Ready! Wet! Go!

Behold the swamp buggy races, South Florida's oddest racing tradition, where the engines roar, the muck flies, and the vehicles sometimes sink

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 tractors to drag stalled buggies back to the pits, and two front-end haulers prepared to unglue 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 20 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 17-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 17 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 $2 a cup. A man sells brightly colored T-shirts that feature Swampy shifting a flame-throwing 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 TV. "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 buggies 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 who will win, 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 for the spirit of competition more than for the victory. "Bud Pressure edges out Viper," calls the announcer.

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