March, 2003 and March, 2004 Racedays
My wife has never shown even the slightest spark of interest in any spectator sport. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I dragged her out of bed to spend a whole day at the one and only Swamp Buggy Races at Florida Sports Park in Naples, Florida. She had a ball, and so did I. It was like stepping back 40 years, to when the object was to entertain, not to separate the marks from as much money as possible.
Unlike most car races, where you watch cars go 'round and 'round for hours, with the occasional crash to break up the monotony, the Swamp Buggy races are all fun all the time. The buggies range in size from standard Jeeps with snorkels to giant monsters with NASCAR racing engines. They race over a figure eight track that is flooded with water, around 18" deep in most areas, but over 3 feet in two places called "sippi holes."
This bizarre course mimics the terrain for which they were originally invented: Florida's Everglades, the River of Grass. Before airboats pushed them aside, swamp buggies were the way to get across the thousands of square miles of swampland that makes up so much of Florida. (More on swamp buggy history.)
The buggies themselves have skinny little wheels like disks, to offer as little resistance to the water as possible. During the first few seconds of the race, these wheels dig into the mud bottom, soon shooting up a fantail of muddy water.
By the time they've gone around the track, they are hydroplaning, if they're lucky, and you can't see anything but their noses sticking out.
The unlucky buggies go down in the Sippi Holes and just don't come out until tall tractors arrive to pull them out.
If you have a high-speed connection, click on this next photo for an AVI of the best race of the day, as two brothers fly their giant machines across the water to a photo finish. (Caution to dial-up users: File is 9.4 mb. That is very large at dial-up speeds, though only a few seconds if you have high-speed Internet.) The clip will start automatically when the download is complete.
My wife and I invested $60.00 per ticket for the VIP package, well above the normal and reasonable $17.50 standard adult ticket price. (The Saturday trials are only $5.00, if you want just a sample of the fun.) The VIP package was worth every penny. They gave us the Saturday trials free. They invited us to the Swamp Buggy Dance the night before. On the main race day, they started out by giving us a full tour of the pits and the pit tower, a really good lunch, all the beer, soft drinks, and cold spring water we wanted, and front row, shaded seating for the races themselves. (It was 90 degrees out.)
Of course, this intrepid reporter couldn't spend his whole day basking in such luxury. No, I left the comfort of my tent to spend time with select Swamp Buggy employees, checking up on their working conditions.
Through exhaustive interviewing, I discovered, for example, that the working conditions of the above employee (Ashley Shea) aren't that hot: The queen gets thrown in the sippi hole at the end of the day's racing. Why? Tradition. The South is big on that.
Our VIP day started with a lecture on how they bust the drivers for illegally hopping up their cars, with oversized carburetors, etc. They had confiscated an illegal carburetor just the day before. The guy had to drive around 800 miles round-trip home to fetch another one.
They also do this really weird thing: Any of the drivers can buy the winner's carburetor for $400 at the end of the race. The reason they do this is that some guys have their carburetor precision machined to goose up its performance in a way that their instruments can't detect. With this rule, drivers know that they face having to sell a special carburetor that may have cost as much as $2500 for a mere $400. It helps keep them honest.
The cars themselves are wild back-yard creations, unique in name: Stud's Mudder, Hi-Tech Redneck, Junkyard Dog, 4Play, Fatal Attraction, Anger Management, Cause for Divorce, and Radical Rabbit were all running that day. Just as unique as the names were the buggies themselves:
Swampy the alligator, seen above, lent an extra air of sophistication to the festivities. It brought back images of opening day at Ascot.
This is not a male-only sport, by a long shot. Many of the buggies were personed by women, and they were winning, not just making an appearance. They also tended to have a lot more personality than the men. A two-woman team came in first in the Jeep races in March of 2003. Winning again against the winner from the next class up put them in the final run-off against the big guns with the 500 and 600 hp engines. The big guys were done in under a minute, while the women kept going for the better part of five minutes. Yes, they were slow, but every time they came around, they waved to the crowd, and the crowd went wild. Watching them come in last was more entertaining than watching the two big buggies scream around earlier.
In 2004, women finished first in two different classes, and these were big machines, only a single class down from the big monsters. A third almost won in her big monster, named, "Fatal Attraction," but she had a mechanical failure two-thirds of the way through the final race. Had she won, the Swamp Buggy Races would have had a first: a woman throwing a woman in the sippi hole. I suspect it might have taken some of the fun out of it. Better she should have thrown Swampy in the hole.
During breaks in the racing, a whole bunch of buggies would take the field carrying spectators, so the civilians could get a taste of the swamp life, admittedly at a much slower speeds. It was another example of the informality of the day, and the smooth blending of participants and audience.
This blending was no more present than in the PA announcements during the course of the day. In addition to exhortations to buy $1.00 raffle tickets for a few local worthy causes, the Queen was called upon to announce birthdays among the crowd members. As I walked by, she had just received the news from a 12 year old boy that his grandfather would be 79 next Tuesday. His name, as she dutifully reported, was Seymour Butts. As the echoes of Seymour's name rolled away, I watched the boy and his companions rolling on the lawn, holding their stomachs they were laughing so hard. Just goes to show that the old ones can still sometimes work if you can catch someone off guard.
Later, the regular announcer told us that there was a certain fellow down there that wanted to get married, and if his girlfriend would come on down, he was ready to make a proper proposal. A few minutes later, he did. We got to hear the proposal and hear her heartfelt acceptance, adding the final touch of downhome to this unique spectacle.
In the March, 2004 races, there was one near-accident and one real accident. (In 2003 there had been none.) In the first case, the swamp buggy went airborne, with only one wheel staying in the water. The driver instantly backed of on the throttle, and the buggy bounced back into the water. In the second case, seven Jeeps got into a tangle, each trying to occupy the same space at the same time. Three ended up connected together, and a couple of big Caterpillar tractors had to move in to pull them apart.
These accidents differed from conventional racing in a couple of ways. First of all, watching a swamp buggy race with no accidents is thoroughly entertaining, so no spectators are there in the hopes of mishap. That's never the draw. Second, even the big monsters going their full 50 or 60 miles per hour slow down almost instantly when the power is pulled off. 18 inches to three feet of water is a big brake to a four-wheeled vehicle. The possibility of serious injury and even death is presentflipping upside down in water would certainly be an instant emergencybut such accidents are neither normal nor expected. (The big Caterpillar tractor are also fewer than 30 seconds away at all times, too. They can lift one of these cars out of the water as though they were little toys in the bathtub.) Constantly-lively entertainment, without carnage, is just one of the reasons why the races are one of the few things on the face of the earth that really are fun for the whole family.
If you want an inside look at what it's like to drive one of these crazy machines, check out Beth Hamm's play-by-play on her first racing experience, and if you plan to visit Florida, check out the upcoming swamp buggy race schedule. You will not be disappointed. It's heart-pounding, first-rate entertainment, with a touch of the nostalgia of the county fairs of your childhood thrown in for good measure.
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