Buggy racing is the wildest, wettest sport this side of alligator wrestling
Sunday afternoons in Naples, a chi-chi resort town nestled between the Everglades and the Gulf in southwest Florida, you mostly hear the thwocks of tennis rackets and the pings of 3-woods, but this particular Sunday, the whiny wail of V-8 swamp buggies echoes across Naples Sports Park sounding like a swarm of mutant mosquitoes.
Amid the buzz, Eddie Chesser is having trouble with the Outlaw. The four-time champ and his pit crew hover over the vehicles steaming engine, tinkering anxiously. On the other side of the park at the 1999 Spring Classic Swamp Buggy Races, rowdy fans leap to their feet, hands in the air, as 20-foot rooster tails of water rip past. Theyre having some kind of problem, whispers Eddies wife, Shannon. Not only that, she says, the new thinner skispositioned beside the front tireshave slowed Outlaw down during preliminary runs. A wider pair must be bolted on before Chessers class is announced within the hour.
But hey, as the drivers say with a shrug, thats racing. The number one thing about swamp buggy racinga muddy, good-ole-boy pastime oddly indigenous to a town with a Ritz-Carltonis that anything can happen and usually does. The fans know it. Hell, thats what they like about it. For most of the day, few seem to care much about whos racing whom; they just like to watch the water fly.
Same with the drivers. While they take things seriously enough to show up and compete year after year, their secret slogan seems to be, Whatever. Remember, were talking about a sport that bubbled up from the damp and muggy innards of the kick-back-and-relax capital of the Western worldwhere heat and humidity suck the lifeblood out of honest aggression and replace it with a hankerin for fruity drinks. So when it comes to racing, the drive to win just naturally gets, well, bogged down.
Which is why no one was surprised today that, by the time the Lely High School vocal ensemble had led the crowd in the national anthem, two major contenders were already out of contention. One, Eddies dad, Lonnie, had to drop out after his state-of-the-art, lightweight buggy, dubbed the Hi-Tech Redneck, burned a piston. So now Lonnie is calmly watching the action from the front seat of an old golf cart: We put in a new carburetor with smaller jets and just forgot to change em.
Absentmindedness aside, if anyones going to be serious about his buggies, hes probably a Chesser. One hundred years after the first ancestors settled in Collier County, the Chesser name is synonymous with the sport. Eddies uncle (and Lonnies brother), Leonard, is known as the godfather of swamp buggy racing, having racked up 15 wins since 1970more than any other two drivers put together.
Lonnie is the only guy who makes a living designing and building buggies, which he does for Team Outlaw and others. Eddie, a former army paratrooper, has won every Budweiser Cup championship since 1995 in the Outlaw, built by his father, one of just two four-wheel drives at the event. Lonnie and Eddie lead a small cadre of drivers whose sights are set on the big-time. (A snazzy new course recently opened on Floridas east coast.) So the Chessers dont fret over small setbacks involving wrong-size jets. Even though Redneck died halfway around the Mile o Mud, Lonnie smiles. It was the best time yet for the portion clocked. Its gonna be one fast buggy, he says.
The Mile o Mud is actually seven-eighths of a mile through chalky brown water that in most sections is 14 inches deep. The course features straightaways, loops and a crude figure 8 which require a total of three encounters with the courses treacherous Sippy Holea tricky five-foot-deep trench named, appropriately, after Mississippi Milton Morris, a legendary driver who never once made it across without stalling. And Buggy is a bit of a misnomer for these rocket-like buzzing contraptions. Evolved from the souped-up four-wheelers hunters traditionally used to maneuver through the mangrove swampland, todays vehicles divvy into distinct categories.
The Jeeps, the largest (and slowest) class, resemble traditional swamp machines. Essentially stock vehicles, they negotiate the mud much like jacked-up wading birds, relying upon height and traction to make it across the Sippy. The modifieds (six classes in all) are a different story. With large and deeply treaded back tires, one-man open cockpits, elongated bodies and smaller front wheels, they operate like monster water bugs, relying on speed and special skis positioned inside the front tiresto propel them, boat-like, across the hole at close to 60 mph and down the straightaways at close to 90 mph.
Modified driver Tricia Turner entered her first race a few years back, after tagging along with her driver-husband, Steve. At first she hitched a ride with a female driver. Hooked, she had Steve build her Ladybug, a blackand- red buggy decorated with mom-and-pop shop sponsor logos (such as Pattys Sensuous Fashions) and a plastic ladybug purchased from the garden department at K-Mart fastened to the roll cage. Repairs to Ladybug are done last minuteif at all. A damaged rear tire was fixed just yesterday. Her newest sponsor, E&M Automotive, sprang for a new carburetor a few days ago. Turner says shed love to race full time. But her short-term goal today is to conquer the Sippy Hole, where Ladybug stalled during Turners last race.
After a while, the drivers and their crews gather trackside to cheer hometown favorite Terry Langford, the only driver whose consistent firsts fly in the face of the Chesser dynasty. With this winclocked at 54:16Langford moves into the final feature, in which he and his Rubber Duck will face both Outlaw and Phil Marcias in Re-Psycho, the winner of the V-8 class. If everything goes as it should (read: no engine failures, accidents, or other acts of God), the real match here will be between Chesser and Langford a kind of metaphorical duel between the sports homespun heritage, represented by the genteel, elder Langford, and its calculated entry into the big-time, personified by the younger, more aggressive Chesser.
Standing beside the famed bright blue Duck now, the statesman-like Langford is asked about his strategy. Not surprisingly, he has none. The inside lane is better, he replies in a soft Southern drawl. Whoever goes into the first turn ahead has the advantage. Its just the luck of the draw.
During a break in the action, fans in tank tops and bikini tops stroll among carnival-style vendors hawking everything from camouflage gear to gator fritters. On display is the Orange Blossom Special, a bright orange, five-seat buggy outfitted with a Confederate flag and slogan: The South Will Rise Again. Swamp Buggy Queen Catherine MacAlisters mom glues the missing S back onto her tiara, momentarily abbreviated to wamp Buggy.
Its late in the afternoon now, but the sun is still high. Tricia Turner has lost yet another battle with her nemesis. Turner, who stands just 4'10", says she wasnt worried about being trapped in the water. I knew I wasnt in the deepest part of the hole, she says, so I just held my nose and jumped in. She pauses, thinking about the implications of what shes just said. You know, she laughs, Im getting a little too familiar with the Sippy Hole.
The crowd grows silent for the final feature. Langford draws the inside lane as hoped. But after the flag drops, Chesser beats him to the crucial first turn. From then onas Langford predictedthe race is Chessers to lose. Outlaw clocks in at 54.60 to Rubber Ducks 1:01.44.
Perhaps even more important than the final race, though, is another ritual: the ceremonial dunking of the Swamp Buggy Queen. Chesser scoops up MacAlistersans shoes, sash and repaired tiaraand leaps with her in his arms into the bane of Tricia Turner, the dadgum Sippy Hole.
Later, as Chesser signs autographs for a small group of kids, Langford allows that he got beat fair and square. That four-wheel drive is just awesome in that first turn, he marvels. But dont hold your breath waiting for him to show up at the next race with a four-wheel drive of his own. Because, you know, whatever.