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

"Motor sports are huge," Parsons chimes in. "Don't forget that. You might have a monster truck pull draw 30,000 people, then the next night a Garth Brooks concert might draw only 25,000."

It's easy to imagine the hostile greeting these two received from the SBI board in Naples. For almost 50 years SBI has been the only game in town when it comes to swamp buggies, and here come two outsiders with millions of dollars and a desire to, in effect, purchase the sport from them. "Yep," recalls Studley, an outgoing cowboy type wearing black Wrangler jeans and alligator-skin boots. "That's exactly how it was."

Mesa Park plans to hold races three weekends a year, on dates that don't conflict with Naples's. January 15 is the scheduled season opener, a date chosen to correspond with the Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival. The next Naples races, which will mark the 50th anniversary of organized swamp buggy racing, kick off in March.

Other developers are already talking about building a third track, maybe in Georgia, maybe in the Panhandle. Maybe in both places. When Parsons and Studley dream about the future, they imagine a swamp buggy racing circuit: dozens of cities with their own tracks and home-grown drivers. They've recruited a third polo-shirted young man, Matthew Graney, to oversee the new North American Swamp Racing Association. If the sport does take off, the NASRA governing body could be as powerful (and profitable) within its sport as the NFL is in football, or NASCAR is in stock-car racing. It could also neuter the power held by SBI's nonprofit board of directors.

"In time," admits SBI's Cindy Fortune, "a for-profit circuit could pay so much money that we could be priced out of our own sport. We hope that won't happen -- we don't think that will happen, either. For now we welcome their presence."

Their presence, anyway, has little effect on the Budweiser Fall Classic. Two or three buggies roll up to the starting line, speed around the track and slop off. Sometimes they stall and are dragged away by tractors. What little story line there is can't be easily followed. Cold Duck eventually loses a race, ensuring that Eddie Chesser reigns again as world champion. A popular female driver, Bonnie Jolly, is disqualified from her class, a ruling that is overturned after a videotape proves she did not bump a competitor, as had been alleged. In the Jeep class, a top driver is disqualified for cutting off a rival. The rival is also disqualified when, in the pits after the race, he rams his Jeep into his enemy's chassis. He claims it was an accident.

The lights that illuminated the Friday races were provided by TNN. There are no lights today, though, and the sky is darkening at the start of the last race, the Big Feature. This contest involves the three top winners of the day's previous heats. One buggy, Texas Law, proves inferior and is left in the wake of the top two machines, David Sims's Bud Pressure and Dat's Da One, driven by Eddie Chesser's uncle, Leonard. As the two lead buggies head into the final curve, the race remains tight. In the distance and because of the spray, few people can see Bud Pressure bump into Dat's Da One, causing Sims's buggy to tumble end over end. Leonard Chesser races across the finish line atop Dat's Da One.

"Holy cow!" yelps a young man in a Stetson University baseball cap. "He did a double flip!" Yellow-shirted safety workers speed to rescue the downed driver. Although swamp buggies come complete with scuba tanks (should the drivers be trapped underwater), there is always the danger that the driver may lose consciousness and be unable to reach his oxygen.

"Is he all right?" wonders a spectator. The question lingers for more than a minute. The anxiety causes one woman standing along the fence to burst into tears and burrow herself in her husband's chest.

"Ladies and gentlemen," calls the announcer finally, "we have just heard word that he's ... okay!" The crowd applauds. "He took a hard hit, though. We're bringing in the helicopter."

The medi-alert chopper, which had flown off a few hours earlier, returns to land in a blizzard of grass clippings. Details of the crash begin to filter back to the crowd. "His back axle broke," a young boy claims.

"The buggy just rolled," offers a fellow in a tank top. "It ran into the other buggy and went up on the bank. It's just something that happens. That's racing, man."

Because of the crash, Leonard Chesser must again challenge Texas Law. Again he wins easily, this time without incident. Dat's Da One rolls onto the winner's rectangle. The stage is shared with Swampy, the queen, and some 30 supporters. In the manner of all champion drivers, Chesser waves his giant trophy over his head. Then, bowing to the obligations of tradition, he drives Betsy Carroll to the other bank of the racetrack and tosses her into the mud. In the distance, a tractor drags the crumpled frame of Sims's buggy across the infield.

The papers will eventually report that Sims broke bones in his left foot. He did not suffer serious injuries, though he stayed at Naples Community Hospital for a few days just to be safe. No one has ever died swamp buggy racing. In fact, Sims's injury is the most serious accident in the sport's history.

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