Water the color of potatoes lapped at Sippi Morris' armpits as he sat helpless, his swamp buggy trapped in a gaping pothole in the bottom of the canal. It had snared him only 20 yards past the starting line. His weeks of painstaking tuning and tinkering had been wasted.
Year after year Sippi Morris has become mired in the same spot on the swamp-buggy racecourse in Naples, Fla. The filthy water washes through his garage clothes and chunks of mud splatter his whiskey face. This time Sippi's engine had been drowned out, as the buggy drivers say, despite a rigging of tiny bottles and tubes that Sippi invented just to head off this very disaster. "Where'n hell the water come from?" he puzzled as he waited for the rescue tractor to tow him out. Later, Sippi would blame his aborted effort on poor driving: "Went out with a woman last night 'n' she got me tight."
A stark blue February sky hung over the annual winter races at the Mile o' Mud, a scrubby 40-acre plot on the edge of the Everglades. But a breeze from the Gulf of Mexico blew away the mosquitoes, and the only drivers or mechanics perspiring were those who had not fully recovered from the booze they had consumed right there at campfires the previous night.
It was in the second heat for six- and eight-cylinder engines that 69-year-old Sippi Morris had challenged the strong-armed young crackers, who in many cases surely had spent their last dollar building grotesque contraptions 18 and 20 feet long that could slosh through water up to six feet deep, rise with a mighty groan from immense potholes and tear angrily around yawning curves, their drivers desperate to qualify for the feature race, whose winner would be crowned, yes, Swamp-Buggy King! They had slaved for a month and more over raucous engines in their yards, quitting only when a voice called out from a police cruiser, "Jeez, Chester! Cut that damn thing off!" No blueprints guided their efforts. They began, most of them, by scouring junkyards for a frame that captured their fancy. The rest spilled from their imagination. One rangy, bare-chested driver named Jim Emfinger explained, "Y' jest start dippin' in your checkbook, and your old lady goes t' screamin'." At a cost of almost $4,000, Emfinger, a laboring man, had been building and rebuilding his buggy for three years and expected that he never would be finished. Why, then, does he bother? "Lack o' good sense, more'n anything else."
February 5, 1973
The prize money is puny, and there are only three racing days a year—two in Naples and one in Fort Myers. Leonard Chesser, a carpenter and for the past two years the reigning king, won $1,300 in the 1971 Naples fall races after having put $1,600 into his motor. "You don't do it for the money," says Chesser.
Milton Morris, called Sippi because he sprang from Mississippi, personified this amateur spirit when on this February day he first appeared wheeling his buggy into place at the starting line. Unlike the others, he was not from the proletariat. He had managed a Florida territory for Firestone, then retired to a home in Coral Gables ("right behind Claude Pepper," who presumably hurls shoes from his bedroom window when Sippi is tuning his buggy) and in restless retirement had taken to selling real estate, some of it swamp. "Waterfront is what we call it," he said. Which is how he found out about buggy racing. In the 23 years since, Sippi had never won, yet he persevered at the Mile o' Mud. As the years passed, the crackers stood up their buggies on five-foot tractor wheels and built them larger, wilder, more powerful and outlandish. Parked in the pits, the 44 machines in the held made one's senses reel. The freewheeling shapes—monster grasshoppers, brontosaur skeletons, mammoth coffins, outsized kayaks, flying saucers, giant serving trays—had been created from equipment gotten from junkyard scavenging and supply houses. There were improbable elements: plastic pipe, builder's steel, aircraft tubing, plywood, a distributor enclosed in an ammunition box, beer kegs serving as gas tanks, paint buckets and bedroom waste-baskets for exhausts, plumber's weights bolted down for front-end balance, and, on one buggy, baling wire thoughtfully mounted on the rear for mid-race emergencies. Splashed on in bold paint were the names: Supergator, Phantom 309, Water Witch, Hound Dog, Dragon Wagon, Dirt Dauber and Husier (as in Hoosier?). Two of the buggies—call any of them a car and you earn a sharp glance—bore in addition stickers advertising "Wallace Country." Sippi Morris, however, had named his buggy The Coach of Many Colors. Half the size of the others, it was a tidy red and white wooden machine vaguely resembling a buckboard, in which Sippi in another time might have taken a young lady to church.
