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

"Yes sir, that's what we're here for, to see some mud fly and to hear some motors moan," cheers the PA announcer as the last of the warm-up buggies rounds the track. No hard figure on attendance is available, but SBI officials estimate the crowd at more than 10,000, an unofficial record. Everyone stands for the national anthem, sung by a fifth-grade girl. While she sings, a man in the bleachers pauses to pack his lower lip with a wad of Copenhagen.

A five-hour procession of mud commences with the honorary waving of the starter's flag by Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter. Super stock, Jeeps, air-cooled, four-cylinder, six-cylinder, and other classes take to the track. As many as six of the small Jeeps race at one time. Slower Jeeps often form a train of three or more cars, drafting through the water to generate enough horsepower to pass the stronger buggies. (The drivers break the chain near the finish line, as all three or more drivers dash for victory.) The modified classes feature comically named buggies such as Lost Hawg and The Intimidator. In one heat Cold Duck squares off against teammate Old Duck; Cold Duck wins easily.

A race official in a control tower calls out to the pits, ordering buggies to line up for the next race. The pits are located in the woods along the mile's west curve. The area is a casual conference of different racing teams. Members of the more sophisticated teams rest on couches shaded by wide tent canopies. Other buggies wait alone under pine trees, unguarded.

The higher-end buggies are slickly painted hot rods. The intensity of their maintenance is visible in the gleaming chrome of their tailpipes and in the colorful array of sponsors' logos plastered to their hulls. Other buggies, usually the ones off by themselves, retain the image of duct-taped amalgamations. The black-and-orange buggy Trick or Cheat features an air-intake port crafted from a five-gallon plastic pail.

Eddie Chesser is hard at work under the Team Outlaw tent. Friday's gasket problem was solved with little hardship, but earlier this morning, during a practice lap, his car stalled about 200 feet around the Mile O' Mud. When a tractor pulled the buggy back to the pits, Chesser and his crew popped the tin hood to find the engine block distressingly dry. "Yep," said the crew chief, staring at the scalding engine, "it's cooked."

The problem wasn't the gasket. "It just blew up," Chesser says, shaking his head. "I'm not going to be able to go." His absence from the day's card leaves open the slim possibility that he could lose the prestigious season title for the first time in four years. Cold Duck, driven by a Chesser family rival, could steal the title if it wins every race it enters for the rest of the day. Fortunately for Chesser, that prospect is unlikely.

Chesser sports a black T-shirt advertising, in fluorescent letters, a new threat to the existence of swamp buggy racing in Naples: The Swamp at Mesa Park. Mesa Park is a new outdoor fairground under construction in Fellsmere, a tiny city located on the Gold Coast, halfway between Fort Pierce and Melbourne. It aspires to be the second operational swamp buggy track in the world, the first direct competition Naples has faced in more than 30 years.

In the late '60s, a driver disgruntled with the low prize awards in Naples dug up a rival track in Fort Myers. Within two years his outlaw operation folded, and he returned to Naples. In 1985 a French promoter toyed with the idea of exporting the sport overseas, going so far as to fly driver Terry Langford and his buggy to an auto show in Bordeaux. Nothing came of the trip, and Naples remains the sport's only home.

The Swamp at Mesa Park will change that. And Mesa Park is no half-assed track carved into a field somewhere. It is a $5 million facility with amenities that are state-of-the-art, as odd as that claim may sound. The pits come complete with showers and with fiber-optic lines for computers and telephones. The track, modeled closely after the Mile O' Mud, can be made more challenging, if desired, by increasing the level of sitting water.

Jeff Parsons and Don Studley are the park's primary developers. They've been hanging around the Naples pits all weekend, schmoozing with drivers. When necessary they drop their clipboards and help push a dead buggy onto a trailer. "We've been trying for two years to cultivate the drivers," Parsons explains carefully. A trim mustache decorates his soft, full face. "We can't have races without them."

Parsons is an entrepreneur with a background in computers. Studley is a promoter with connections in the music biz. They conceived Mesa Park as a concert venue that would host the occasional tractor pull. Two years ago, as they scouted for other draws, they landed in the swamp. "We didn't start out as swamp buggy fans," Studley admits. "We started out as businessmen. We were promoting a concert when our lighting director told us we had to go check out the buggies, 'cause they were drawing I don't know how many thousands of fans."

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