Swamp-Buggy Races a Beloved Florida Tradition

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Naples, Fla., is home to the "swamp buggy" races, an Everglades tradition that dates back to 1949. Although airboats and cars have long since eliminated the need for swamp buggies, racing the buggies is still a beloved part of Florida culture. From member station WGCU, Christine Buckley reports.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

There'll be fierce competition later today in the Everglades. Thousands are gathering just outside Naples, Florida for the swamp-buggy races. Swamp buggies are still a beloved part of South Florida culture, although they've been replaced by cars and airboats. Christine Buckley of member station WGCU introduces us to what could be a legend in the making.

CHRISTINE BUCKLEY: Amy Chesser is not your everyday swamp-buggy driver.

Unidentified Woman #1: Come on, Amy, come on.

Unidentified Woman #2: This is one for the girls.

BUCKLEY: For starters, she's a woman, a former beauty queen no less, and at 24, one of the youngest out here.

(Soundbite of swamp buggies)

Unidentified Man #1 (Announcer): Here comes Amy again. Amy (unintelligible). Wow, that's the kind of race we like to see.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #1: Nobody got hurt...

BUCKLEY: Chesser's just won that race on the mile of mud, a figure-eight-shaped track flooded with water and beset by man-made hazards like (unintelligible) holes, mucky trenches three feet deep. Some drivers attack this course in modified Jeeps fitted with giant snorkels. Chesser's buggy looks like the mutant offspring of a race car and a tractor.

Ms. AMY CHESSER (Swamp-Buggy Racer): Man, it's been up and down. When I raced my four-wheel-drive buggy, I went up on two wheels, very scary.

BUCKLEY: Two years ago, a woman earned the most points over the season's three race weekends, but Chesser says a female has yet to grab the most coveted title: feature race winner.

Mr. CHESSER: I have advanced to the big feature, so hopefully I can pull that one off, and if I do, I'll be the queen of the swamp.

BUCKLEY: The first swamp buggies were made for hunting, not racing. In the '30s, Everglades residents started building odd-looking contraptions with balloon tires to navigate their grassy, muddy habitat. By the last '40s, hunters were racing these machines for prizes like turkeys and shotguns.

Today's sport is like drag racing, with drivers competing by process of elimination. Chesser's dad, Leonard, says his daughter started young.

Mr. LEONARD CHESSER (Father): She had her won four-wheeler when she was a year and a half old. Three years old, she was driving my (unintelligible) around in the yard.

BUCKLEY: Leonard Chesser, aka the godfather of swamp-buggy racing, has been the big winner here 24 times since 1970. Amy joined his pit crew when she was 10. These days she's a mortgage broker, but that's a Monday to Friday thing. Weekends are spent with family members, custom making parts for their buggies.

Ms. CHESSER: Me and dad are definitely a big team. I mean, we've had to race each other before, and I've never been able to beat dad yet, but that's another one of my goals later on down the road, to beat dad.

BUCKLEY: Swamp buggies are still backyard inventions with names like Anger Management and Resisting Arrest. But they're sleeker and faster than their predecessors, with skinnier tires and $20,000 engines. The jackpot here is only worth a couple of thousand.

(Soundbite of swamp buggies)

BUCKLEY: But Amy Chesser is here for her fans, not the money.

Ms. CHESSER: I can't wait until I complete them one day and get in the winner's circle.

BUCKLEY: That could happen this afternoon. Either way, fan Cindy Boley(ph) says Chesser will be her champion no matter what.

Ms. CINDY BOLEY (Fan): Girls rule, boys drool, end of story.

BUCKLEY: For NPR News, I'm Christine Buckley in Fort Myers, Florida.

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