By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Across the Tamiami Trail, past The Pit barbecue and the Miccosukee gambling palace, and following 90 miles of monotonously swaying sawgrass sits a bar. This screened-in hut serves as an unofficial gatehouse to the fishing village of Everglades City. On a Friday at dusk, as the setting sun stains the waters of an adjacent estuary, the bar greets a half-dozen scruffy locals. They hail the weekend with frosty bottles of beer and the jukebox music of Hank Williams, Jr.
If you are a Miamian with a taste for the exotic, you might stop by this tiki bar on your way to Fort Myers or Marco Island or wherever it is you drive to escape the city. Perhaps you'll be challenged to a game of pool by a pair of natives. The gregarious one is a Roto-Rooter man who draws out his vowels when he speaks. His partner is a sullen ogre with dirt on his hands and in the blond hair that droops over his eyes. "We call him Chuckles," Roto-Rooter notes, "because he don't smile much. It's kind of a joke."
Wager a round and the two will clean you out right quick. Chuckles will tramp his bare feet around the bar, lining up one shot, then the next, methodically, humorlessly, running the table.
Buy those beers that you must. Then pull up an aluminum-and-Naugahyde stool and let Roto-Rooter regale you with stories of septic system colonics. If you're lucky, he'll tip you off to an extremely local brand of entertainment. Something glorious, it seems. A malevolent mixture of mud and machine that takes place only three times a year and in only one place on Earth. He's talking about the swamp buggy races.
"You boys are going to the buggy races, ain'tcha?" Roto Rooter asks, the ain'tcha more emphasis than query. "What? You ain't heard of the swamp buggy races? They got this big ol' Mile O' Mud and these big buggies grinding through the mud and it's on TV and everything."
You're in luck, Roto-Rooter says, it's the third weekend of October -- the annual Budweiser Fall Championship. He sketches a map on a napkin, dragging his pen around a circle of condensation from his beverage. "You just take the Tamiami over to 951, then go north until you get to the Florida Sports Park. You can't miss the sign," he says. A rivulet of beer winds down his chin. "It's seventeen dollars a day or thirty dollars for the whole weekend. Oh, man, you've got to go! They've got camping in the back and everything. I'm telling you, last time I went all four days -- and I got laid four times!"
If you see the excitement in this man's eyes, if you are at all intrigued by this Mile O' Mud of which he speaks, then ditch whatever designs you had on Fort Myers. Wish your host continued sexual success and throw a cautious salud to Chuckles. Then, map in hand, steer your vehicle deep into the swamp.
According to the map, the Florida Sports Park is located near the Everglades on the eastern fringe of Naples, the seat of Collier County. By 8:00 at night, glowing red taillights from a train of pickup trucks illuminate the park's main entrance. Twisting down a dirt road, the trucks dodge potholes and tree roots the size and shape of a man's arm. Amid dense pine trees on both sides, it's not evident where the road is leading, and the night sky darkens considerably.
Then it appears. A clearing glows white with stadium lights, as if it were one of those scenes from the X-Files, a place where shadowy government operatives commune with aliens on a secret landing pad carved into the woods. An outrageous buzz-saw roar can be heard in the muddy parking lot. The swamp buggies themselves aren't visible yet, only the towering arcs of water they shoot over a long set of bleachers.
A swamp buggy is a souped-up version of the Jeeps that Florida outdoorsmen have long used to hunt deer and game. Unlike airboats, which glide over water, traditional swamp buggies (also known as hunting buggies) utilize exceptionally large tires and jacked-up suspensions to grind through the Everglades muck. Racing swamp buggies come in two basic classes: Jeeps, which resemble traditional buggies; and modifieds, which feature elongated frames, huge back tires, and relatively small front wheels.
In the modifieds, drivers sit up front in a crude open cockpit with the buggy stretched out behind them. The engine is shielded by a round roof of aluminum that makes the whole body resemble a crude rocket ship. The vehicles' closest cousins in appearance are probably the land-speed racers that shoot across the Utah salt flats. The fastest modified buggies can circle the Mile O' Mud in less than 55 seconds, whizzing up to 90 miles per hour on the straightaways.
It should be noted here that the Mile O' Mud is actually only seven-eighths of a mile long. It's an oval with a diagonal lane slashed through, as if it were a no-smoking sign. Lanes are about 60 feet wide. Depth is hard to gauge because brackish brown water covers every inch of the track. The water appears to be a foot deep, though it drops to between five and six feet deep in three places. Buggies driving through these holes disappear up to their steering wheels and exhaust pipes. The largest pit, located in front of the grandstand, is the Sippy Hole, named after "Mississippi" Milton Morris, a legendary driver who never once conquered the hole before stalling.
