Longform

Ready! Wet! Go!

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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.

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.

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Robert Andrew Powell
Steve Satterwhite