By Peter B. Gallagher
Peter B. Gallagher is a writer of story, song, poem and legend who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. He has documented his experiences in the Old South, where he was born, and in the New South, where he lives now, since the 1960s.
Swamp buggies once roamed over South Florida anywhere alligators, muddy waters, impassable mires and small trees stood in the way. Mechanical dinosaurs, they blazed the trails less traveled by; and in every drought, their behemoth tires sunbaked swirls of tread into the bogscape. Into the Florida wetback, on tall platforms above the sawgrass and ferns, they carried explorers, Indians, poachers, bird killers, surveyors, still operators, revenuers, outlaws, realtors, hunters, fishermen and ordinary folks seeking redneck recreational pursuits into that hardscrabble, mud’n’crud-caked, snake-ridden Eden the lower peninsula Crackers called home.
The buggies were works of junk art that moved, no two alike, with parts of cars, aircraft, boats, sheds, tanks, tarps, gun racks, animals and tractors welded into oil-spitting, diesel-fouling, splendiferous smoke-sucking land galleons. Adorned with antlers, hoists and winches and equipped with no brakes, they were crewed by a vanishing breed of men (and women) who survived in the swampways for decades before the Michiganders and Ohioans and Wal-Marts and golf courses came. Snorting through the jungle like bulldozers without shovels or rusting in the back yard with old stoves and toilets, they symbolized one of Florida’s most colorful native cultures, combining the peculiar ingenuity the Florida Cracker has for mud and machine with the righteous celebration of God, family, Dixie, beer, camouflage and Collier County carryin’-on.
Why, swamp buggies are sacred transportation in these parts. Jesus could walk all right on water, the story goes, but even the Lord needs a swamp buggy to make it through the mud.
“Love ’em or leave us alone!”
That paean comes squirting through the toothy grin of a Collier backwoods resident named Rebel. The words Red and Neck are tattooed across his bare décolletage. His shirt is off and twisted into a doo-rag draped on his shoulder. His cigarette drops ash each time he says “yes sir.” Swamp buggies is who we are. Yes sir. They got donkeys at the Grand Canyon to get around; we got swamp buggies. Yes sir. They got dogsleds up at the North Pole; we got swamp buggies. It’s one thing the folks up North can’t tell us how to do better. Because we got ’em and they don’t! Yes sir!”
Suddenly a deep, deafening r-r-r-rrumblin’ noise whizzes past and a 30-foot tall plume of water blocks the sun and begins sheeting our way. Rebel and his friends spring backwards from the fence that separates about 7,000 onlookers from one of the most unusual race tracks in the world.
“Wheeeehewww! Terminator ’bout got us,” yells Rebel. He grabs his buddy, winks at the spectators and saunters off to “check on Mama and the grandkids.”
A tall, yellow-bellied green alligator strolls by. Without a word, Rebel and his buddy stop, spin around and, with alarming synchronicity, simulate a “mooning” of Swampy, the lizardy mascot everyone loves to torment. Poor Swampy covers its eyes (which are in its neck) and the bleacher crowd howls approval. An old lady screams from the stands, “Hey, this is a family event, no crack allowed around here!” Rebel jumps up, shimmying his shorts over the ridge of his unsucked beer gut. “Hey lady, I resemble that remark,” he yells back. “Yes sir!”
The crowd loves it. Squinting into the sun, they’re the sort of folks you see at small-town fairs and carnivals, Little League games, riverbank fish fries, bluegrass festivals or walking aimlessly around Sam’s Club — except more extreme, saved from the guest lists at Naples tea socials by a serious red-white-and-blue fashion issue, a penchant for off-color behavior and an obsessive benediction with Budweiser beer.
A few Yankees are sprinkled into the Collier redneck stew — shorty-panted French Canadian fogies, a couple of Brit hooligans, Ma and Pa from Saginaw — but few black or Asian faces.
