New Iberia Machinist's First Love Is Drag Racing
NEW IBERIA, LA (AP) — At 6, Jerry Chauvin found the hobby of his lifetime at a drag racing strip in Opelousas.
When he was 23, the Morgan City-native-turned-New Iberia-transplant raced in his first drag race, using a yellow 1972 Plymouth Duster he and his two brothers assembled.
Now 54, Chauvin is in the midst of his annual strip-down of his third race car, a hand-built marvel of engineering sheltered under the body of a silver 1990 Chevrolet Camaro. The trained machinist takes apart the entire contraption, cleans it and makes sure everything is in safe working order before piecing it back together.
"I'll tell you this," he said, reflecting in the workshop he built before his own house just east of New Iberia. "It takes a lot of equipment and a lot of time to race one of these things, and I'm considered a sportsman racer. I'm not considered professional by any means."
Chauvin worked for National Oilwell Varco for 15 years and is now a salesman for CW Rod Tool, giving him the skills and access to equipment to keep his hobby alive. He and friend Allen Provost, another New Iberian, pieced the Camaro together by hand throughout three years in Provost's shop in Houston.
"It started from straight tube," he said, pointing out the blue chassis bars in the cockpit. "All of this aluminum, this interior, is hand-formed."
What emerged is a 700-plus-horsepower fiberglass monster that can travel a quarter mile in nine seconds (by comparison, Chauvin said the Duster "only" did it in 13 seconds). The five-point restraints in the cockpit give Chauvin all of an inch of movement.
"It is nowhere near street legal," he said. "It is a full-blown race car."
Chauvin cranked up the engine, deafening the workshop and belching out the fumes of racing fuel. The Camaro not only looked the part, but sounded the part.
"Like I said," he said, laughing, "nothing about it is street legal."
His older brother, Jimmy, got him into the hobby at an early age.
"He brought me to the drag races in Opelousas as a very young kid," Chauvin said. "I was probably 6 years old. It was something I knew I wanted to do from that time on."
The sweetest moment with the Camaro, Chauvin said, came with his first victory with the car in a race in Houston.
"The car was built in Houston," he said. "The first money I ever won with it was in Houston. I had some family and friends with me. We went out to a restaurant after and spent more than I won."
A work-related injury to his neck kept Chauvin from his hobbies for the better part of two years. Initially misdiagnosed as a lower back injury, Chauvin learned from a second visit to a doctor in 2008 he'd experienced a complete cervical disc rupture at the pivot point of his neck. He needed fusion surgery to repair the damage.
"The doctor was pretty amazed that I was able to function," he said. "I didn't come in this shop for over a year. I was out of drag racing for two years."
Now unable to lift heavy loads, Chauvin did eventually return to the dragstrip.
"It was like a child in a candy store," he said. "It all came back to me. When I come back to the pits, I was shaking from the adrenaline."
In three decades of racing, Chauvin said he's made lifelong friends who continue to support each other to this day and are particularly helpful when he's handling heavy parts and machinery now. Facebook and the Internet help him keep in touch with colleagues and up to date with equipment.
"The camaraderie in drag racing is pretty incredible," he said. "Close friends that drag race help me all of the time. I've made a lot of new friends at the track, too."
The scariest moment on the dragstrip? Chauvin said he went completely sideways once (thanks to too-worn slicks, he said he learned later), but corrected himself and stopped before anything worse happened. Jimmy Chauvin was on hand for that race.
"It was pretty scary," he said about his brother's plight. "I was standing behind the car on the line. He was maybe doing 90, 100 mph when it started going sideways. Not good."
And how many victories over the years?
"Not enough to even talk about," Jerry Chauvin said, laughing. "It's not about the money, my friend. It's the love of the game.
– by AP/ Reporter Zane Hill with The Daily Iberian