The date was March 17, 1963 and other than being St. Patrick’s Day, the particular day didn’t carry any extraordinary significance in the Crescent City.
Not that anyone could tell at the time, at least.
But on that day, a small band of dedicated runners gathered in a corner of Audubon Park to take part in a 3-mile race. The 22 people who showed up were members of the newly formed New Orleans Road Road Runners Club, a fledgling group of men who were acquaintances from the New Orleans Athletic Club.
The St. Patrick’s Day Race was a simple affair, with scoring tags coming in the form of tongue suppressors (the runner’s order of finish scrawled on the thin piece of wood and handed to all at the finish line.)
Computerized scoring chips placed in shoes were a thing of the distant future in 1963 and in fact, specialized running shoes were a luxury item that wouldn’t become commonplace for another decade or more.
It’s from those humble beginnings that the New Orleans Track Club was born. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the group has grown into one of the most noted running clubs in the South.
At 2,200 members strong, and as host of more than 20 road races each year, the NOTC shows no signs of slowing down in the next half century, even in a city that takes enormous pride in its laissez-faire approach to life.
To commemorate its history and success, the NOTC will hold an Anniversary Run for Autism on Saturday at City Park beginning at 8 a.m. The day will feature a 3-mile race, as well as a half-mile race for children. Proceeds will benefit St. Mary’s Residential Training School for persons with developmental disabilities and autism.
According to NOTC Race Director Jennifer Radecker Neil, the club decided to assist local nonprofits in recent years, and also to make the events more “family oriented.”
She said it’s helped grow the club, especially in the light of Hurricane Katrina, which scattered many New Orleanians across the U.S. back in 2005.
“Nowadays, people don’t do as much stuff together as you would hope,” she said. “It was ‘Honey, I’m off to the race, and then you were gone for half a day. So the mom would leave or the dad would leave.
“Now, we want to bring everyone out to race together, to bring the whole family. We have some half-mile races at the events and at the anniversary race, we’ll have a spacewalk.
“We also have partnered with Dave Poleto of Play Dirty Adventurace Racing and he brings out a kids obstacle course to events. It’s a really great way to get the whole family involved.”
John Wilson, NOTC’s vice president and 22-year club member, said conversation with some of the club’s founders proved the group blossomed from a unit of hard-core racers to include people of all running abilities. The common thread, he said, is their dedication to growing the sport in New Orleans.
“About three years after it started, it transitioned to bring more people into the fold, to increase participation,” Wilson said. “So in 1966, it was renamed the New Orleans Track Club.
“It started with Terry Turner who was a dedicated runner and the club’s first president. In 1963, he brought it all together. He was with the federal government and had run in races all over the East Coast. From what I understand, they thought he was crazy to try to start a running club in New Orleans. But it worked.”
Neil said the untiring work of NOTC volunteers has helped make the club what it is today. She and Wilson agreed without their help, NOTC could not assist with as many nonprofit causes as it does, nor could it stage as many quality races throughout the year.
“We have some of the best volunteers in the world,” she said. “We send out an email and the volunteers come out from everywhere to help. They all say ‘Wherever you need us, we’re there. What can we do to help?’ We have parties about three times a year to thank them for their hard work.”
At the Anniversary Run for Autism on Saturday, the NOTC will induct 22 members into the group’s inaugural Hall of Fame class.
The list is made up of many names long associated with road racing in New Orleans, including founding NOTC members, officials and athletes. Each will be presented with a plaque, and an area will be blocked off in which the inductees can mingle.
“I’m sure there are going to be some really great stories told,” Neil said.
About 400 persons are expected to take part in the NOTC Anniversary Run for Autism.
Race-day registration will open at 7 a.m. and the cost to enter is $30, which includes a race hat, food and drink.
The course will begin and end at the City Park Festival Grounds, located near Christian Brothers School.