Longform

Ready! Wet! Go!

Page 6 of 9

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.

"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.

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Robert Andrew Powell
Steve Satterwhite