Editor’s note: Mac DeVaughn will have a question-and answer session with the public from 3:40-4:30 p.m. Friday at the Crescent City Classic Health & Fitness Expo, located on the third floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The event is free and open to the public.
Back in 1977, Mac DeVaughn was living in Georgia and working in the banking industry. His job forced him to travel almost constantly, so when his wife at the time was offered a job in New Orleans, DeVaughn longed to plant firmer roots.
Taking a cue from the burgeoning running scene taking hold across the United States, DeVaughn purchased a Phidippides franchise and opened shop in the Crescent City. To promote the store, he began brainstorming ideas that would help market his new running shoe store.
One of those ideas was to organize a road race — one that would spark interest in running in the typically “laissez faire” city, but also be a race he and other avid runners could enjoy. DeVaughn took the idea to Hibernia Bank (his wife’s employer) and after a year or so of coercion, they agreed to sponsor the race.
And from those humble beginnings, the Crescent City Classic was born. The first race in 1979 had 902 entrants, but grew to be at one point the largest 10-kilometer race in the world. Today, dozens of world-class athletes from around the globe descend upon the city each year looking to run a fast race on what is renowned as a fast and flat course. Those elites are joined by thousands of regular participants, who come as much for the party-like atmosphere as they do the race itself.
The 38th annual Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Classic will be held Saturday beginning at 8 a.m. More than 25,000 participants will leave from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and make their way to the finish line at City Park.
Things were much different in 1979. With a total budget of about $40,000, CCC race director/owner DeVaughn designed a course that began in the French Quarter and traveled down Prytania Street before ending in Audubon Park. DeVaughn’s business partner back in Atlanta, Bill Davis, helped him get the inaugural “Classic” off the ground, and a host of other locals on the local running scene (George Owen, Chuck George, C.J. Mouton, and Bill Burke among them) were vital assistants in the early years.
But like many other things, DeVaughn noted, it took connections to really make the race special. He found that source in Jeff Galloway, the former Olympian who founded Phidippides in 1973.
“Jeff knew Frank Shorter from the Florida Track Club and they were on the Olympic team (in 1972) together,” DeVaughn said. “Frank was the biggest name in American racing at the time, and we were able to get him come run in the first Classic. That was huge. Once Shorter was here, that put a star by our name. People thought if he’s going to run it, then we will too. It put us on the map.”
Shorter and the handful of other elite runners Galloway brought to New Orleans all bunked in DeVaughn’s French Quarter home for a few days before the race.
“We would run in the mornings, and on race day, we walked to the starting line,” DeVaughn said. “Frank won the race, of course, and we caught the streetcar back from Audubon Park. We all had a couple beers, and then Frank went on a 20-mile run. It was a fun time. We were in the middle of the running boom. It was the fad sport. Everyone, even non-athletic people, thought they could do this and be competitive. Running in Audubon Park in the afternoon back then was like being at a major race because there were so many people out there.”
After Shorter’s appearance in 1979, future U.S. Olympian Craig Virgin made waves when he defeated former U.S. Olympian Bill Rodgers in the 1980 CCC. But it may have been the 1981 race that really put DeVaughn and company at the forefront of international racing.
“I don’t remember where, but I met Ted Banks who was the (track and cross country) coach at (the University of) Texas-El Paso,” DeVaughn said. “They had just won the NCAA track and field championships, and he sent three runners to us, including (Kenya’s) Michael Musyoki who set a world record here. When he went under 28 minutes here, that got us a lot of attention. People started calling us on the phone, seeing if we had space for them.
“We were one of the first, if not the first race to bring in non-marathon runners from Africa,” DeVaughn said. “If you really wanted to have an international event, you had to go after them. We did.”
The pipeline from abroad continues to this day, as only four American men have won the race since Musyoki first did in 1981. The last American woman to win the CCC was in 1994.
The CCC’s popularity also has endured, though there have been two different groups of owners since DeVaughn sold the race in 1996. He said the post-race festival and expansion of the Health & Fitness Expo have helped make that so.
“The race always seemed to be the great counterbalance to what New Orleans is famous for — eat, drink, and party,” he said. “We had to have a great athletic event, but we had to have a great party as well. There was an equilibrium to it.”
Now 73, and working part-time as the development director for the local non-profit Save Our Cemeteries, he plans to attend this year’s Crescent City Classic, and said the race will always be a part of him, as will New Orleans.
“As the race started to grow and participation stayed high, I thought if we didn’t mess it up, it would last a long time,” he said. “I always figured I’d move back to Georgia and eventually retire there. But really, I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else besides here in the Crescent City.”