Tales from the Acadiana racing circuit
The scene is straight out of the Indianapolis 500: the rippling thunder of engines, the dust swirling over the track, the caustic odor of combusting methanol. Adrenaline pumps as the fans hush and clench the chain link fence along the loop, and the racers take position to await the swoop of the green flag.
Except the drivers are teenagers, and this Saturday evening race in late July is a go-kart battle at the Acadiana Speedway in Breaux Bridge.
For seven months each year, the oval dirt track is ground zero for racers ranging from 5-year-olds to 55-year-old Tommy Mueck, the senior competitor in the adult class. Speedway owners Matt and Michelle Frederick took over the track more than a year ago from Wendell Magnon, a local racing enthusiast who built it back in 1999. The Fredericks have devoted themselves full time to maintaining a professional facility and developing a community of competitors.
At Saturday's event, it's clear from the first few seconds of the stock medium race that this class is different from the rest: the growls of the engines are meaner, the drivers hungrier to chew up the opening curves. This is the class of teenage boys: full of aggression, eager to show their stuff.
And there is no shortage of talent. The local standout is 17-year-old Taylor Patin, a season champion for the past four years who has his sights set on NASCAR. Last year, at the national competition in Dubberly, Taylor qualified eighth out of 45 drivers, but then crashed trying to pass for second place. His stiffest competition, he says, is his close friend and longtime opponent Josh Guidry, also of Henderson.
"Put it this way: My bumper is here, and this is his front end," said Patin, slapping the rear of his kart. "Right here, the whole time. There's some passes we do, little tricks ' he can't pull them on me, and I can't pull them on him. So it's kinda hard."
Also in the competition this season is 14-year-old Kamron Campbell. For Kamron and his father Bobby, victory isn't just family pride; it's also business: Bobby is the owner of Action Karting, the Cecilia-based one-stop shop for karters from all over the state. Kamron has won one seasonal championship or another each year, local or regional, since he started in 1998.
And then there is Chase Lejeune, the 15-year-old two-time seasonal champion who comes from a clan of hardcore racing enthusiasts. The goal at this race ' as at every one this season ' is to beat the reigning champ, Patin.
"You just got to be on your game," says Brad Lejeune, Chase's father. "You got to have the right gear; Chase has got to race well; right tires, right air pressure. Right everything." Kart racers say there are myriad factors that decide a race, from track conditions, to the mechanics, to a driver's split-second decisions.
Dirt track kart racing has steadily gained a following in recent years. All the elements are in place for the Acadiana Speedway to become a local hit: NASCAR is already wildly popular among area residents; go-kart racing encourages family interaction because each team member plays a critical role; and the speedway's competitors have established an atmosphere of encouragement and good sportsmanship.
One thing has been missing: an advertising budget to give the speedway adequate exposure. (Also, the races are rarely covered by local media.) "We consider ourselves the best-kept secret in Acadiana," says Michelle. "There are people who live right next to the track who don't even know we are there."
The Fredericks say they have roughly doubled the speedway's turnout, with an average "kart count" of about 45 at each race this season. One hundred competitors from throughout the Gulf Coast region competed at Acadiana Speedway this past Saturday, Aug. 6, for the International Karting Federation's state championship.
Nationally, turnouts range from about 1,000 at an average event to 4,000 at the sport's major annual race, Daytona Kart Week. Amanda Gaunder, a public relations representative with the World Karting Association, says the WKA is developing a demographic survey to draw sponsorship that should bring major money ' and major exposure.
When most people hear about the sport, they think of yard karts or, as Mueck puts it, "two little kiddie karts racing in a cow pasture." That stereotype is long outdated. "I've been in AHRA drag racing, and karting is just as competitive as any sport I've been into," says Mueck. "It is definitely not Mickey Mouse."
With their sleek fiberglass hulls, rugged but flexible chassis and refined engines, gauges and tires, karts have come a long way since their primordial days in the late 1950s ' or even since the racing karts of a few years ago.
"When you buy a good, top of the line go-kart, it is just like a race car," says Campbell. "Everything is the same, except on a go kart there are no shocks or springs."
