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

The tradition of swamp buggy racing is best represented by the Chesser family, the sport's dynasty. These native Neapolitans are as legendary in their own small swamp as the Pettys are on the NASCAR circuit. Leonard Chesser dominated the '70s, winning all but two of the Big Feature races held that decade. His brother Lonnie emerged as the dominant driver in the '80s. Lonnie's son, Eddie, won the overall season title for the first time in 1994, and he hasn't lost it since. "I'm kind of like Jeff Gordon now," boasts 34-year-old Eddie, referring to the youthful NASCAR champ. "Everyone roots against me because I win all the time. They want to see the title go to someone else."

Driving to the Chesser compound on Saturday afternoon requires the navigation of roads still composed of dirt. The property, owned by Leonard, is an island of relatively pristine land smack in the middle of developed Collier County, some five strokes in any direction from a golf course community. Nevertheless, it retains the appearance of rural living. Large scraps of steel oxidize in the back of the two-and-a-half-acre lot. A small ranch house sits on the front of the property. The dominant architectural landmark is a machine shop, tall as a barn and constructed of shiny new aluminum. Facing the shop this afternoon is a firing line of 12 pickup trucks. Inside, an operation is under way.

Eddie Chesser hovers around his buggy, The Outlaw. He purposefully unscrews the heads while eight assistants help rebuild the engine he blew out last night. His gasket failed; he doesn't know exactly why. "You can do everything right," he explains. "It can run right, it can be assembled right, and it will just fail. That's racing."

As he fiddles with a socket, a member of his crew drains a viscous brown gravy from the crankcase. "We put four gallons of oil in there on Friday," the volunteer says, as liquid oozes to the top of a large white bucket. "And we're getting five gallons out. Water in the engine, man."

Two other buggies occupy the shop with The Outlaw. The most promising buggy is L-Mean-Yo, a new V-8 driven by Pete Weeks. L-Mean-Yo dominated the Friday exhibition, thrilling the crowd with wins by more than six buggy lengths. The identity of the third buggy can't be determined at this time, as the body has been completely disassembled, a routine postrace procedure. Drivers insist that five miles in the mud is harder on an engine than five hundred miles on a NASCAR track. Rebuilding is de rigueur.

Officially the shop is a home office where Eddie's machinist father rebuilds automobiles. Crammed inside along with the buggies is a roster of serious-looking tools, including a boring bar, a mill deck, and a head servicer. These machines of his father's trade are also of invaluable assistance to Eddie and his team. At the shop they can build a buggy from scratch. They can, and do, make their own screws. If all the equipment and the barn were factored into the equation, Team Outlaw would be in the neighborhood of a million-dollar operation.

"Do you have the drill?" calls out a man wearing a white tank top that reads: "OK BASSHOLE! Make my day!"

"Over here," barks another man, a gold pendant of an Everglades airboat dangling from his neck.

Eddie Chesser labored in his father's shop through high school. After graduation he served for seven years as a mechanic in the 82nd Army Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Since returning home, he's settled in a comfortable subdivision and taken a job with the Collier County government. During the day he repairs garbage trucks and ambulances and fire engines. At night he tinkers on his buggy. He dreams of a day when swamp buggy racing will be his full-time occupation.

Chesser grew up in a Naples very different from the one that exists today. He and his friends used to ride their three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles straight down U.S. Highway 41 to the beach, where they often camped overnight. His father's land was once located way out in the boonies, though subdivisions now stretch 20 miles east. About 25,000 people lived in Collier County when Eddie Chesser was born in 1964. The population has since multiplied by ten.

"When I was in high school," Chesser recalls, "we used to go hunting and fishing, and we'd camp out on the side of Alligator Alley (the main road between Naples and Fort Lauderdale). During the night, say between 10 and 5 in the morning, maybe only one car would come along."

Today Alligator Alley is Interstate 75, a four-lane thoroughfare. Thousands of cars make the passage every hour, every day. "Shoot," Chesser says, "in my lifetime it's made a drastic change."

From all appearances Naples embraces Sunday morning in the usual way. The early seasonal tourists overflow fashionable bagel shops down Fifth Avenue South. An older couple in khaki shorts power-walks along Gulf Shore Boulevard, parallel to the waterfront. At the Naples Pier, a landmark jutting out 1000 feet into the Gulf of Mexico, the regulars dangle baited hooks into the green water, hunting for fish bigger than the minnows nibbling on the pier's wooden pilings. Fifteen miles east of this placid scene, however, the swamp buggy denizens are preparing for the equivalent of their annual Super Bowl.

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