It's a crisp, clear spring day and perfectly dry — ideal conditions for driving fast. Laney Chouest, owner of NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale, is taking me for a few laps around the 2.75-mile, 16-turn north track in a Nissan GT-R, a 500-plus horsepower marvel of Japanese engineering. The first few laps go without incident as Chouest warms the tires and talks about the process of learning to drive at high speeds.
"Driving fast brings me a sense of calm," Chouest says. "It really requires complete focus."
Chouest isn't completely focused on driving, however. He's explaining which corners are his favorites and pointing out where on the track he's had the most trouble in the past. At the same time, he's struggling to read the dashboard display because his polarizing glasses make it difficult. Next thing I know, we're going around the S-turn on the north side of the track and Chouest loses his line, we veer off the asphalt and cut across the grass. It's kind of a terrifying moment — we were going almost 90 mph at the time — but all I can do is laugh; I'm having too much fun.
NOLA Motorsports Park is a place where you can drive your car as fast as possible and push your own limits of fear and speed. It's no accident that Chouest and I avoided wrecking a nearly $100,000 sports car. Aside from the quarter-mile-long wall next to the pit lane, there are no barriers around the track, just open fields of grass.
"All I really wanted was just a place where I could drive my cars fast," Chouest says. He recognizes it's a common dream that few have the financial means to fulfill. Chouest has the necessary means thanks to his dual career as a medical doctor in Lafourche Parish and an executive with his family's petroleum company, Edison Chouest Offshore. (Until recently, his brother Gary was a minority owner of the New Orleans Hornets.) As a result of his successes, Chouest was able to privately bankroll most of the park's $60 million development costs.
Not that he's been on his own. Because of Chouest's background in petroleum engineering and his love of auto racing, he knew leading experts in soil, asphalt and racing engineering and called on them to make sure the track and facilities were the best they could be. Chouest recognized that setting up a business as a playground where the rich could race their cars a few times a year would be unsustainable. He wanted the track to be a destination that could accommodate a child's birthday party or, as it did recently, a national Subaru dealers' convention with 12,000 attendees.
NOLA Motorsports is built around the concept that even if you don't have a six-figure sports car — or even a five-figure one — there are plenty of reasons to drive to Avondale for a fast ride on some asphalt. There's the largest go-cart track in the country, and it's open seven days a week. (Individual sessions are $25; weekly league membership ranges from $40 to $150, which includes go-cart rental, safety equipment and extended track sessions.)
The park also will house educational facilities, including a teen driving school, a highway safety course and a skid track that teaches drivers how to regain control of their vehicles following a spin out.
The park's crown jewel is the north track. When it opens in a few months, the south race track will give the park 5.5 miles of racing surface, making it a mile longer than the Miller Motorsports Track in Utah, currently the largest racing park in North America. Internationally renowned track designer Alan Wilson laid out the 5.9-mile, 27-turn track, which already has impressed professional motorcycle rider Jason DiSalvo. During a demonstration in April, DiSalvo called the track "fast and flowing" and said it would make for exciting action when the AMA Pro Road Racing motorcycle league hosts an event at the park in October.
True gearheads, those who spend hours tuning their cars so they will operate at their maximum potential, can participate in regularly scheduled open-track days (the next two are June 22 and July 7) for around $300. Registration and more information are on the park's website: www.nolamotor.com.
What will set this park apart from others is its facilities. It will feature two restaurants by chef Scott Boswell, who owns Stella! and Stanley restaurants in New Orleans. There also will be a day spa, office and convention meeting spaces, tuning and mechanic shops and garages. In the future, Chouest plans to add villas and vacation rentals.
"This park is a big step forward in terms of what people should expect from a motorsports track," Wilson says. Chouest puts it another way: "Things have really snowballed. This is really so much bigger than I had ever planned."
It's also just a 20-minute trip from downtown New Orleans to NOLA Motorsports Park, making it accessible to both locals and visitors.
Chouest says his vision for a motorsports park located minutes from downtown took form immediately after Hurricane Katrina. But like many post-Katrina projects, the park had its share of hurdles. The first was the site Chouest bought — a drained cypress forest and marshland. Tyson Rupnow, a civil engineer with the Louisiana Transportation Research Center, was charged with developing a way to stabilize the muddy soil, which Chouest says workers were sinking in up to their knees.
"When I first went out to the site, the soil was absolutely saturated," Rupnow says. "I was completely blown away when they said they wanted to build a motorsports park (there)."
Roadways built on reclaimed marshlands often droop and sag over time causing uneven driving surfaces that make it difficult to drive very fast because of the bumps. Hitting one at 120 mph would be very dangerous.
"Your car would go airborne," Chouest says. "That's the last thing you want on a race track."
The solution Rupnow found was revolutionary. After a lot of trial and error, the NOLA Motorsports team found that mixing fly ash, a chemical byproduct of coal combustion, with marsh soil causes the soil to dry out and harden into a concrete-like foundation that doesn't add weight. Rupnow picked up the method from highway projects he worked on as an engineer in Iowa, but this was the first time fly ash was ever used on such a grand scale.
"Studies have been done on fly ash and they found that not only does it harden like concrete, it actually gets stronger over time," Rupnow said.
My joy ride with Chouest came after several visits to the park starting in October 2011. Back then, the only facilities completed were the race track, go-cart track and a few garages. Even though the developer had broken ground in 2009, the entire complex was a hardhat zone.
On June 10, NOLA Motorsports Park will hold a grand opening event featuring $100 "hot laps" around the track with a professionally trained driver in one of the track-owned Mustang FR500 race cars (trust me when I say going close to 150 mph is a life-altering experience), free low-speed tours of the track in your own car, $20 skid car lessons, car demos and food from Boswell's restaurant.
The opening ceremony doesn't mark completion of the project, however. The south track is still under construction, and the villas, Boswell's farm and other facilities are in early stages of development. But the track is open, operational and available for anyone who wants to feel the adrenaline rush of banking a corner at nearly 100 mph and, on occasion, missing that corner completely and skidding through the grass, laughing hysterically, then trying it again.