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World Famous Winter Classic Swamp Buggy Races

Finally, a good use for a swamp

Ken BrubakerPhotographer, Writer

When the state you live in is covered with mass quantities of water, you make the best of it. With that said, a long time ago, Floridians who wanted to explore (and hunt) the soggy backcountry devised a mode of transportation called the swamp buggy. The buggies were a Frankenstein-like mix of a four-wheel-drive truck chassis and drivetrain topped with a tall homemade deck that resembled a scaffold with seats on top. Humans are intrinsically competitive, so naturally it wasn't long before the owners of these rigs began racing each other. Back in the early '40s, when organized swamp-buggy racing began, the winner's loot often included a shiny new shotgun. Well, as time passed, things got crazier, and the rigs and the sport evolved in ways that would make the swamp-buggy forefathers happier than a gator in a warm lake.

We recently had the opportunity to attend the World Famous Winter Classic Swamp Buggy Races at the Florida Sports Park in Naples, Florida. Here's a secret: The Florida Sports Park is the only swamp-buggy track remaining in the United States. At one time there were others, but they dried up (no pun intended). The track is owned by Swamp Buggy Inc., a non-profit community service corporation that is staffed by volunteers. The Park is a stone's throw from the once-a-fishing-village-but-not-anymore town of Naples. The Park encompasses 100 acres, and the crown jewel is the race track. Unlike any race track for wheeled vehicles anywhere, the track is one mile in length; it sports approximately 16 inches of standing water and has two gnarly 4.5-foot-deep sippy holes. The track's shape resembles a misshapen oval with a slash through it. The objective of swamp-buggy racing is to get around the track as fast as possible without breaking, drowning, or rolling the rig. Staying dry is not an option.

The swamp buggies that race bear little resemblance to the swamp buggies that haul hunters and backcountry explorers into the Florida swamps. There are seven classes of racing, ranging from the Jeep Class to air-cooled machines to the Modified 4WD Class (the latter are basically dragsters in water). The difference between the slowest and fastest classes is dramatic. To illustrate this, consider that the four-cylinder Jeep Class vehicles traveled around the track in approximately three minutes. The Modified 4WD Class blew around the same course in approximately one minute or less.

On and off the track, the Winter Classic exuded a carnival-like atmosphere. On the grounds were a midway featuring food and lots of vendors. The weekend included giveaways, a dance, and even available VIP packages that include tickets to each day's racing as well as the dance, a guided tour of the pits, and a complete buffet.

There are many unique and interesting aspects to swamp-buggy racing, and the sport boasts a lot of history. To fully understand the love these folks have for their sport, one has to realize that all this time and energy goes into rigs that only race three times a year. That's pride and enthusiasm, Florida-style.

One of the most unique aspects of a swamp buggy is the wheels and tires. All of these are custom made. One driver told us he had over $1,200 and 400 man-hours into his set of four wheels/tires. Here you can see a Jeep Class wheel and tire without the "plate" covering it. The plate helps the wheel act as a rudder at speed. Without the plate, the wheel would just push out on a curve, and steering control would obviously suffer. The tires are simply a military tire with the sidewalls removed. The tire is then bolted directly to the custom wheel.

Somewhere behind that wall of water is the '68 CJ-5 belonging to Jimbo Carder from Debary, Florida. He races in the four-cylinder Jeep Class. There are a number of rules for this class, but he tells us that the basics call for a Jeep frame and body and they must use either an F-head or a flathead engine mated to a T-90 four-speed or T-98 three-speed transmission. Teams must also use either a Spicer Model 20 or Model 18 transfer case. No blowers or nitrous are allowed. Carder's Jeep is powered by an F-head engine with a GM HEI distributor and Holley 600-cfm carburetor.

If you want more info on the Florida Sports Park, upcoming swamp-buggy races, or ticket prices, visit swampbuggy.com.