazing thing.”
During his years away from the drag strip Savoie remained connected to bikes via his three Harley-Davidsons. “One is a 1966, my father’s old Sportster,” Savoie said. “I love Harley-Davidsons. It’s not a cross for me to be racing against them, no vengeance, you know what I’m saying?”
Savoie’s engines again are being built by Vance & Hines, home to the Harley superstars. “Those guys have a lot of money,” Savoie said. “But here’s the deal. It’s a matter of budget and resources, that’s OK. But they’re building our engines. For those guys, to build your engine, then you take that engine, you sprinkle a little pixie dust on it like Tim does, we do a few things that other people don’t do, and to go out there and to be able to compete with that package that they give you, actually win a championship, it’s amazing.
“Got a little joke running around the shop at Vance & Hines. Andrew looks at the (dyno) numbers on the dials, ‘Is this what we got to run against this weekend? Are you kidding me?’ It’s pretty cool they know what’s coming, they know what they have to run against. They know how fast we should be running. Man, look, it’s a first-class operation. A lot of people say, ‘You don’t give us the power you give Jerry, whatnot.’ Give me any one of your engines that’s fresh, not been beat up on, give us any one of your engines, and I promise you we’ll make it run.
“The difference is, if you maintain your stuff, you do everything proper, you can run with them boys. But it’s all got to come together.”
After qualifying No. 1 during the 31st annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in Ennis last October, Savoie did more than thank his crew. Savoie brought Kulungian and crewmen Jeremy Deroche and Steve Zelem into the press room for the post-qualifying interview.
“I’m just a rider, man,” Savoie said. “Like I said before, I’ll say it over and over _ Tim, Jeremy, Steve _ those guys are the best. They family to me. When you click like that, you got a good thing going, man, nothing can stop you.”
That mindset helped Savoie build his alligator farm into its current 20-acre operation in Cut Off, which boasted a population of 5,976 in the 2010 Census…not counting the approximately 60,000 gators housed on-site. According to the manta.com marketing report website, Savoie’s Alligator Farm was established in 1990 and still employs a staff of two. Working around alligators, Savoie said, is excellent for keeping the reflexes sharper than a pair of gator teeth.
“Well, I come in and out of the farm pretty regular,” Savoie said.”Yeah, go to the farm, make sure everything’s OK. It’s a program we set up through the state of Louisiana where everything is permitted. You actually purchase the eggs from landowners with the oversight of Wildlife and Fisheries. You take those eggs and incubate them and hatch them. You got helicopters, airboats, the whole nine yards involved.
“Pick up the eggs, hatch ’em, raise ’em, kind of like a chicken farm. They’re all in water. The water is actually filtrated 24 hours a day. The water is heated to 90-degrees year-round. As they get bigger, different size for different markets, you harvest the gators, sell the skin, meat, head, feet. Everything’s sold. Twelve percent of what you hatch, 12 percent goes back to the wild at four feet. So you replenish the marsh, so that keeps everything going.
“I like to hunt and fish. I’m an outdoorsman. I’m a guy that loves Mother Nature and loves birds and everything, man. I love life. Put it that way. That’s the most important thing.”
Savoie’s championship offseason included the addition of fellow-Louisianan LE Tonglet, the 2010 world champion, as his teammate. Tonglet, 27, is competing with partial sponsorship from Kenny Koretsky’s Nitro Fish brand entering the prime of his career.
“We’ve worked hard all winter and feel pretty confident, but for me there’s no pressure,” Savoie said. “I’ve won my race. That’s all I set out to do. The championship was just extra. This year, I’m more eager to do better than ever before. I feel like we should be fast and I’m excited about LE. I think we’ll have a fun time this year. As a teammate, I think the information (shared) is going to be good. But he wants to beat me and I want to beat him, so hopefully we can meet up in some finals.”
NHRA’s traditional East Coast opener is the first of 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle, a class featuring a mix of familiar street-bike nameplates including H-D’s V-Rod, Buell, Polaris and Suzuki. Savoie’s list of championship rivals certainly begins with Hines and Krawiec, who have combined for eight world titles and 83 national event victories.
Sampey, meanwhile, has teamed with Cory Reed _ the 2016 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner as NHRA’s Rookie of the Year _ at newly formed Liberty Racing. Sampey and Reed are riding Polaris bikes with S&S V-Twin engines.
Two-time world champion Matt Smith is campaigning a Polaris Magnum in place of the Victory he and wife Angie rode last year. Polaris, parent company of the Victory and Indian brands, has discontinued the former nameplate.
The father-son team of Hector Arana Sr., the 2009 world champion, and Hector Jr. will be out to rebound from winless 2016 seasons aboard their Lucas Oil Buells.
“A lot of guys and gals are going to be good,” said Savoie, who has six career victories. “We have to step up mentally and physically, and have the right bike. It’s not going to be easy. There’s a lot of talented riders, a lot of new riders and everybody riding a Suzuki now believes they can win a championship. I think last year opened a lot of doors for people. It’s going to be a great year.
“I appreciate all the fans, my people in Louisiana. Don’t ever think that Jerry Savoie doesn’t take it to heart about the way people feel, what they say, the way he treats people. Drag racing is in my blood and it’s in my heart. We all one big family. I love everybody.”