He had stood poised in a foot of water at the inside position in his heat, gazing out upon a broad canal shaped like a backward B. Suddenly Sheriff Doug Hendry had flashed the starter's flag and the four machines had leaped forward with a deafening roar, their huge rear tires kicking slabs of mud into the air. Twenty yards downtrack they plunged into the Sippi Morris Hole, the first of many obstacles. As usual, Sippi was the only contestant not to emerge. The other starters, at speeds up to 50 mph, tore up the straightaway to the top of the course, tossing a 40-foot spray in their wake. They fought for the inside on the turn, then negotiated the upper loop and came back through the lower half of the straightaway, where Sippi was working feverishly to get his engine restarted. His rivals next swung around the bottom loop before crashing one last time down the lower half of the straightaway, throwing water and mud on Sippi as they made their final pass through the Sippi Morris Hole, where the old gentleman now sat stolidly, awaiting the rescue tractor.
Over in the pits a rawboned young man named Byron McDowell, his eyes mirthful beneath the shade of a floppy mountaineer hat, said he understood why Sippi kept coming back year after year. The swamp buggy, he explained, holds a grip on men. "I had a buggy I called Do-it To-it. It had a Chrysler hemi and was the runnin'est sonofagun you ever seen." Wanting to show off to friends, Byron McDowell took Do-it To-it for a run on a paved road (which of course was illegal, because any swamp buggy would give state inspectors heart seizure). "Well, I took a turn and one of my front wheels hit a damn ditch and that buggy throwed me slap-out into the palmettos. Took me three days to find my shoes and another day to find my wallet. But I got right back up on that machine." To remount was a point of honor. "Yeah, it's like a horse. If it throws you, get back on your feet and whip that machine with a two-by-four and get right back on it. Listen, I got a new buggy in the works, and we gonna stick a six-cylinder in there, and boy, we gonna talk to 'em."
No driver has been killed while racing swamp buggies. Sometimes they turn over on their drivers in deep water, and men have had to be cut loose from their seat belts in a race against death by drowning. Serious injuries occur infrequently, but the potential for injury and even death hovers over the battle, accounting for the fact that most drivers would rather lose a race than employ reckless tactics that endanger another. When a driver violates racing courtesy, trouble flares. "One time," says a race official, "a driver put his front wheels on the back end of another entry, and we had a knife fight right there in the ditch. Yes, to the tune of 18 or 20 stitches. Finally, both of the drivers fell off into the mud and after a while thrashing around they decided it was a bad deal."
The greatest of the swamp-buggy racers was Jack Hatcher, a burly man who in buggy parlance "won the king" seven times, but Hatcher disdained accepted ethics, crowding his opponents and fiercely swerving to cut them off. On the backstretch once, drivers and their families stoned him. At the depths of his unpopularity Hatcher carried a double-barreled shotgun in his buggy to facilitate his departure from the pits after a race.
Sippi Morris has been hurt only three times. He suffered a broken nose and then a broken wrist and, in the third instance, a large blood blister on his rump after having been thrown as high, he estimated, as a telephone pole, landing back in the seat of his buggy. "Ever' time that I got hurt," he mused, "I was sober."
Of the 28,000 persons who live in Naples, more than 500 are millionaires—one to every 55 or so residents. Naples is Palm Beach without the Jet Set, without old-guard snobbery or high walls to shield estates from the view of passersby. Naples society is the W. R. Timkens of Timken roller bearings, the Lester Norrises of Texaco, the Paul Benedums of Benedum-Trees Oil, the Stuart F. Smiths of Continental Casualty, the Dave Pabsts of Blue-Ribbon brew, the Fred W. Uihleins of Schlitz, the S. F. Briggses of outboard motors. Here and there a local fortune has had its beginnings in south Florida bootlegging. These people play their golf at the Hole-in-the-Wall Golf Club, which was carved out of the Everglades and named for a back road that ran nearby. For the comfort of players a plane dusts the fairways with mosquito repellent. The greenkeeper, Paul Frank, himself the son of a millionaire, has his own boat, plane and airstrip. In the elegant shops and art galleries along Third Street South and Fifth Avenue South, the lady clerk is apt to be from a Yale family. In restaurants and lounges long-haired young musicians incongruously play that old Ted Lewis tune, Bye Bye Blues, and a tipsy white-haired gentleman in a yellow seersucker jacket stuffs a musician's hand with bills, saying, "Please play Sunrise Serenade." Naples' current passion is the environment. The city has the eighth-largest Audubon Society membership per capita in the nation.
But Naples has trouble, and part of that trouble is the swamp-buggy races. "The town is divided," says a prosperous pharmacist, George Atkinson. "One faction wants to see the community grow, and the other wants us to stay just as we are. It's a tough decision. I haven't been able to make up my own mind which way is correct."
Author John Durant, the town's resident biographer, explains, "Those who want to keep Naples as it is are not necessarily rusty old millionaires but a lot of nice people who came down here to retire." Swamp-buggy races, confound them, bring the town publicity.