At the local track, speeds range from 30 miles per hour for the youngest children ' which seems quite fast when you're only a few inches from the dirt ' to about 60 miles per hour for most classes. Karts in the Dunlop Tire Roadracing series at Daytona reach speeds of up to 135 miles per hour.
Dunlop series aside, kart racing is considered no more dangerous than playing soccer or football. Acadiana Speedway members know of no incidents of broken bones or of an ambulance called to the track.
Among motor sport fans, go-kart racing is the kid brother of NASCAR. It's where all the big names got their start. And fans say it is just as intense to watch, because at the speedway you are intimately connected to the action.
And that action gets intense. During the second of two "heat races" this Saturday night that determine the starting positions for the feature competition, Patin either spun out or was knocked off the track, leaving him to start out the feature worse off than he has ever found himself in six years of driving: in fourth position.
But with his opening gambit he turned the tables. In the first few seconds, Patin let a handful of karts pass him, and then came in under them on the curve to emerge in second position. Over the next two laps, he took over first place.
Meanwhile, Chase Lejeune had to overcome mechanical problems that plagued him all day. His father had swapped out one engine for another, both of which were built by his grandfather. But the kart had still been bogging down in the curves. Just before the feature, father Brad replaced the carburetor. That fixed the problem.
With Guidry and Campbell also hanging tough in the opening laps, the race looked like a struggle among the usual frontrunners.
Then all hell broke loose.
It's one thing to catch a kart, but it's another thing to pass it. As time runs out, the pressure to pass quickly becomes intense. But get too aggressive, knock your opponent and cause a spin out, and you'll find yourself penalized and in last place.
Less than halfway through the race, Campbell was called for bumping Patin. Then Patin spun out again, dropping him to the back as well. Lejeune also lost critical advantage in the restart. Coming into the final laps, all the local favorites were fighting their way up from behind.
The race's winner turned out to be 17-year-old Monty Smith Jr. of Alexandria, who had come to town to try out the speedway before the regional competition in August. He had stayed back from the snarl of testosterone, waited for his opening, and took it. After the race, he sounded like a NASCAR veteran.
"The track was pretty slick," he says. "I think they were overriding it." ' Julien Gorbach
Twenty years ago, Elson Duhon's father-in-law retired the dairy farm he had run for decades in south Abbeville. More recently, the family gave up trying to harvest rice and crawfish. But Duhon still spends up to half a day watering the property. These days, a bumper crop out at Duhon's consists of 100 fat tire pickup trucks and a crowd of more than 150 mud-thirsty spectators.
"Mudding" may be far from an arena sport, but at Duhon's Mudhole and Drag Strip, testing a truck's transmission against a pit of mud rivals the glory and excitement of any big stadium attraction.
"A lot of people just sit under the trees and barbecue," Duhon says. "You ought to hear the crowd get into it when somebody gets stuck. They get loud. As soon as the front end of the truck goes down and hits a hole and gets stuck, the crowd starts hollering like they just scored some points at a football game."
Every other Sunday, Elson and his wife, Rebecca, usher in a fleet of trucks down the dirt road that runs along the side of their home and other business, Duhon's Gun Shop, for events on the family's old 30-acre farm.
While most people dread getting their car stuck in the mud, at Duhon's Mudhole & Drag Strip, customers are paying $10 just for the opportunity. "Five dollars for him, $5 for his truck," says Duhon.
Now in its 9th year, Duhon's facility has expanded beyond its initial focus on mudding. About five years ago, Duhon began running drag races on twin dirt tracks off the side of his mudding pit. Last year, Duhon expanded the tracks to 300 feet to meet 4-wheeler ATV track racing standards. He also installed new starting lights and scanners that allow him to give each racer a printout of his time and top speed during a race.
Duhon's charges $5 to drivers who want to run on the track. In addition, Duhon's son-in-law, Donny Menard, will usually get the drivers together to see if they want to put up money to be split among the first, second and third place winners. "We don't take a cut out of the pot," Menard says.
Traditionally, Duhon's has not been selective about who ' or what ' can race. Old beat-up pickup trucks and even a Ford LTD Crown Victoria have left skid marks etched into the concrete slab leading up to the track.
