AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, Sept. 26-28, 2014 at Gateway Motorsports Park, Madison, IL, USA
story and photos by Tim Hailey
With First Wally in Hand, Savoie Looks for
200 MPH at Reading, a Second Bike in 2015
Jerry Savoie and the White Alligator Racing Suzuki
Four years isn’t really that long when it comes to starting and then reaching a major goal, but for Jerry Savoie it’s the time it takes to bring an alligator from egg to slaughter, and then one year more. That’s how long it’s been since alligator farmer Savoie approached NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown at a Louisiana wedding about his Pro Stock Motorcycle ambitions.
And like an angry gator fresh out of the pen, Savoie took the PSM field by storm. A win in his rookie season seemed likely, but then it didn’t happen. And then it didn’t happen his sophomore year. And then again. “I’ve always been successful at everything I’ve done,” Savoie told me at Englishtown that first year. “I know I’ll be successful at this.”
While he watched others rent rides with established tuners and collect Wallys, going his own path with his own team and equipment might have started seeming like the wrong choice.
But the stubborn Savoie always goes his own way, from learning to fly the ultralight he first used to locate eggs in the swamps to the methods he’s developed to raising and selling the alligators that come from them. And through two crew chiefs, Suzuki and Buell platforms, and various bodystyles, it’s always been Jerry’s way or the elevated highway across the bayou when it comes to his racing program.
And now, along with tuner Tim Kulungian and crew, Jerry’s got a Wally in hand. With the whole PSM pits standing behind the White Alligator Suzuki, Savoie slapped a .005 light on 3X champ Andrew Hines and ran .010 of a second quicker to take the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals final round win in St. Louis—the 55 year-old’s first ever after 30 years away from racing and 4 years back in the saddle.
“That’s a feeling you can’t describe, the feeling of accomplishment and weight off your shoulders,” said Savoie. “It’s been four years and a lot of pain and hard work.”
Steps forward, steps back
WAR tuner Tim Kulungian and Terry Vance at Indy
It’s often feast or famine for PSM teams. Savoie led qualifying on Saturday this year at Indy but was back in the bottom half of the field at Charlotte/Dallas. “I’m not saying it was the heat that we struggled with in Dallas, because we struggled in Charlotte too. That put us behind when we got to Dallas. We ran three passes in the 7s, then we found a problem in the wiring of the ECU.”
Savoie qualified 12th and lost to Hines in the first round of the Charlotte race, completed in Dallas because of rain in North Carolina. The ECU problem found, Savoie went into the final Dallas session unqualified but shot to 6th before losing to Hines again—this time in E2.
“We tried some things in Charlotte because it was a 16 bike field,” said tuner Kulungian. “You have to modify enough actions to seek a different result. Then at Dallas in the final qualifying round—bingo—we found what we were looking for.”
Then it was on to Gateway. “We’d tested on a 147 degree track there and went 6.88 right out of the trailer, so we knew we could do well.” And the team did, laying down a string of consistently quick passes. “We ran 6.85, 6.85, 6.85—but the conditions were changing so we were actually improving. You get in that window and start tweaking. We had a really good weekend, a lot of consistency, so we tuned on it a little better and found some MPH.”
“In qualifying, we were running competitive to the eighth mile but didn’t have the back half,” noted Kulungian. “We finally found something in the tune-up and ran that .83. The chassis, the clutch, the electronics—all these thing came together for us at St. Louis.”
Qualified second, Savoie had an easy one in round 1 when Craig Treble failed to make the call. Then John Hall redlit by -.003 in E2. The WAR team was enjoying some racing luck. Jerry barely nipped Hector Arana Jr. at the tree and outran him to the stripe in the semis. “Junior went on the 2-step before Jerry even staged,” noted Kulungian. “Jerry didn’t expect that, but still had an .017 on the tree. Jerry is a very stable, committed, excellent driver.”
Now it was time for the final with Hines. “I just went up there calm and collected. I wasn’t nervous one bit.” Savoie says he’s been calm for previous finals—maybe too calm—but you could also see it’s been eating at him that he hadn’t won yet. “I thought I’d win one of these races before now,” he’s said.
He faced an equally calm—and far more experienced—racer in Hines. “I call Andrew ‘Capitan Cool’ because he’s so low key,” said Jerry. “And he’s got a first class team over there—very professional. They’ve won so many races they shouldn’t have because of their consistency.”