Racecourse infields are often giant expanses of grass. The infield at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for instance, is large enough to feature a four-hole golf course. Not so at the Mile O' Mud, where there is room for only a few emergency vehicles. There are four pickup trucks, a couple of tractors to drag stalled buggies back to the pits, and two front-end haulers prepared to unglue any embedded machines. Collier County's medi-alert helicopter waits in the scrub brush on the far corner of the infield.
The modifieds dart around the track like angry waterbugs. A massive wake obscures the back wheels, making the buggies look like small speedboats. While velocity causes the buggies to shake, they don't slide around in the mud. Instead, they grip the track as if they were slot cars fixed in a groove. The Jeeps are slo-mo-Joes by comparison, slogging through the marl at twenty miles per hour. Their tiny box frames completely disappear into the Sippy Hole. For the Jeeps, the task of climbing out of the hole is so strenuous that many vehicles die on the spot, inches from the finish line.
The Florida Sports Park is the only place in the world where the buggies race. The park -- and by default the entire sport -- is owned and operated by Swamp Buggy, Inc. (SBI), a nonprofit that exists solely to preserve the sport, to raise money for charity, and to "provide affordable entertainment for all citizens of Collier County," according to the organization's literature. "We're here to deliver family fun, basically," explains SBI administrative assistant Cindy Fortune, the company's only paid employee. Fifteen members serve on the SBI board of directors. The charter mandates that all board members reside in Collier County.
"When it gets wet prior to the race like it did this past week, it creates giant mud puddles out in the park," drones the PA announcer, apropos nothing. "I'm sure we could find a sweet school of bass out there. And a couple of gators, too."
"We've talked for a couple of years about hosting a fishing tournament out here," his partner replies.
"Yeah, why not? Why not?"
"Put a couple of bass out here."
"Why not? I advocate a sport you can do sitting down."
A concrete rectangle in front of the grandstand serves as a winner's circle. A seventeen-year-old blonde named Betsy Carroll teeters across the platform on high heels. A wide white sash on her shiny crimson gown announces her reign as Swamp Buggy Queen. Carroll is a drum major at her high school. She also "likes mud, line dancing, and cowboys!" according to her glossy headshots, which she signs for a never-diminishing gaggle of young girls. On Sunday, following tradition, the winner of the Big Feature race will toss Carroll and her tiara into the swamp. At the moment, however, signing her autographs, she doesn't appear concerned.
"You know, for seventeen she's real pretty," opines a man hanging his deeply tanned forearms over the fence separating the platform from the crowd. "Of course, you know what they say: Seventeen can get you fifty. But still."
Trailing the queen along the platform is Swampy, the park's vaguely amphibian mascot. Large and lime green, sporting a yellow sweater vest, he lumbers unenthusiastically, talking to a friend through an air hole near his mouth.
"Anybody know what that is out there in the green suit?" asks a man with a cigarette dangling from a gap where one of his teeth used to be. "It's a gator. No, wait, there's no yellow lips on a gator. Show me a gator with yellow lips! It looks like a parrot with no teeth. A mutant buggy parrot." He slaps a neighbor on the back. "There you go!"
Behind the bleachers lies a short midway of traditional carnival food: elephant ears, Sno-Cones, and salty shaved-pork sandwiches. Budweiser flows from kegs for two dollars a cup. A man sells brightly colored T-shirts that feature Swampy shifting a flamethrowing modified buggy. Sales aren't brisk. Most fans prefer shirts and caps advertising their favorite NASCAR drivers. Some don't wear shirts at all. One young girl braves the night chill in a bikini top, two triangular Confederate flags covering her breasts.
Two boys patrol the gate that leads to the racetrack. Twelve-year-old Curtis Goddard wears hair dyed red and blue to match the colors of his father's swamp buggy, Jumpin' Jack. Goddard explains that tonight's races are mainly an exhibition for television. "On Sunday you will have drivers up on the [winner's] platform just like they have in NASCAR," he adds. "Then they'll have trophies and everything and they'll determine the overall winner."
His narration is interrupted by the arrival of the next two buggies on the track. The growling modified machines inch toward an invisible starting line. Engines wail as they wait for a traffic light suspended overhead to change from red to green. When it does, the cars fly off the line as if they were drag racers.
It's not clear who is forecast to triumph, and no one in the crowd seems to know either. Spectators applaud the buggy that veers out in front just before two men on either side of the mud wave checkered flags. The cheers sound more for the spirit of competition than for the victory. "Bud Pressure edges out Viper," calls the announcer.
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."
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.
The tradition of swamp buggy racing is best represented by the Chesser family, the sport's dynasty. These native Neapolitans are as legendary in their own small swamp as the Pettys are on the NASCAR circuit. Leonard Chesser dominated the Seventies, winning all but two of the Big Feature races held that decade. His brother Lonnie emerged as the dominant driver in the Eighties. Lonnie's son, Eddie, won the overall season title for the first time in 1994, and he hasn't lost it since. "I'm kind of like Jeff Gordon now," boasts 34-year-old Eddie, referring to the youthful NASCAR champ. "Everyone roots against me because I win all the time. They want to see the title go to someone else."
