By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
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 have 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 $17 a day or $30 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 p.m. 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, the road's end is not evident, 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.