Lately, Duhon's made an effort to cater to the growing number of ATV racers. He plans to work with Gravity Alley Motocross owner Mike Shea, who's building an ATV track in Breaux Bridge to foster the local ATV racing scene.
But even as Duhon invests in modernizing his drag race track, the site's main event is still mudding. Menard estimates the site's peak attendance to be 1,500 for one day, most of whom came for the 3.5-acre mud hole.
The mud pit gets crowded. "You can't fit another truck in there sometimes," says Duhon. "Some of them aren't even in there to play," he adds. "They just park their truck in there to watch, and they sit out on [their truck's] canopy and drink beer and laugh at the people that get stuck."
Trucks, jeeps and four-wheelers all trudge tire-deep through the mudding pit, which holds more than four feet of water in spots. Duhon says parts of the pit have gotten even deeper from drivers who like to see how far they can go in two-wheel drive before shifting into four-wheel drive. This usually results in their spinning tires digging some deep pockets out in the pit.
"It's just a game to them," Duhon says.
There aren't any official rules when it comes to mudding, but it can still get competitive. The mudders like to challenge one another to match their truck's trek through certain deep spots in the pit.
"It's fun but it's also an ego thing," Duhon notes. "They think, 'If your truck went through it then my truck can go through it.' Then they get stuck."
Successfully pulling people out of the mud hole is also a part of the thrill. Many of the mudders come equipped with chains and thick nylon tow straps, prepared to lend a helping hand to those trucks that wind up in spots they can't get themselves out of.
Getting temporarily stuck isn't the biggest obstacle for truck owners to worry about at the mud hole. Water can end up in an engine's air-intake, causing it to rust, and Duhon says several drivers have stalled by flooding their carburetors with gas while trying to rev up out of the mud.
Duhon recalls an incident last year where a local welder got his relatively new Chevy Silverado Big Dooley one-ton pickup (a truck that claims to be able to haul 15,500 pounds) stuck so deep in the mud, he ended up completely blowing his engine trying to get it out. "Under the hood, it actually blew up," Duhon says. A fireman had to come and wade waist deep through the mud to put the fire out before it reached the rear gas tank. The truck was burned from the front seats on up to its headlights, and it was dark before they finally got the totaled vehicle out of the pit. An 18-wheeler cab proved unsuccessful in hauling out the truck alone, and the Chevy Dooley was finally pulled out of the pit only after another pickup truck added its tow straps, combining its horsepower with the 18-wheeler's pull.
"He had 33,000 miles on that truck," Duhon recollects. "It's sad. Courage in the bottle made him do that." Such carelessness led Duhon to put a sign up prohibiting alcohol in the mud hole. "But they still bring it in," he says.
The whole operation began by accident. After having little success growing rice, a farmer who sublet land from the Duhons abandoned his portion of the field, leaving behind a plat of mud. Elson allowed a group of kids to drive their trucks through the field.
Word spread fast about the lot, and pretty soon, it was a regular party spot. "They just kept coming," Duhon says. "Every Sunday they'd pile up in there and bring their barbecue pits. I had 50 or 60 people, and I wasn't charging nothing, so they said, 'Maybe you ought to fix it up, flood it up real good and start charging people.' So that's what I did. I just kind of stumbled into it."
The business required minimum investment on Duhon's part. All he did to maintain the original 7.5-acre mud pit was buy a water pump to hook up by the nearby coulee to keep the pit flooded. He has the added support of the surrounding sugar cane farmers; they no longer have to worry about the mudders tearing up their fields. ' Nathan Stubbs
Acadiana Speedway1071 Gecko Road, Breaux Bridge
Races are held on the second and fourth Saturday of every month, from the end of February through the end of November. Admission for spectators is $10. Registration for junior competitors (under 15) is $20, and $25 for seniors. For directions or more information, visit www.acadianaspeedway.com or call (337) 332-2900.
Duhon's Mudhole and Drag Strip
14136 South Hospital Drive, Abbeville
Races and mudding are every other Sunday from 9 a.m. to about 4 p.m. The next event, featuring truck racing and mudding, is Aug. 14. For more information, call 893-7907 or visit www.duhonsmudhole.com.