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NOLA Gets Racy With New Motorsports Park

Wed May 02, 2012 - Southeast Edition
Lori Lovely

Visitors to New Orleans now have a new entry to add to their itineraries. Just 14 miles from the infamous French Quarter is NOLA Motorsports Park, a $60 million racetrack located on 750 acres in Jefferson Parish. The facility features three separate tracks and an eight-acre paved area for autocross competition. Although it’s already well beyond the initial concept, it’s just the beginning.

“It started as a small $7 million project — just asphalt and corners,” laughed Mitch Wright, general manager. Developed and funded by retired doctor Laney Chouest, the track was originally conceived as a place where automotive enthusiasts could safely test the limits of their high-performance cars. What he discovered was “a whole industry that could support this,” Wright said.

The business model quickly expanded from serving the sizeable community of wealthy car and motorcycle owners in a membership format to catering to a public hungry for speed by issuing day passes and hosting business retreats. But even the amended plan underwent revision. In September 2009 Chouest announced plans to build a $30 million facility in three phases; however, the project soon doubled in size and cost.

Interest from the surrounding community also increased, attracting other businesses. According to a report by the Associated Press, Jefferson Parish President John Young expects the motorsports park to anchor a development boom instigated by the $1.2 billion widening of the Huey P. Long Bridge, scheduled for completion in 2013. Trackside villas with 99-year leases are already under construction, Wright indicated.

“Thirty-two are laid out,” he said, adding that roads are being paved to reach them.

There’s even more development coming, Wright predicted. Being situated only 14 miles from the airport and downtown New Orleans is a “huge benefit. Our proximity to a destination city like New Orleans drives corporate business and media launches. We’re creating synergy.” Already he reported that the track is “close to being booked” seven days a week during peak season from January through June and September through December.

Swamp Thing

Finding this much land close to the city is a rarity, Wright acknowledged. Most likely the reason that so much serendipitously situated real estate was available is due to its former status as a cypress swamp. Drained 60-70 years ago, this area remained wet just prior to the start of construction in 2010, according to construction manager Greg Cantrell.

“It was under water,” he said. “The levee between us and the gulf was drained, but this was still wet.”

It was so wet, in fact, that it swallowed up a Hyundai 210 excavator when crews started working.

The first step was to build roads to drain it, Cantrell said. They cut ditches to allow the water to flow into the parish drainage system, which runs parallel to the property. It was a slow process.

The property is low — as much as five to 6 ft. (1.8 m) below sea level. However, Cantrell said it was cost-prohibitive to bring in dirt. Instead, they implemented a plan to contour the land, using material to build up areas like the railways do.

“The buildings are at plus 1 and the lowest point is minus 8 or minus 9. There’s a variance of 10 feet for the buildings,” he explained.

Despite the grading, Cantrell said the track itself is flat. Designed by Alan Wilson, who also designed the Miller Motorsports Park near Salt Lake City, NMSP offers challenging yet safe racing that meets stringent FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) standards.

In addition to extensive asphalt runoff areas and gravel traps, the lack of guard rail, concrete walls and trees provide large safety zones. Wright considers it an advantage for testing and said he’s talked to some Indycar teams, who are impressed by the 5,000-ft. (1,524 m) straightaway for on site aero testing.

Other safety elements include electronic signaling systems and the “NOLAFast” tire barrier system, designed by Chouest, which is several times stronger than the standard barrier to significantly increase the retardation quotient.

Phased In

The first phase of development includes two north tracks — the longer at 2.75 mi. (4.4 km), the shorter at 2.32 mi. (3.7 km) — as well as the eight-acre autocross pad and a 23-acre paddock. Once construction of the second track is complete, Wright said it can be linked to the other north course to form a 5-mi. (8 km) track, the largest in North America.

The second phase, which is just getting started, will concentrate on the 2.8-mi. (4.5 km) south track. The facility has been designed to stage three separate go-kart races simultaneously, offering “arrive and drive” options for kart rentals. It was never intended to accommodate large spectator events such as a NASCAR race, although temporary grandstands could be built to accommodate up to 20,000 people for individual events.

