Where Man Meets Mud

Behold the swamp buggy races, South Florida's oddest racing tradition, where the engines roar, the muck flies, and the vehicles sometimes sink

Jogging along the banks of the Mile O' Mud is a trio from TNN, the cable network. A few more TNN cameramen are perched in scaffolding towers positioned around the track, filming video for the station's show, "Motor Madness." More than a few fans razz the crew -- a cameraman, a producer, and a sound man holding a fuzzy gray boom microphone -- when they approach the bleachers.

The hazing stems from TNN's last broadcast of the swamp buggy races in March. That show went out live, and it didn't go over too well, at least from the racer's perspective. Host Dusty Rhodes, a man exalted for his rasslin' prowess, exhibited too much pro wrestling showmanship during the race broadcast. Swimsuit-clad women bathed in a kiddie pool. Stagehands dived into the Mile O' Mud seconds before two buggies accelerated off the starting line. The racing became a sideshow. Later that night one cameraman changed hotels after receiving death threats from irate fans.

The SBI board of directors allowed TNN back this weekend on a trial basis and insisted that the program be tape-delayed. "We will be watching the outcome closely. If drivers and fans believe our sport is being made a mockery, this is a price your board is unwilling to pay for Friday night racing," the SBI fall newsletter states. "...[T]he board will attempt to convey to Dusty Rhodes and his producers the true and rich history and tradition of our motor sport in an effort to get them to better understand and appreciate it."

The education campaign proved less than successful. Rhodes and his crew stormed off the site this morning after they were forbidden to set up their stage in the pits. "They got the feeling from some of the drivers that they were not really welcome here. So they just left," allows SBI's Cindy Fortune. She admits that the absence may have an upside. "TNN has promised us now that they will broadcast the event as straight racing."

The Dusty Rhodesless TNN camera crew bounds over to an overnight campground hugging the far turn of the track. The Standing Room Only area, as it is officially called, is segregated from the bleachers by a tall chainlink fence. An SRO weekend pass costs half as much as a bleacher ticket and has always been popular with buggy enthusiasts. This year, though, as opposed to the past twenty, the campground is smaller in size, and fewer people and vehicles are permitted to enter. "They won't let us in," complains 27-year-old Keith Hancock as he sits atop a hunting buggy he built himself for about $10,000. From his distant vantage point he can see only the back of the bleachers.

It's easy to see why he wants in. The SRO area is the Waveland Avenue of the swamp buggy races. Enterprising fans have parked imposing hunting buggies around the fence, more than one as large and accommodating as a pontoon boat. Fans without buggies have secured an elevated view by erecting scaffolding amongst the trees. One man, blocked from a view by a jury-rigged bleacher anchored to a pine, powered up the hydraulics on his dump truck, giving him a skybox of sorts just below the tree line, some 30 feet in the air.

A thin, muddy road winds deeper into the darkness. Each step seems to lead farther from civilization. A man fingers a large link of venison sausage while his friend tries to light a campfire that has been constructed close to their truck's front bumper. Deeper down the trail, a skinhead who says he's from Colorado lazes in a folding chair, his lanky arms covered with black tar. When a monster truck rumbles down the trail, two very young boys scurry out of a 30-foot-wide mud puddle in which they'd been firing steel-tipped arrows at each other with a hunting bow. The air tastes like kerosene.

The SRO campground follows the northwest curve of the track and ends at a new fence beginning at the far straightaway. The fence is locked and seems to protect a higher caste of campers. One of the Brahmins is Bob "Bobby" Jedd, a 45-year-old mechanic outfitted in gray cutoff jeans, a Lucky Strikes T-shirt, and sandals caked with mud. For two decades he's been commuting from Sarasota to watch the races.

"I used to be with the Mad Dog racing team," he says, hoisting a golden can of Hamm's Genuine Draft beer. "You heard of it? It was a six-cylinder buggy. We used to race every year. But it got too expensive. It's getting to be where it takes too much money to race. Ten years ago you could just drive up here with your buggy and race it around the track. With preparation and entrance fees and maintenance, the weekend might cost you $1000. Now, some of these buggies start at $60,000 just to build. We can't compete any more."

He runs his free hand through his thin hair. "Well, we could compete, but we'd come in last, and who wants to be humiliated in public like that? So I like to camp out and drink beer and have fun, to get away from the old lady for a weekend."

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