They’re at an event called the 2005 Budweiser Winter Classic — the Super Bowl, you might say, of a sport called swamp buggy racing, the last stand for a vanishing chunk of Florida culture. Florida Sports Park, near the intersection of Collier Boulevard and Rattlesnake Hammock Road, hosts the world’s only swamp buggy racing spectaculars. Presented by Swamp Buggy Inc., the races happen three times a year (January, March and October), have been featured on television all over the world and provide a great big yahoo stage for those who stand at the edge of civilization, sabers drawn, cursing the land-killers and golf-course makers who are ruining their quagmire paradise.
Swamp buggy racing vehicles aren’t the tall, lumbering buggies of Florida frontier yore, however. At some point in the 1940s, a few enthusiasts tired of simply tromping through the countryside. They had already been everywhere no man had gone before and were looking for new frontiers to test mud and machine. They began competing with each other. Who was strongest, fastest, able to tear down the most cypress trees in a single bound?
These early racers tweaked for hours in bare-bulb-lit garages, their heads and upper bodies sunken into motor black holes, wrenches and elbows waving, customizing their engines, sleeking their crafts, then appearing for the first day of hunting season with fancy bored-out carburetors, silver exhaust pipes that would knock a man down and custom Goodyear tires bolted to the rims. Airboat meets dragster meets Soap Box Derby meets Rube Goldberg.
Prodded by the racing spirit, evolution blossomed. The engines got bigger, the frames got lighter, and quirky aerodynamics reduced drag. The first official race was 1949. Earliest prizes were shotguns and, sometimes, turkeys. But as community businesses became involved, incentives to go faster and harder emerged. Today swamp buggies constructed solely for racing compete in eight classes for purses worth thousands of dollars, and none have the practicality or appearance of the old giant-tired monsters.
Competitors range from heavily roll-barred old U.S. mail Jeeps all the way up to $50,000 flat-bottomed, pro-modified marvels with 485-cubic inch, 900-horsepower rocket-fueled engines, rice-paddy rear tires, giant pizza-cutter front tires and ski-lifts, all painted in flashy colors, emblazoned with sponsors and named Patriot, Rubber Duck, Porky’s Revenge and Top Gun. In between are equally colorful four-cylinder, six-cylinder, V8 Super Stock and air-cooled “buggies.”
A complicated swamp-racing rule book sets penalties for blocking, crowding and running the banks, and sanctions against blowers, turbo chargers or nitrous oxide. Everyone has to use Holley carburetors, and the secret is to mess with the bore just enough to gain an advantage but not enough to get disqualified in the pre-race inspection.
“Everyone’s got their little tricks,” winks Bonnie Walsh, a regular winner around here. “Just makin’ it from start to finish without breaking down is good enough for me.”
Yeah, sure, Bonnie. We hear you. There is a look in Bonnie’s eye that can only be described as “swamp cunning.” It can be scary when you see that look in a dark bar late at night, or in the eye of a gator that’s cornered you when you don’t know which way to go. But instead of burning down the back 40 or plotting revenge on an ex-boyfriend, Bonnie has become a swamp buggy racer. Last year, Bonnie’s 18-year-old daughter, former Swamp Buggy Queen Courtney Jolly, actually beat Mom in January of 2005 in the Intermediate Class, driving the Super Stock V8 “Show Time.” Mom’s comment: “I knew she was gonna kick my butt. Hell, I’m happy to get this close!”
Just for spite, Bonnie came back in March in her legendary pro-modified “Fatal Attraction” to win the whole shebang and enter history as the first woman to take the Budweiser Cup. Several other families are notable among the regular participants, particularly the Chessers. Patriarchs Leonard and Lonnie Chesser are renowned drivers and buggy makers; nephew Eddie is a seven-time world champ in his Hi Tech “Redneck”; and cousin Amy is a Cracklin’ Jack’s waitress who spends her tips on the upkeep of her four-wheel drive “Dat’s It.”
