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                                                                                  sportscarpros JT Times
                                                                                                                                               John Thawley


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Manatee Matinee

So as I leave my comfy confines in lush Bonita Springs, Florida, I head south on I-75 to Exit 101. This is where the super slab turns into what is appropriately known as Alligator Alley. But we'll leave that for another time. Today we've loaded up the family and we're heading out to the Florida Sports Park in Collier County to witness the World Famous Swamp Buggy Races and The Budweiser Fall Classic.

Oh yeah... this is genuine deep south motorsports folks. Swamp Buggy races are held every January, March and October. And, as much as you might want to poke a little fun at the absurdity of it all, Swamp Buggy, Inc. is all about doing the right thing. It¹s a non-profit corporation, over 59 years old, dedicated to fund-raising opportunities for all area charities and civic organizations, preserving the tradition of swamp buggy racing and protecting the heritage and culture of the development of Collier County. At the same time, providing affordable entertainment and recreational activities to all it's citizens. Well, how can you knock that?

Early Collier County settlers recall the beginnings of Swamp Buggy Racing as just a gathering of hunters. As legend has it, every year, just prior to the opening of hunting season, all the "Crackers" would spend a week or so preparing their buggies for the first legal day of hunting. 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 unlikely vehicles for a couple weeks worth of rugged workouts amongst the gators, snakes, and moss laden cypress hammocks of the murky Florida swamps.

While the first races started to take place around 1943, featuring a dozen or so local hunters racing only for the pride of finishing ahead of their neighbors, it was 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 town 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.

So, with a history of 59 years and Naples being the only venue in the World, I knew this was an event that would produce a World Champion... and not to mention, a 2008 Swamp Buggy Queen. The Swamp Buggy Queen selection is a highly organized community funded scholarship pageant. The queen represents Swamp Buggy, Inc., her community and proudly participates in the traditional jump into the Sippy Hole with the winner of the Big Feature race. The 2008-2009 Swamp Buggy Queen is 18-year-old Gulf Coast High School graduate Olivia Katheryn Culp.

Not to be outdone by the American Le Mans Series "Vitesse" media rides, the World Famous Swamp Buggy Races provided ³woods² vehicles to take those who dare for one lap of the "Mile-O-Mud." Of course... I had a very enthusiastic attitude toward this feature. You got it... send the women and children. So off went Kristin and Marlon for a lap of the swamp while "your hero" recorded the scene for posterity.

The track at Swamp Buggy is a figure eight style affectionately called the Mile O' Mud by race fans. Now, get this... there are two Sippy holes on the track. In the Sippy holes, the ground drops out from under the buggies by about four or five feet. So, one minute they're racing along in about a foot and half of water... and bam.. the bottom drops out.  A real eye opener  is to see the Jeep class chug through the Sippy hole, sometimes with only the very top of the buggies visible above the water line!

Now... here's some culture for you... Why is the Sippy hole called the Sippy hole? According to local legend, a driver in the early days of Swamp Buggy racing named Sippy Morris (a name he was given because he hailed from Mississippi) was known to just about always get stuck in the track's signature depression. Thus, Sippy's legend lives on!

The drivers race for thousands in cash at every race, and fans pack the grandstands by the thousands just to get a glimpse of vehicles with names like Roll On, Outlaw II, Dats It!, Cold Duck and dozens more. I was told there were about 70 vehicles participating in the various classes.

And we've got classes:

Jeep: Must be a 4 cylinder American Jeep.

Air Cooled: Must be air-cooled. Usually powered by motorcycle or Volkswagen engines.

4 Cylinder: Must be 4 cylinders.

6 Cylinder: Must be 6 cylinders. V6 or straight 6.

V8 Stock: Must be stock V8 engine block according to manufacturer's specifications.

Modified 4WD: Must be driven by all 4 wheels. Engine of choice; big block Chevrolet modified with high performance parts.

Pro Modified: Same as above, except 2 wheel drive. These engines can develop nearly 1,000 horsepower.

Now, I couldn't tell you a damn thing about the results. I got too wrapped up into trying to capture this spectacle on film... err... on digits or bits or something. And my six year-old son was no help as he was too busy sampling all the local cuisine... like fried turkey legs, barbeque and chicken that he claims was the best he'd had this side of 8 Mile Road in Detroit. Trust me... he would know.

All-in-all, we had a lot of fun. If you ever find yourself in Naples, Florida, in January, March or October, the Swamp Buggy Races are a must see. Bring some boots, your appetite and a good sense of humor and you're in for a great day.

John Thawley, November 2008