Driving to the Chesser compound on Saturday afternoon requires the navigation of roads still composed of dirt. The property, owned by Leonard, is an island of relatively pristine land smack in the middle of developed Collier County, some five strokes in any direction from a golf course community. Nevertheless, it retains the appearance of rural living. Large scraps of steel oxidize in the back of the two-and-a-half-acre lot. A small ranch house sits on the front of the property. The dominant architectural landmark is a machine shop: tall as a barn and constructed of shiny new aluminum. Facing the shop this afternoon is a firing line of twelve pickup trucks. Inside, an operation is under way.
Eddie Chesser hovers around his buggy, The Outlaw. He purposefully unscrews the heads while eight assistants help rebuild the engine he blew out last night. His gasket failed; he doesn't know exactly why. "You can do everything right," he explains. "It can run right, it can be assembled right, and it will just fail. That's racing."
As he fiddles with a socket, a member of his crew drains a viscous brown gravy from the crankcase. "We put four gallons of oil in there on Friday," the volunteer says, as liquid oozes to the top of a large white bucket. "And we're getting five gallons out. Water in the engine, man."
Two other buggies occupy the shop with The Outlaw. The most promising buggy is L-Mean-Yo, a new V8 driven by Pete Weeks. L-Mean-Yo dominated the Friday exhibition, thrilling the crowd with wins by more than six buggy lengths. The identity of the third buggy can't be determined at this time, as the body has been completely disassembled, a routine postrace procedure. Drivers insist that five miles in the mud is harder on an engine than five hundred miles on a NASCAR track. Rebuilding is de rigueur.
Officially the shop is a home office where Eddie's machinist father rebuilds automobiles. Crammed inside along with the buggies is a roster of serious-looking tools, including a boring bar, a mill deck, and a head servicer. These machines of his father's trade are also of invaluable assistance to Eddie and his team. At the shop they can build a buggy from scratch. They can, and do, make their own screws. If all the equipment and the barn were factored into the equation, Team Outlaw would be in the neighborhood of a million-dollar operation.
"Do you have the drill?" calls out a man wearing a white tank top that reads: "OK BASSHOLE! Make my day!"
"Over here," barks another man, a gold pendant of an Everglades airboat dangling from his neck.
Eddie Chesser labored in his father's shop through high school. After graduation he served for seven years as a mechanic in the 82nd Army Division, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Since returning home, he's settled in a comfortable subdivision and taken a job with the Collier County government. During the day he repairs garbage trucks and ambulances and fire engines. At night he tinkers on his buggy. He dreams of a day when swamp buggy racing will be his full-time occupation.
Chesser grew up in a Naples very different from the one that exists today. He and his friends used to ride their three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles straight down U.S. 41 to the beach, where they often camped overnight. His father's land was once located way out in the boonies, though subdivisions now stretch twenty miles east. About 25,000 people lived in Collier County when Eddie Chesser was born in 1964. The population has since multiplied by ten.
"When I was in high school," Chesser recalls, "we used to go hunting and fishing, and we'd camp out on the side of Alligator Alley (the main road between Naples and Fort Lauderdale). During the night, say between 10:00 and 5:00 in the morning, maybe only one car would come along."
Today Alligator Alley is Interstate 75, a four-lane thoroughfare. Thousands of cars make the passage every hour, every day. "Shoot," Chesser says, "in my lifetime it's made a drastic change."
From all appearances, Naples embraces Sunday morning in the usual way. The early seasonal tourists overflow fashionable bagel shops down Fifth Avenue South. An older couple in khaki shorts powerwalks along Gulf Shore Boulevard, parallel to the waterfront. At the Naples Pier, a landmark jutting out 1000 feet into the Gulf of Mexico, the regulars dangle baited hooks into the green water, hunting for fish bigger than the minnows nibbling on the pier's wooden pilings. Fifteen miles east of this placid scene, however, the swamp buggy denizens are preparing for the equivalent of their annual Super Bowl.
"Yes sir, that's what we're here for, to see some mud fly and to hear some motors moan," cheers the PA announcer as the last of the warm-up buggies rounds the track. No hard figures on attendance are available, but SBI officials estimate the crowd at more than 10,000, an unofficial record. Everyone stands for the national anthem, sung by a fifth-grade girl. While she sings, a man in the bleachers pauses to pack his lower lip with a wad of Copenhagen.