All day long, during both the preliminary Saturday trials and the Sunday cup races, the same scene plays out: Vehicles roll out of the chaotic pine-tree pits, their helmeted drivers perched like human cannonballs well in front of the skinny front wheels, and take their places across from a man with a checkered flag. A bellow reaches thunderstorm levels as the engines are revved and the buggies are evened at the starting line.
The actual “track” is called the Mile O’ Mud, and it is a sludge-bottomed figure eight, covered by 18 inches or more of water-the sort of oily, hot stillwater you see murking about in today’s Collier County roadside ditches. In several spots, however — known in swamp jargon as “sippy holes” — the depth sinks to six feet or more. This causes the slower vehicles to momentarily disappear, then re-emerge, banging and clanging each other, sometimes even getting entangled together, unable to shake loose. Drivers are urged to inspect the Mile O’ Mud before the race-to make sure the conditions are as bad as possible! The announcer keeps warning everyone about the “gator who lives in there”; but clearly, any crocodilian in the vicinity has already been turned into a purse.
When the flagman shakes the banner, NASCAR on mudwater begins. The faster vehicles, tearing around the course at speeds approaching 90 mph, just glide right over the sippy holes, sending huge walls of water high into the air, misting the atmosphere as they careen around the turns, sometimes thrilling the crowd with two wheels high in the air, white foam in their wakes. Slower buggies, with names like “Frog Spit” and “Rain Man,” chug and bob along in aggressive packs until someone breaks free and earns the checkered flag. Soaked, eyes stinging from gas air, nasty swamp water up the nose, the winning drivers roll back to the pits, arm outstretched to grab a trophy along the way.
In between races, tourists are given rides around the “track,” to the hooting amusement of the locals behind the fence. Rescuers on horseback, paramedics and huge tractors stand ready to deal with the occasional flipped-over or flaming buggy. The few serious mishaps bring rapt silence to the throngs, delaying the 50-50 drawings and sparking tears and anguish. Everyone knows each other out here, and one family’s pain is another’s, too. This may be the only motor-sports racing event that people attend hoping the racers don’t crash.
The race announcements add to the down-home atmosphere, with the Swamp Buggy Queen putting her two cents worth in between birthday greetings, wedding proposals, lost children, upcoming garage sales, Lynyrd Skynyrd songs and swamp buggy trivia. If a well-educated alien were brought here blindfolded, it would look out at the T-shirts, ball caps, knick-knacks, greasy food, tie-dye granny dresses and biker shirts and exclaim, “We’ve landed in America!” The aroma is eau de Jurassic chili dog with everything on it, spewing French’s mustard from a thin paper tray that reads, “Git ‘er done!”
Beneath a vulture-less Florida blue sky, with great billowy white clouds and the everlasting hint of rain in the distance, the crowd basks in the setting and the spectacle. Sure, about half the audience is packing some kind of heat, but you can’t really sense any danger. Just kids running around, the flag flapping in the breeze, Grandma cheering for “Outlaw,” and the sinking feeling that we are in a living museum exhibit that may soon close down, go into boxes and be stored forever in the lost basement of last memories.
Well, they have taken away just about everything else.
The old camps in the Big Cypress are long gone, burned out by the rangers and bragged about in Washington. Gone, too, are Joe Lord’s Monroe Station with its graveyard of buggies and the Miss Wild Hog contest. They’ve put so many rules on the local fishermen that some are contemplating smuggling again. They’ve made it illegal to do just about anything the old Florida pioneers did to survive. You can’t saw-mill, you can’t bee-hive, you can’t blacksmith, you can’t hunt and gather, you can’t burn and you can’t live in an old Cracker home without a permit.
“A permit is a piece of paper they give to a developer,” swamp impresario Joe Lord used to say. “They don’t give ’em to anyone else. They won’t let you have one for any other reason.”
