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."
"Motor sports are huge," Parsons chimes in. "Don't forget that. You might have a monster truck pull draw 30,000 people, then the next night a Garth Brooks concert might draw only 25,000."
It's easy to imagine the hostile greeting these two received from the SBI board in Naples. For almost 50 years SBI has been the only game in town when it comes to swamp buggies, and here come two outsiders with millions of dollars and a desire to, in effect, purchase the sport from them. "Yep," recalls Studley, an outgoing cowboy type wearing black Wrangler jeans and alligator-skin boots. "That's exactly how it was."
Mesa Park plans to hold races three weekends a year, on dates that don't conflict with Naples' schedule. January 15 is the scheduled season opener, a date chosen to correspond with the Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival. The next Naples races, which will mark the 50th anniversary of organized swamp buggy racing, kick off in March.
Other developers are already talking about building a third track, maybe in Georgia, maybe in the Panhandle. Maybe in both places. When Parsons and Studley dream about the future, they imagine a swamp buggy racing circuit: dozens of cities with their own tracks and home-grown drivers. They've recruited a third polo-shirted young man, Matthew Graney, to oversee the new North American Swamp Racing Association. If the sport does take off, the NASRA governing body could be as powerful (and profitable) within its sport as the NFL is in football, or NASCAR is in stock car racing. It could also neuter the power held by SBI's nonprofit board of directors.