A five-hour procession of mud commences with the honorary waving of the starter's flag by Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter. Super stock, Jeeps, air-cooled, four-cylinder, six-cylinder, and other classes take to the track. As many as six of the small Jeeps race at one time. Slower Jeeps often form a train of three or more cars, drafting through the water to generate enough horsepower to pass the stronger buggies. (The drivers break the chain near the finish line, as all three or more drivers dash for victory.) The modified classes feature comically named buggies such as Lost Hawg and The Intimidator. In one heat, Cold Duck squares off against teammate Old Duck; Cold Duck wins easily.
A race official in a control tower calls out to the pits, ordering buggies to line up for the next race. The pits are located in the woods along the mile's west curve. The area is a casual conference of different racing teams. Members of the more sophisticated teams rest on couches shaded by wide tent canopies. Other buggies wait alone under pine trees, unguarded.
The higher-end buggies are slickly painted hot rods. The intensity of their maintenance is visible in the gleaming chrome of their tailpipes and in the colorful array of sponsors' logos plastered to their hulls. Other buggies, usually the ones off by themselves, retain the image of duct-taped amalgamations. The black-and-orange buggy Trick or Cheat features an air intake port crafted from a five-gallon plastic pail.
Eddie Chesser is hard at work under the Team Outlaw tent. Friday's gasket problem was solved with little hardship, but earlier this morning, during a practice lap, his car stalled about 200 feet around the Mile O' Mud. When a tractor pulled the buggy back to the pits, Chesser and his crew popped the tin hood to find the engine block distressingly dry. "Yep," said the crew chief, staring at the scalding engine, "it's cooked."
The problem wasn't the gasket. "It just blew up," Chesser says, shaking his head. "I'm not going to be able to go." His absence from the day's card leaves open the slim possibility that he could lose the prestigious season title for the first time in four years. Cold Duck, driven by a Chesser family rival, could steal the title if it wins every race it enters for the rest of the day. Fortunately for Chesser, that prospect is unlikely.
Chesser sports a black T-shirt advertising, in fluorescent letters, a new threat to the existence of swamp buggy racing in Naples: The Swamp at Mesa Park. Mesa Park is a new outdoor fairground under construction in Fellsmere, a tiny city located on the Gold Coast, halfway between Fort Pierce and Melbourne. It aspires to be the second operational swamp buggy track in the world, the first direct competition Naples has faced in more than 30 years.
In the late Sixties, a driver disgruntled with the low prize awards in Naples dug up a rival track in Fort Myers. Within two years his outlaw operation folded and he returned to Naples. In 1985 a French promoter toyed with the idea of exporting the sport overseas, going so far as to fly driver Terry Langford and his buggy to an auto show in Bordeaux. Nothing came of the trip, and Naples remains the sport's only home.
The Swamp at Mesa Park will change that. And Mesa Park is no half-assed track carved into a field somewhere. It is a five-million-dollar facility with amenities that are state-of-the-art, as odd as that claim may sound. The pits come complete with showers and with fiber optic lines for computers and telephones. The track, modeled closely after the Mile O' Mud, can be made more challenging, if desired, by increasing the level of sitting water.
Jeff Parsons and Don Studley are the park's primary developers. They've been hanging around the Naples pits all weekend, schmoozing with drivers. When necessary, they drop their clipboards and help push a dead buggy onto a trailer. "We've been trying for two years to cultivate the drivers," Parsons explains carefully. A trim mustache decorates his soft, full face. "We can't have races without them."
Parsons is an entrepreneur with a background in computers. Studley is a promoter with connections in the music biz. They conceived Mesa Park as a concert venue that would host the occasional tractor pull. Two years ago, as they scouted for other draws, they landed in the swamp. "We didn't start out as swamp buggy fans," Studley admits. "We started out as businessmen. We were promoting a concert when our lighting director told us we had to go check out the buggies, 'cause they were drawing I don't know how many thousands of fans."
"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.
Buzzed from the crash and the climactic victory and the dunking of the queen (and perhaps from the Budweiser, which vendors completely sold out), the crowd slogs to the parking area. Squishing through mud puddles, they can see the first plumes of bonfire smoke wafting up from the Standing Room Only area. The campground will remain open for another night. "We'd rather have them sleep out there than have them driving, frankly," Fortune says with a smirk. If the Roto-Rooter guy spent the weekend there, as he insisted he would, he was never spotted.
A trail of pickups winds toward well-groomed Naples. After toweling the mud out of her hair, Betsy Carroll will end her royal reign with a ride back to the golf course community where she lives. Eddie Chesser will return to his subdivision, no doubt contemplating the inaugural races in Fellsmere. Naples will proceed to celebrate the next big event on its social calendar: the Collier County Fair, second week in January.
"Do you know if this is the last race?" asks 23-year-old Katie Alvarez as her shoes sink into a puddle. "We heard that the park has been sold and that they might never race again.
"I hope that isn't the case; I mean that they race again," she adds, extracting one of her feet from the muck. "This is big. This, the swamp buggy races, is, like, Naples's heart and soul.