Not great publicity but who knows what kind of influx the races may trigger? In two weeks some 7,000 people will pack the Mile o' Mud grandstands for another February race program. The November card draws nearly twice that crowd as it is preceded by a turkey shoot, parade, air show and jamboree dance. Swamp Buggy Days, Inc., the amalgamation of civic and service clubs that promotes the events for charity, has been debating whether to change the name of the races to Heritage Days—a sort of euphemistic upgrading, if you will. Nobody will say so, but an outsider infers that all those garish machines splashing around in a place called the Mile o' Mud are, well, infra dig. At Naples High last year male students succeeded in having the school crest—a swamp buggy—left off their school rings because their girls had begun to find the jewelry unseemly.
The swamp buggy remains, nonetheless, Naples' most visible link to her past, to that time when the citizens lived off the abundant alligator and deer and turkey and white ibis they could hunt down in the Everglades, never dreaming their isolated town, surrounded by woods and Gulf, would become a nest of millionaires. The buggy was the only means of transportation that could penetrate the forest and make its way across the vast marsh prairies. In the 1920s the buggies were (and for hunting purposes continue to be) squat, ugly machines, at the start just converted Model T Fords mounted on cleated airplane tires for traction. "And one day," says a rich old gator hunter named Henry Espenlaub, "here come the Indians busting right by us with Model A's." So the Model A engine became the guts of the swamp buggy. "On foot," says another old hunter, Pop House, "a good man could carry out 21 seven-foot alligator hides. With a buggy you could take out a couple hundred or more."
The hunters disappeared into the woods for several weeks at a time, then returned to cut loose at Omar Clark's Saloon, where the sign hanging over the wooden bar doors said, DON'T DRINK BUT IF you DO, BUY HERE. Saturday nights were often violent. Says Pop House: "Old Omar shot one fellow through the chest but didn't kill him, so he told him, 'Why don't you lie down and die like a man? But the fellow said, 'You can't kill an Irishman,' and damned if he didn't go to Fort Myers and get himself sewed up. But Omar said, 'I'll never go to trial, I guarantee you.' And he never did. I bootlegged for quite a while and found they ain't a man livin' don't have his price." This was Naples before the Timkens and the Benedums.
While the alligators lasted, Naples' woolly image survived, in fact right into the 1950s. Hendry, the sheriff, remembers that his opposition in a 1953 campaign was a gator hunter and saloonkeeper named Chiz Rivers, who told voters, "A person has to know jails to be sheriff. I've been in jail 23 times in 24 years, and I figure I know about jails." Chiz tended his bar barefoot. "When a customer took out a cigarette," says Hendry, "Chiz would put one foot on the bar and take a cordwood match and strike it on his bare foot."
Buggy racing began in 1949 when a newspaper editor, Stuart Rabb, and Greenkeeper Paul Frank's daddy, Ed Frank, hit upon the idea of convening buggy owners two weeks before the opening of the deer season at an old sweet-potato patch that had become a boghole. The purpose was to give everyone a look at his neighbor's buggy, with a view toward improving his own. To enliven the gathering, races were run, tediously, through marl up to four feet deep, and for the kids there were 100-yard footraces through waist-deep mud. Such was the camaraderie that the law winked at outlaw poachers who came out of the woods for this one day to race their buggies. Often the contestants required 45 minutes to go a mile through the marl, but personalities made the day memorable. One driver, Mickey Brown, kept a rattlesnake in his beer cooler to frighten off freeloaders.
In less than a decade, as the sweet-potato bog gave way to a bulldozed canal flooded by diesel pumps, hot-rodders took over. They constructed contraptions that would not be worth a dime in the woods but on tall, lean tires could slice through water at amazing speeds. "In the old days," says Paul Frank, who bowed out to the hot-rodders, "it was more a test of the machine. Today it's the driver who makes the difference. He's really sticking his neck out when he hits that floorboard."
None raced more boldly than Jack Hatcher, the king of kings. Six-foot-one and 210 pounds, his credo was "I can do anything better than you can." Whereas many of the drivers are carpenters—weathered individuals who work in the Florida housing industry—Jack Hatcher was his own man, a subcontractor. In 1968 a sizable group of drivers struck for higher purses, their percentage of the gate being indecently pitiful, but Jack Hatcher raced. Another time, after he had defeated a popular ex-king by steering a ruthless path, a mob surrounded him, held back only by the knowledge that a shotgun lay beside him. "He set on that buggy for three hours," a witness to the scene recalls with perhaps a measure of exaggeration, "and finally he got down from the rig and said, 'Lay a hand on this buggy, lay a hand on me, and you gonna git it.' He didn't say what, but it was fairly clear to all."
