...$60 million facility south of the TPC Louisiana Golf Course is essentially a Disney World for motorsports enthusiasts...
January 30, 2012
By Paul Roux, The Times Picayune
A self-described "motorhead," Bob Hennessey was one of the first in line recently to take some hot laps around the new racetrack at the NOLA Motorsports Park being built in Avondale. Riding a green Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R motorcycle, the Mandeville resident roared down a straightaway at speeds above 160 mph and zipped through a series of daredevil S-curves, his knees nearly scraping the pavement as he leaned from side to side.
After several laps on the 1.8-mile track, Hennessey took off his helmet and gave a glowing technical assessment of the track's surface and layout before boiling his reaction down to layman's terms.
"It's awesome. Totally euphoric," he said. "We're just a bunch of big kids with fast toys, and this is our new playground."
The sprawling 750-acre, $60 million facility south of the TPC Louisiana Golf Course is essentially a Disney World for motorsports enthusiasts, many of whom said they previously traveled up to 350 miles to get their thrills.
When a second track is completed in about 18 months, it will link to the first to form a 5-mile course, making it the longest racetrack in North America.
The park also has three go-kart or karting tracks totaling 1.4 miles and an 8-acre paved area for autocross in which drivers zig and zag around cones in a race against the clock.
And in keeping with motorsports being one of the most expensive hobbies, the park will have several high-end amenities, including a restaurant by chef Scott Boswell, a 34,000-square-foot clubhouse/event center and dozens of lots for members to build upscale condominiums over garages dubbed "Garage Mahals."
The nearly finished park is attracting a diverse mix of speed demons, from well-heeled members paying $50,000 initiation fees to teenagers plunking down 20 bucks to zip around the world-class karting track.
Jefferson Parish President John Young predicted the park and several other nearby attractions, including the Alario Center and the Churchill Technology and Business Park, will serve as anchors for an anticipated boom in West Bank development sparked by the $1.2 billion project to widen the Huey P. Long Bridge, which is expected to be finished in mid-2013.
A regional attraction
"The racetrack is one of the most unique developments in the metropolitan area. It's going to attract a lot of people," Young said. "The magnitude of it all is simply amazing."
The project's scope has even surprised developer Laney Chouest, a retired doctor who is self-financing the project.
Chouest faced plenty of skepticism when he announced plans in September 2009 to build a $30 million park in three phases. But a little more than two years after construction began, the project has doubled in size.
"When we began building it, people started saying, 'We want this, this, this and this.' It kind of snowballed," said Chouest, co-owner of an offshore supply company with his brother, Gary, who previously had a minority stake in the New Orleans Hornets.
Chouest initially envisioned an exclusive country-club-style track catering primarily to wealthy car and motorcycle enthusiasts who could afford sky-high membership fees, even in a slumping economy.
But the business model has expanded to rely more heavily on day passes for nonmembers and hosting business retreats and team-building exercises.
40 family memberships
General manager Mitch Wright said the park's location 14 miles from the New Orleans Central Business District positions it to become a stop on the local convention circuit. He said a national convention of about 1,000 Subaru dealers is scheduled to descend on the park in May.
"We're looking at companies that normally do a golf getaway and want to try something different," Wright said.
He said about 40 people have signed up for family memberships, which cost $50,000 for life or $9,000 per year. Those with more modest budgets can opt to drive on open-track days, paying $325 for cars and $225 for motorcycles for six 20-minute sessions. A 10-minute ride on the karting track runs $20.
Cafe du Monde vice president Burt Benrud, whose previous idea of adventure in the Crescent City was limited to sailboating on Lake Pontchartrain, was among the first to sign up for a lifetime membership.
"What guy is not into cars? It's always, 'When can I get my driver's license,' or, 'How fast can this car go?'" said Benrud, who drives a Porsche Cayman R. "This is a safe environment to find out just how fast you can go. You're not going to hit a tree, and no cop is going to pull you over."
As a track member, Benrud recently got to test drive a $250,000 Daytona prototype race car capable of reaching 200 mph.
"I'll take it!" said Benrud, who was too enthralled to check the speedometer during his drive. "I don't know how fast I was going, but that was way cool."
No big spectator events
The twisting track is not designed for large spectator events like NASCAR races. But when the park hosts the finals for a major motorcycle-racing circuit in October, temporary grandstands could be erected to accommodate crowds of 15,000 to 20,000, Chouest said.
The track has no walls, enabling motorists who go off course to come to a stop without crashing. A team of EMTs and two ambulances are stationed at the track, but Wright said the biggest risk is heart attacks for drivers overwhelmed by the G-forces and sheer speed.
Swampy soil was a challenge
The track's designers faced a daunting challenge to build a racetrack on a former cypress swamp without having the pavement buckle like a Lakeview street.
The solution was to mix 200,000 tons of fly ash, a byproduct from coal-fueled power plants, with the first several feet of clay beneath the track.
"It basically turns the ground into concrete," Wright said. "It's expensive, but it's what you have to do if you don't want your racetrack to look like a typical street in southeastern Louisiana."
With many of the buildings unfinished and roadways that need paving, the park is several months from being ready for its grand opening. But scores of high-performance car and motorcycle owners showed up earlier this month for the first two open-track days.
Many of the riders and drivers came with their families and made a day of it, setting up canopies near the track.
"I wasn't thrilled when my husband got a motorcycle, but this is a safe way for him to go fast on it," Sharon Meilleur said of her husband, Chris. "He's 45 and can be a kid again."
Chris Meilleur and his motorcycle buddies occasionally take weekend trips to tracks in Atlanta, Houston or Birmingham, Ala.
Kenny Cox of Metairie said that while the group was saving a lot of money on gas and hotels, there's a downside when a weekend with the guys turns into a family affair.
"Usually we can run away and hide, but not anymore," he said. "This is basically right in our own backyards."