Blast from the past: LaPlace Dragway remembered for thrills & excitement

Published 2:52 pm Wednesday, March 2, 2022

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LAPLACE — Willie Robert’s LaPlace Dragway T-shirts always turn heads, whether he wears them in St. John the Baptist Parish or in Gainesville, Florida. For many, it calls back nearly two decades of action, thrills and excitement on what was touted as “the South’s finest dragstrip.”

“It’s a conversation starter, for sure,” Robert said.

Robert was in the library, searching back copies of L’OBSERVATEUR for a photo of a gumbo competition he won when he stumbled upon photos of the LaPlace Dragway. Since then, he’s compiled as much information as he can find, often sharing “blast from the past” photos of the dragstrip and memorable racers with longtime LaPlace residents on Facebook.

The LaPlace Dragway held its grand opening on May 6, 1962 off of Airline Highway, near the current location of Geaux Chevrolet in LaPlace. Gates opened at 8 a.m., and races started at 12:30 p.m. the first and third Sunday of every month. General admission was $2 for adults and 50 cents for children in the early days, though the entry fee increased over time.

Dragsters from all across the country competed in all classes. Some of the big name dragsters who frequented LaPlace included: Don “Big Daddy” Garlits – the Mickey Mantle of drag racing from Florida; Sneaky Pete Robinson from Atlanta; Kelly Chadwick – the “Flying Professor” from Texas; “Texas Whiz Kid” Don Gay; Mike Burkhart – “the biggest man in racing”; and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme of Granada Hills, California, just to name a few.

LaPlace drew national attention as a host of the National Hot-Rod Association championships, including the 1976 Cajun Nationals competition. According to Robert, the Cajun Nationals drew a crowd larger than anything the small town had seen before, stretching cars down Airline all the way to Highway 51.

Apart from the NHRA series, the LaPlace Dragway also hosted the annual Ladies Powder Puff competition, classic auto parades, duels between “funny cars”, the Spring Drag Festival and the Bayou National Motorcycle Open. It became a hub for St. John the Baptist Parish events, from Easter egg hunts to the first St. John Parish Andouille Festival in October 1972.

Local racers also frequented the drag strip on race days. Some familiar names that appear in old newspaper advertisements include New Orleans driver Leon Greff in his record-setting Porche, Nick Revon of New Orleans, Norman Wilt of New Orleans, Leonard Hughes of Houma and David Chenevert of Metairie.

LaPlace’s own Terry Keating and Malcolm Keating were frequent winners. Vincent Simon of Reserve, who still races in NHRA events to this day, said one of his most memorable moments at the LaPlace Dragway was popping a wheelie on his motorcycle all the way down the track.
Simon will never forget the death of the LaPlace Dragway in March 1980, with the last day at the races marked by Marvin “Scopey” Miller racing down the strip in a hearse. It was the perfect swan song, set alongside the drumming of engines and roaring crowds.

The last person to cross the LaPlace Dragway was Don Garlits, riding a bicycle.