Even though most of the Suzuki teams—including WAR—are Vance&Hines customers, the V&H/Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson’s team’s success both on track and off (with NHRA rules-makers) has bred an “us against them” spirit in the PSM pits. So it was no surprise that the lane behind Savoie’s bike at the starting line was filled with racers from nearly every PSM team, and that they erupted when Jerry lit the winlight. But hey, WAR is a V&H customer, and looking to expand. “Even the Harley team was excited for us,” said Savoie.
Doubling the WAR chest
Oh yes, expand. “We’re looking to bring a second bike on,” said Kulungian. “It will be a rental. They (the renter) can find a sponsor if they want and we can make the bike look like whatever they want it to. Camaraderie is the first and foremost thing we’ll be looking for in a teammate, and we’re looking for a minimum of one full year commitment.
“Basically, two R&D projects we’ve worked on all year have really come around. Now we need to address the fact that the multi-bike teams we’re competing against are getting twice or even four times the passes we are in qualifying. So the bike will be a carbon copy of the bike we have now and we’ll have plenty of engines for everybody.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, we have one fast motorcycle,” said Savoie. “But it’s a little too late to do anything this year. I could have gone out and bought some junk when I got started, but we’ve got a helluva chassis. It’s really consistent.”
Remember, Savoie got started when he met Brown at a wedding. “‘You’ve got money?’ Antron asked me. ‘Yeah, I’ve got a little saved up.’” Brown’s Don Schumacher Racing team was getting out of PSM and the whole operation was for sale. Savoie bought everything in sight, even the truck and trailer. It was a sweet coincidence that Brown shared the podium with Savoie in St. Louis.
Savoie originally hooked up with tuner Mark Peiser, then bought a Buell to try in their second year. Savoie and Peiser parted ways at the end of that year and Kulungian was brought in to run things. “Mark sent me a nice text after the win saying ‘Great job, you really deserve it,’” notes Savoie. “I said ‘that means a lot coming from you, thank you.’”
In Peiser and Kulungian, Savoie has had two very successful tuners with two very developed ideologies about how to do things. Couple that with equipment that was developed by DSR’s Steve Tartaglia, and you’ve got a mix of very different viewpoints. It’s all finally starting a gel into a cohesive whole, a gestalt based on the best of all that history plus sidelining carbs, the Peiser-massaged DSR motors, and switching to V&H.
“We knew we were going to experience some challenges this year,” said Kulungian. “Our chassis stuff has come a long way. We’ve got a very consistent motorcycle in the first 330 feet, and especially the first 60 feet. You look at the Suzukis in the field and they’re still racing with carbs and MSD ignition, so we knew we had some growing pains with what we’re trying.”
“Tim told me if you can’t complete the circle, you don’t have anything,” said Savoie. “And it’s still a little better than what we showed this weekend. It’s all in what Tim has learned and what’s he’s doing. It’s badass. We’re going to Reading and try be in the 6.70s. Could it be the first pass at 200? I don’t know, but it’s within range.”
“We ran 198 in Sonoma,” noted Kulungian. “So we’re moving some gear ratios around and shooting for 200 this weekend.”
Kudos all around
Jerry Savoie and Hector Arana Sr
“Jeremy Derouche and Rick Elmore do a stellar job preparing the motorcycle,” said Kulungian. “My wife Christal has everything taken care of at home and that makes it able for me to be very present with what I’m doing at the track. She’s a rockstar mom. It’s been a challenge for our family with all the traveling, and you start to question the decisions you’ve made. We’re all challenged, but sharing success is enjoyable by everybody.
“I really want to thank Tim, and my sister Hope for her dedicated work,” said Savoie. “Thanks for the support from my brother Cory, and my wife Vonnie for all her support. I also want to thank Terry Vance, Byron Hines and Eddie Krawiec and everybody at Vance & Hines for giving me enough power to beat ‘em. And High Performance Lubricants and PJ1.
As Savoie had a few days between the Gateway win and the next event at Maple Grove, it’s the cycle of life back at the farm in Cut Off. “We just finished hatchin’ all the babies, now we’re killin’ and skinnin’ the old ones.”
Savoie figures his PSM baby days are behind him and it’s time to kill at the tree and skin at the stripe.