Other amenities will include three leased 10,000-sq.-ft. garages, divided into units — which Wright estimates are 80 percent occupied. Upscale condominiums will be built above them — nicknamed “Garage Mahals” by staff.

A 32,000-sq.-ft. clubhouse/event center with meeting room capacity up to 600 and a 150-seat restaurant called Stanley at the Track, by chef Scott Boswell, is halfway done.

“Local flavor is important,” Wright said, in a double entendre that encompasses New Orleans-style cooking as well as literal taste.

“One issue was the location of the clubhouse,” he noted, explaining the key design element as a “hub and wheel facility with the event center central. Everything is within walking distance.”

He envisions the events facility hosting corporate events for team building, conventions and corporate launches.

Also planned is a speed shop with a 17,000-sq.-ft. showroom, a chassis dynamometer and an engine dyno to provide on site service work, as well as an 8,500-sq.-ft. kart center with a food service balcony.

At the back of the property, the owner’s daughter hopes to plant a garden where she can grow fresh vegetables in the rich soil for use in the restaurant. Although the soil may be conducive for farming, Wright said south Louisiana’s soil issues made construction of the racing surface problematical.

Paving the Way for Racing

The challenge was to prevent the pavement from buckling and settling on the former swamp ground.

“Getting the surface right was the most important thing,” Cantrell said. “Highways can use sand from the river for fill, but because it’s heavier than the native soil, it causes differential settlement that result in bumps and uneven spots that are undesirable for a racing surface. Our goal was to develop a base that was the same weight as what’s there.”

The solution was to create a sub-base by mixing 200,000 tons of fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fueled power plants, with the first several feet of clay soil beneath the track.

“The biggest problem was our lack of knowledge of fly ash,” Cantrell confessed. “It’s not common practice in southern Louisiana. It’s different than using lime; its characteristics are interesting.”

Adopting a “learn as we go” approach, they relied on consultants – including an asphalt specialist who recently worked on the repaving of Daytona International Speedway – and soil scientists to develop a “recipe” and procedure for the perfect mix.

The recipe was given to a local company.

“Because of the heat factor [necessary for the asphalt mix], we wanted a plant close by,” Cantrell explained.

Having considered installing a temporary on site plant due to the volume required, he said they were “nervous about it” and instead opted for a nearby plant that was in production all the time.

“We needed $1 million worth of asphalt. We didn’t know how it would work with a plant on site, so we picked a plant close by,”?said Cantrell.

Clearing as they went, crews mulched cypress stumps out of the former swamp and mixed ash for a roadway so they could work on the track base. Fifteen D6 Cat dozers, wide-track dozers, excavators — some with rakes to rake the trash, some with buckets to dig ditches — compactors, steel drum rollers and grading equipment were used to prepare the surface.

“When it started drying out, we moved dirt with scrapers and ag tractors,” Cantrell added.

While the track is no longer a swamp, water removal and storage remains an issue. The track design takes advantage of expansive open spaces for water storage, allowing the contoured low areas to fill up. Moving water off the track allows cars to run an hour after rain ends.

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is an award-winning journalist, editor and author of the children's book Isadora's Dance. She has worked for newspapers, magazines and niche publications, covering a wide-ranging list of topics that includes motor sports, construction, MSW, energy, environmental issues, water, animal rights and issues, history, Native American issues and people, real estate and home decor, farming and more. Her degrees in History taught this dedicated professional to research thoroughly and ask detailed questions in order to winnow interesting facts that convey the essence of the story. As a seasoned writer and compassionate storyteller, she accurately portrays the subject in a manner that entrances the reader.

When she's not working on assignment, Lori is tending to her historic Indiana farm, where she raises alpacas. An inveterate animal lover, this vegetarian enjoys spending time with her animals and working in her garden.

Read more from Lori Lovely here.

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