Longform

Ready! Wet! Go!

Page 4 of 9

The SRO campground follows the northwest curve of the track and ends at a new fence beginning at the far straightaway. The fence is locked and seems to protect a higher caste of campers. One of the Brahmins is Bob "Bobby" Jedd, a 45-year-old mechanic outfitted in gray cutoff jeans, a Lucky Strikes T-shirt, and sandals caked with mud. For two decades he's been commuting from Sarasota to watch the races.

"I used to be with the Mad Dog racing team," he says, hoisting a golden can of Hamm's Genuine Draft beer. "You heard of it? It was a six-cylinder buggy. We used to race every year. But it got too expensive. It's getting to be where it takes too much money to race. Ten years ago you could just drive up here with your buggy and race it around the track. With preparation and entrance fees and maintenance, the weekend might cost you $1000. Now, some of these buggies start at $60,000 just to build. We can't compete anymore."

He runs his free hand through his thin hair. "Well, we could compete, but we'd come in last, and who wants to be humiliated in public like that? So I like to camp out and drink beer and have fun, to get away from the old lady for a weekend."

Two buggies rumble past, their awesome wakes spraying the banks of the track in front of Jedd's bonfire. He raises his arms and releases a primal howl. "When they go by like that, that's what it's all about!" he booms. "As a mechanic I like listening to the motors racing. I can hear the pistons flying up and down and recognize the stress and strain on the engine. I know people are working their butts off to get these buggies prepared."

The buggies roar around the curve and down the final straightaway. When they cross the finish line, Jedd raises his Hamm's in salute. Smiling broadly he brings the beer to his lips and takes a deep, satisfying swig.

The whole idea of swamp buggy racing is incongruous with the image of Naples, at least the image the city currently projects. Naples is best known as a quiet haven for retired Hoosiers, Badgers, and Buckeyes, most of whom like to golf. The image is reinforced on a Saturday-morning drive westward from the Florida Sports Park into downtown. Slow-moving Cadillacs putz past dozens of walled golf course communities with names such as Glen Eagle and Heritage Greens. Swamp Buggy Queen Betsy Carroll is a senior at Lely High, which is located inside a massive subdivision advertised with a logo of a golfer in midswing.

Once a year the Ping-swinging plutocracy surrenders downtown to the Swamp Buggy Parade. About 15,000 people cheer the mile-and-a-half-long procession of buggies down U.S. Highway 41, Naples' commercial drag. Older couples fill lawn chairs parked on the median. Babies rest in blue strollers with the canopies drawn to block the sun. Two teenage girls giggle about what they plan to wear for Halloween.

Swamp buggies motor past. The modified models rest on trailers to avoid damage before tomorrow's championship. Traditional hunting buggies (several waving the ubiquitous Confederate flag) belch by on their own. Complementing the exotic machinery are all the condiments of a standard American parade: four high-school marching bands, the wah-wah sirens of safety-green fire trucks, and Shriners wearing funny little hats scooting around on funny little cars. Even with all the changes Naples has experienced, the Swamp Buggy Parade remains the largest and longest parade of the year, a vestige of Naples' frontier past.

Like most of South Florida, Collier County used to be a swamp. The pioneer hunters who settled around Naples in the 1920s adapted to the land by building the first crude hunting buggies. They elevated the suspension on Model T Fords and attached bulbous tractor tires that enabled them to navigate the bog. The unveiling of these machines became an annual ritual. "Crackers would spend a week or so preparing their buggies for the first legal day of hunting," states SBI's official history, available on the Internet at www.swampbuggy.com. "Tuning, testing, waterproofing, camouflaging, and stocking up with food, fuel, ammunition, and maybe a gallon of their favorite home-brewed beverage would make ready these unique vehicles for a couple weeks' worth of rugged workouts among the gators, snakes, and moss-laden cypress hammocks of the murky Florida swamps."

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Robert Andrew Powell
Steve Satterwhite