Even Hatcher's detractors agree that nothing drove him so much as the suggestion that he could fail. He won his first title by beating V-8s with a four-cylinder two-wheel drive. "He'd rather win a race with a smaller engine, just for the challenge of it," says a driver named J. Rowe. Three years ago Hatcher purchased a Piper Cherokee and, only two weeks after being licensed to fly, took his wife and daughter to St. Augustine. There he saw his 19-year-old stepdaughter crowned homecoming queen at the coronation ball of the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. The next day he invited a party to go for a pleasure ride in his plane. The weather was growing bad and airport officials told Hatcher not to take off. He ignored the warning. Three miles north of St. Augustine state troopers found Hatcher's plane after searching for hours through a downpour. Only a friend of the homecoming queen survived. The greatest of the swamp-buggy drivers had gone down, nose first, into a swamp.
Leonard Chesser, the new king, had an important passenger in his champion Dats-Da-One as he wheeled up to the starting line 20 minutes before the beginning of last year's winter races. Hubert Humphrey had been persuaded by his advisers that taking part would give him good exposure in the hard-fought Florida Democratic primary. John Lindsay and George Wallace had declined invitations, Wallace opting to appear instead at the Swamp Cabbage Festival in the town of LaBelle. But Humphrey, attired in a green jump suit, descended in a helicopter to the track infield and, with a campaign smile, offered himself up for a three-buggy exhibition race.
"Don't get him too messed up," Chesser was instructed by a man named Jack Maguire. Maguire, who operates an ambulance service and was serving as unpaid publicity man for the races, had hit upon the idea of inviting a candidate and had billed the exhibition as "the dirtiest race of Humphrey's life." Ticket sales had spurted. Of course, it was arranged for Chesser and Humphrey to win.
"I won't muddy him," Chesser said. "Just spray a little water, right?"
Humphrey, his cake-of-soap chin raised confidently, his high dome glistening in the sun, sat atop Chesser's buggy as unsuspecting as Humpty Dumpty before the fall. But the shock of hitting the Sippi Morris Hole tore the smile from his face and, four years after Chicago hippies had cried that the Hump be dumped, he very nearly was. "Must a man do these things to become President?" he had to be asking himself as Chesser gunned the machine on to the next hole. The ordeal over finally, Humphrey made a brief speech to the crowd, urging that the government buy up railroad rights-of-way and turn them into bicycle and hiking trails. The crowd, consisting of Wallace Democrats and Nixon Republicans, responded for the most part with mortifying silence. Meanwhile, George Wallace was drawing a noisy crowd of 8,000 (more than twice the anticipated turnout) to the Swamp Cabbage Festival, causing the steaks and swamp cabbage to run out before half the throng was served.
Without Humphrey in the cockpit, Leonard Chesser plunged into his first qualifying heat to cries of "Hey, get 'em, Leonard!" He won easily but, when asked in the pits how his machine had handled, he answered, "Fair."
"He always gives you that," said Lee Hancock, Chesser's close friend and a top-rated challenger (he was to win the 1972 fall race). "You don't see him doin' any work on the buggy, do you?"
Atop the grandstand in a corrugated-tin press box, Paul Frank spoke superlatives as Chesser, his mounting victories becoming a threat to the Jack Hatcher legend, tore unchallenged through three more heats. "It's not the machine, it's the guts you got," said Frank. Some emphasize the machine, and Chesser himself modestly ascribes his successes to Dats-Da-One's ability to move water. But Frank said, "Listen to that rpm! He's got that engine mated to his gear train perfectly. When that engine peaks out at a certain gear, he's delivering maximum power. Some of these boys have it down to a fine art, but most of 'em don't, and that's the difference."
In the feature, a four-buggy race, Johnny Beasley, one of the clan of Sarasota Beasleys that had brought three machines to the races, got away fast. But Chesser took him on at the first turn. Hind wheels digging, front wheels expertly high and skimming the very surface of the water, Dats-Da-One set so torrid a pace under Chesser's handling that Beasley's machine, the only serious challenger, sputtered and collapsed under stress. Chesser, for his day's racing, won $1,245, and his wife Liz added $62 to the family take by winning the Powder Puff, a series of races staged for the womenfolk. A freckled girl in a soaked scarlet jersey and red crash helmet, Liz received a hug from Leonard as he helped her down from Dats-Da-One.
The grandstands had emptied, sandwich wrappings and empty beer cans mutely declaring the swamp-buggy races over till fall. Hubert Humphrey, spitting canal matter as he was led away, had disappeared in his helicopter. In the pits a race official announced that purses would amount to $5,500. The exultant drivers threw him into the canal. Sippi Morris had not stayed around for the celebration. He was back at his motel already at work on another engineering theory.