Collier County is on a Miami binge. This once-rural county is growing at more than twice the rate of the rest of Florida, faster than almost anywhere else in the United States. No other area in the country increased its population so much-a whopping 65.3 percent-in the 1990s. To give some perspective: In 1950, there were 6,466 people here; by 1960, there were 15,753. In 1970, that number had grown to 38,040; then 85,971 by 1980; 152,099 by 1990; and 286,673 by 2000 — more than 80 percent of them born outside of Florida. If the predictions hold true, that number will swell to over half a million by 2025. County seat Naples is mentioned in the same breath as Tacoma, Boston, Denver and San Diego as one of the most expensive real estate markets in the land.
Most people in these parts, including kids, have a story to tell about something they loved that was torn down for a shopping center. Ironically, the southern part of Golden Gate Estates — swampland that Yankees were fraudulently sold in the ’50s — is now off-limits to swamp buggies. Swamp buggies were once the only way many owners could view their property; now few places remain where they can roam. Most recently, Bad Luck Prairie, part of the Picayune Strand Forest, was closed in January to all off-road vehicles. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service revoked all permits, saying the buggies were dangerous to another vanishing species, Florida panthers — changing lime-rock roads to six-lane highways, an infestation of chain stores and the concreting of huge stretches of panther habitat notwithstanding.
“First they remove the hunters and the buggies to save the land,” was another one of Joe Lord’s maxims. “Then they bring in bulldozers and concrete trucks and build condominiums on the land they saved.”
“It’s a different world today,” says Tom Cannon, former president and current treasurer of Swamp Buggy Inc. “There’s hardly anywhere left for us to go. We used to be the only ones out here.”
The Swamp Buggy Inc. fathers are feeling the pressure of new civilization nearby. It encroaches toward Florida Sports Park on little elephant feet, in clumps of progress complete with golf-course developments where every third house looks the same, and in the droppings of its infrastructure: shopping centers, traffic jams and a deep-down sense of loss.
The new residents are not swamp buggy enthusiasts? “Uh, well, not really,” says Cannon, trying to be diplomatic while some background deals are working. “I think it is more our banquet hall that we rent out for Friday-night dances and events like that. You get a lot of people driving around that area and they feel it interferes with their peace and quiet.”
When you start to bother the peace and quiet of New Yorkers moved to Florida, the die is cast. “We’ve got a potential buyer [for Florida Sports Park] and we are negotiating with them to find a suitable place where we can operate,” says Cannon, describing a company called Vision and Faith with a plan for a 2,000-acre residential project. “I think we are sitting right in the middle of their golf course!”
Where would the swamp buggy races go? “We’re looking at a site up on Immokalee Road,” says Cannon. He sighs, “If that doesn’t work out, we might be out of the county.”
Consider this: Collier County has more absolute land area than any county in Florida. The Immokalee Road parcel is a 624-acre dredge dump site, where the ugly bottom of Lake Trafford gets chucked every so often. According to Cannon, two of the current county commission members are former officers with Swamp Buggy Inc., as is state Rep. Mike Davis. “The leadership of this county recognizes the value of the swamp buggy races,” he says hopefully. “They know the tradition and will try to help us preserve it.”
Meanwhile, enjoy it while you can. The schedule is always the same. Take in the whole deal: the parade through downtown Naples on Saturday morning, the country dance on Saturday night and two days of the rarest motor sports racing in the world. Stick around, as most people do, for the final act, the Swamp Buggy Queen’s Mud Bath. This is when the winning driver drops the queen, fully gowned and crowned, into a sippy hole.
Soaked and smiling, she emerges to the roar of the crowd, and as the sun sets in the west, Florida Sports Park empties out. Only the acid reflux of all that food and beer shall remain.
“We’re the one and only swamp buggy races in the world,” says Sandy Montz, who has handled the publicity out here since Florida had only three area codes. “Oh, others have tried it in other places, but it only works here. It’s a part of Collier County. People here love swamp buggies. That’s the bottom line.”
The one and only swamp buggy races of Collier County, Florida, U.S.A. And that’s the soggy bottom line.