Tuesday
Nov032009

Kickin' It Old School Down At The Swamp

Tyler Johns Takes The Win! photo by John Thawley [GALLERY HERE] Let’s see… I’ve lived in Florida for a little less than 20 months now. In that time, I’ve yet to replace the recreational outlets I enjoyed in Michigan. No pro basketball team here… haven’t gotten around to check out the symphony yet… life is just different.

But in less than 20 months, I’ve taken in three of a possible four scheduled World Famous Naples Swamp Buggy Races. I don’t how to explain it, but after a year of bouncing around the countryside following the high-speed circus known as the American Le Mans Series, there’s something “salt-of-the-earth” about hanging out in the swamp.

Sure, you can toss around all the stereo-types you want… but I’m hear to tell you, save a couple of folks that just seem to be “limit-challenged,” this thing called swamp buggy racing is a ball.

Now, get this…. Naples Swamp Buggy races have been running under an official umbrella since 1949. Right… 60 years my friends. This is where it started and this is where it stayed. With the simple beginning of hunters getting together informally before the hunting season began, one thing led to another… and well, you’ve got a race.

As more and more hunters built swamp buggies and awaited the official opening of hunting season, they would gather at one garage or another, share a few home-spun engineering tips (as well as a few tugs on the stout home brew!), and before long, one hunter would challenge another to a buggy race through the local muddy potato patch.

In 1949, the first “Official” Swamp Buggy Races were won by Johnny Jones. Organized by a group of civic and community leaders, “Swamp Buggy Days” was born. A parade through Naples was organized, all the shops closed for the day, and from that point on, Naples could lay claim to the most unique motorsport in the world. On November 12, 1949, with a field of almost 50 competitors, attended by almost every living human in the community, these awkward, methodical, determined vehicles motored their way into history.

The success of Swamp Buggy Days prompted a group of volunteers to form an official Board of Directors to conduct this new annual shindig. The mid 1950’s saw continued growth and even ABC’s Wide World of Sports featured the mud madness in a national television special.

The Swamp Buggy Queen Pageant is held every April. One lucky(?) young lady is chosen to preside over Swamp Buggy Race related activities. And, in a tradition began in 1957 (when winner H.W. McCurry, in a state of exuberant celebration, grabbed the Queen, gown, fancy hair-do and all, and proceeded to dunk her in the deepest and muckiest part of the famous “Mile ‘O Mud”) the final act of every race weekend sees the Queen of the Swamp enjoying an entertaining bath in the mud!

But enough of the formal history. I love this place. I park my car, grab my equipment and make my way through the crowd. And as I walk, virtually everyone makes eye contact and says hi. I introduce myself to track security and they respond with “let us know where you want to go and we’ll get you there.

During pre-race ceremonies, as I was standing grabbing a few driver head shots when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to be greeted by a smiling lady who said… “hi, we saw you taking pictures. If you get hungry come down by the exit of the south turn… we’ve got a big barbecue going and we’ve got a scaffold built, we’ll get you up there and you can see everything.” Nice!

Another official pointed out a lookout tower at the far end of the track and got me access to get up there. You’d think I’d been here all my life. The shooting up there was great since everything else had been back lit. Later, I had to hustle back in order to shoot the Queen’s mud bath… no problem, someone grabbed me, threw me on a golf cart and said let’s go. More nice!

I’d love to tell you all the technical details of the vehicles… but I get the impression each one is passed on from one family member to the next…. along with the secrets that make them tick. Trust me, there’s no one out their manufacturing swamp buggy racing parts. Everything is cobbled up from something else. But don’t get any ideas about these things being backwards. Everything counts. At the end of the day, these guys (and a lot of gals) are racers. They’re out there trying to find every ounce of extra performance the rule book will allow… and probably a little it doesn’t allow.

One thing I learned is trouble lies on the horizon in the way of a depletion of the tires the big modified buggies use. Tractor manufacturers are no longer making the tall skinny tire preferred by the buggy racers. The supply has dried up and leering racers scouring the internet trying to find old inventory or used sets. The last set found actually came out of China. Of course, the problem isn’t wear on the tires… it’s age and dry rot. They’re typically good for about three years. Everyone is looking for ways to preserve what they’ve got. But when I look at the “can-do” technology that these folks put to work, I’m pretty confident someone will show up one day with something that works… probably even better.

Amy ChesserI’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the sense of family involved in Swamp Buggy. The names in the sport go back all the way to its begging. Fathers, sons, grandfathers… and even daughters. In fact, I’m here to tell you, the only thing Danika Patrick could qualify for here is Queen of the Swamp. Amy Chesser, Lorrie Johns, Bonnie Walsh… are extremely fierce competitors.

The name Chesser literally dominates the winner’s stats of Swamp Buggy history. In fact, also known as the first family of the swamp, The Chessers are known far and wide in the world of swamp buggy racing.

Leonard Chesser started racing in 1956 but it wasn’t until 1970 when his domination of the sport began, now spanning over five decades. Leonard has been in the winner’s circle 24 times and was the 2003 Budweiser Points Champion. He has been credited with inventing the skis (which are now used on the front of all of today’s fastest buggies), Leonard is known as the Godfather of Swamp Buggy Racing.

Also in classic Chesser Tradition, you’ll find Lonnie Chesser (Leonard’s brother) and Lonnie’s son Eddie. Leonard’s son Glen also races in the stock V8 class.

Two decades later, daughter Amy Lynn Chesser, after spending years learning the mechanical end of things from her dad, began racing her own self-built buggy. Amy said it is her lifetime goal to be the first woman to take the entire field, going into the winner’s circle by becoming not the Swamp Queen, but rather the Queen of the Swamp! In early March 2008, Amy Chesser accomplished this by becoming the first woman to win the Big Feature. She had two different buggies that made it to the grand finale (one in each of two different classes) and had her father stand in and drive her buggy ‘Dat’s It’. While her dad never made it off the starting line during the final race, Amy took the checkered flag in her buggy ‘Aches N’ Pains’, beating Roy Ortega’s ‘Terminator’ in order to make history.

So… go. I’m telling you, go. Don’t tell me you haven’t become jaded by pro sports and all the glitz and glamor, and the sudden wealth syndrome of the overpaid participants. This is fun for under 20 bucks… though once you see the food stands, you’ll probably need another $20. But it all goes to local charities. Swamp Buggy Inc. is a non-profit and all proceeds go to benefit local charities around Collier county. How can you beat that?

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