NOLA Motorsports Park exists, creator/builder/owner/operator Laney Chouest likes to joke, because, “I like to drive fast, and I wanted a place to do it where I didn’t have to worry about getting tickets.”
The reasons, obviously, are more complex than that.
Just as the man himself is.
The progeny of the late shipbuilding, ship repair and offshore rig servicing magnate Edison Chouest, Laney Chouest initially went into medicine, becoming a family practice physician with more then 4,000 patients in his native Lafourche Parish.
But after only four years, he abandoned that field to join the family business, running things with brothers Gary and Edison Jr.
Then, in 2006, he left that behind, moved to New Orleans, remarried and began the process of developing the 750-acre tract on the West Bank that next weekend will be the site of the first Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana.
“Before I met him, I’d heard that Laney Chouest was a very interesting character, and I would have to say he has not disappointed in that regard,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series, of which the Grand Prix of Louisiana is now a part. “But he’s also a brilliant big thinker and risk-taker.”
Among those risks: putting$70 million of his considerable wealth into NOLA Motorsports Park.
The original concept didn’t include it becoming the site of a major league racing event.
“I was just looking to build a fun place to drive for my friends and me,” Chouest said. “But it just got bigger and bigger, and the technical challenges were making it very expensive. So we said, ‘Let’s build this big enough to make it a business, too.’ ”
That’s been done.
The facility includes a go-kart track, for both amateur and professional drivers, and an events center whose design and construction was supervised by Chouest’s wife, Ruth.
Then there’s the main track: a 2.75-mile road course that has been modified and brought up to FIA (the international certification body for auto racing) standards.
Opened in 2012, NOLA Motorsports is regularly employed for local business and convention team-building activities as well as testing and demonstrations by various car and tire manufacturers along with sports car, motorcycle and go-kart competitions.
But at its heart, the facility is, as Chouest said, a place for him and his friends to have fun, speeding around in the 15 cars kept at the facility, including his prized Porsche. (Chouest has seven other cars for his personal use; he drives a Mercedes.)
“Laney’s idea of fun is a fast ride around the track with the music blaring and the air conditioner on,” Ruth Chouest said. “I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it allows him to calm down and unwind.”
Not that Chouest is a high-pressure, driven, money-first businessman. To the contrary, he comes off as extremely down to earth and very modest for a man of his means.
Chouest’s office at the facility is the size of a small room with standard furnishings.
“Anything bigger just means more floor to vacuum,” he said.
The office’s only decoration is a chart of the periodic table — a reminder, he says, that everything can be broken down into patterns and that from patterns come solutions.
The only “luxury” he allows himself? A bathroom compete with shower attached to the office.
“Laney is not consumed by business,” said Kristen Engeron, whom Chouest hired in 2013 to run the day-to-day operations of NOLA Motorsports. “So, he’s not a micromanager, and he listens very well. The thing I really admire about him is that, once he gives you his word, come hell or high water, nothing will cause him to break it.”
But Ruth Chouest said her husband isn’t totally laidback.
“He’s always got a lot going on behind his ears,” she said. “He loves to bounce ideas off people. It’s pretty amazing how he can really see a giant picture of the way things fit together in ways other people don’t realize.”
Of course, having acumen in medicine (Chouest still maintains his medical license), finance and engineering helps.
“I can be a pretty good welder if I need to be,” Chouest said.
And there’s another thing Engeron admires about her boss.
“I’ve heard him talking about back, when he was at Edison Chouest, he would be driving to work along the bayou and seeing the houses and cars so many people were able to have because of the good living they were making working for Edison Chouest,” she said. “The quality of life for people is very important to him. He truly wants to make the community better.”
That’s where a little-known reason for the creation of NOLA Motorsports comes in.
In 1993, Chouest’s son, Cory, an 18-year-old freshman at UNO, was killed in a one-car accident about a quarter-mile from home in Galliano after a night out with friends in New Orleans.
“Cory was funny, nice and an All-American kid,” Chouest said. “And whenever he left the house, even if was just to go to Walmart, he’d hug me and tell me he loved me.”
Laney Chouest already had an interest in high-performance cars, but his son’s death led to his wanting to do something to improve safe driving by teenagers — whose accident rates, he points out, aren’t exceed by any adult group until age 84.
While he acknowledges that “we’ve had a little problem getting traction” for survival-based safety programs, NOLA Motorsports does offer one-day classes through its EVO Driving School.
Chouest, who also has a daughter, Amy, and 10 grandchildren, said he hopes the attention the Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana brings to his facility will help kick-start his driving programs.
“Driving is probably the riskiest thing we do every day,” Chouest said. “But for me, driving is also a sport that I’m kind of good at and I really enjoy it.
“I feel very fortunate to have the resources to put into something like this. There’s a potential here to make a real difference.”