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

Two buggies rumble past, their awesome wakes spraying the banks of the track in front of Jedd's bonfire. He raises his arms and releases a primal howl. "When they go by like that, that's what it's all about!" he booms. "As a mechanic, I like listening to the motors racing. I can hear the pistons flying up and down and recognize the stress and strain on the engine. I know people are working their butts off to get these buggies prepared."

The buggies roar around the curve and down the final straightaway. When they cross the finish line, Jedd raises his Hamm's in salute. Smiling broadly, he brings the beer to his lips and takes a deep, satisfying swig.

The whole idea of swamp buggy racing is incongruous with the image of Naples, at least the image the city currently holds. Naples is best known as a quiet haven for retired Hoosiers, Badgers, and Buckeyes, most of whom like to golf. The image is reinforced on a Saturday-morning drive westward from the Florida Sports Park into downtown. Slow-moving Cadillacs putz past dozens of walled golf course communities with names such as Glen Eagle and Heritage Greens. Swamp Buggy Queen Betsy Carroll is a senior at Lely High, which is located inside a massive subdivision advertised with a logo of a golfer in midswing.

Once a year the Ping-swinging plutocracy surrenders downtown to the Swamp Buggy Parade. About 15,000 people cheer the mile-and-a-half-long procession of buggies down U.S. 41, Naples's commercial drag. Older couples fill lawn chairs parked on the median. Babies rest in blue strollers with the canopy drawn to block the sun. Two teenage girls giggle about what they plan to wear for Halloween.

Swamp buggies motor past. The modified models rest on trailers to avoid damage before tomorrow's championship. Traditional hunting buggies (several waving the ubiquitous Confederate flag) belch by on their own. Complementing the exotic machinery are all the condiments of a standard American parade: four high-school marching bands, the wah-wah sirens of safety-green fire trucks, and Shriners wearing funny little hats scooting around on funny little cars. Even with all the changes Naples has experienced, the Swamp Buggy Parade remains the largest and longest parade of the year, a vestige of Naples's frontier past.

Like most of South Florida, Collier County used to be a swamp. The pioneer hunters who settled around Naples in the 1920s adapted to the land by building the first crude hunting buggies. They elevated the suspension on Model T Fords and attached bulbous tractor tires that enabled them to navigate the bog. The unveiling of these machines became an annual ritual. "Crackers would spend a week or so preparing their buggies for the first legal day of hunting," states SBI's official history, available on the Internet at www.swampbuggy.com. "Tuning, testing, waterproofing, camouflaging, and stocking up with food, fuel, ammunition, and maybe a gallon of their favorite home-brewed beverage would make ready these unique vehicles for a couple weeks worth of rugged workouts amongst the gators, snakes, and moss-laden cypress hammocks of the murky Florida swamps."

As more and more hunters built buggies, and as they invested ever more money in them, competition became inevitable. The first races were informal scrimmages in a potato patch farmed by Raymond Bennett. The premier organized race occurred in 1949. A queen was selected. Young men ran barefoot races in the mud, a tradition that ended when one teenager sliced open his instep on a submerged beer bottle. Younger boys chased after a greased pig released into the muck. Some 40 buggies turned out for the main competition, which was won by a man named Johnny Jones. First prize: $100 and a shotgun.

The "world's most unique motor sport" began a rapid evolution. Year by year, innovations altered the appearance and performance of the machines. The balloon tires gave way to thinner treads better able to cut through the mud. The boxy buggies grew longer, and the drivers began to sit in front of the engine. So-called outsiders from Miami ("That means drug dealers," translates veteran racer Joel Darby) were the first to attach marine hulls to the front of their buggies. Most significant, one modified racer attached water skis to his chassis, enabling the front of his buggy to glide over the deep Sippy Hole. By the next year's race, skis were standard equipment on all modified machines. Shotgun first prizes gave way to cash awards of more than $5000.

As swamp buggy racing matured, so did Naples. The sleepy farm and fishing village acquired its first full-time doctor, then a hospital. Snowbirds began migrating en masse. To accommodate them, the golf course communities blossomed. Developers replaced old man Bennett's potato patch with an industrial park.

When they lost the potato patch, the SBI board bought land farther east. Upon it they built the Florida Sports Park and the current Mile O' Mud. Residential development never halted, though, and townhomes are now rising immediately north of the park. This past year SBI sold half of its land to a developer who has made it clear he's no fan of buggy racing. SBI president Jim Coletta assures wary fans that protective clauses in the sale contract guarantee there will be swamp buggy racing in Collier County for generations to come.

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