Swamp buggy races: Riding the ‘Mile O’ Mud’ in Florida Everglades

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Malcolm Lightner photographed swamp buggy racing in the Florida Everglades

Generations of families come out to enjoy the tradition, which started in the 1940s

CNN  — 

The culture of swamp buggy racing is as unique and distinctive as its name. Created in Naples, Florida, the tradition of building these mechanical monsters and racing them in the swampy Everglades has been going on since the late 1940s.

Photographer Malcolm Lightner grew up in Collier County, Florida, not too far from the sporting event. As a boy, these races were right in his backyard.

“I never really participated when I was little. It really was not a family-oriented event,” Lightner said. “It was definitely more a Wild West party.”

The races are a weekend-long party full of fast buggies, moonshine and rowdy spectators. It wasn’t until Lightner was an adult that he was able to fully appreciate the races and all the colorful flavors and characters the “Mile O’ Mud” offers.

Photographer Malcolm Lightner

“It’s a very odd thing to witness, it’s very strange,” he said. “It’s just this plume of water trailing behind these (buggies). It’s just massive and they’re loud, but at the same time they just slice through (the mud) like butter and there is this sort of majestic quality about it. It’s very surreal.”

Swamp buggies were first built by hunters to get through the rough terrain of the Everglades. “One hunter in his buggy challenged another hunter in his buggy to a race across a pond, and then basically the sort of racing spirit was born,” Lightner said.

Lightner’s great-uncle helped turn the event into an official sport, and some members of his family have even participated in it.

“Now of course, the buggies really have nothing to do with hunting.” Lightner laughed. “It’s all about the speed.”

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Part dragster and part boat

These swamp buggies, part dragster and part boat, are built from scratch and take loads of time and money to create. Competitors can spend nearly $100,000 or more into these custom-created machines.

“I don’t know anything about cars and engines … which is partly why I was interested. Most of these guys are pretty untrained,” Lightner said. “They are geniuses when it comes to building engines. It’s pretty phenomenal. I really admire their ingenuity. It’s really pretty remarkable, and to drive is a whole other ordeal.”

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    Swamp buggy racing isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be very dangerous, and it takes skill to maneuver the buggy. Lightner recalls a buggy flipping over into the water, pinning a driver’s arm down. The driver had to burrow himself out of the muddy water, nearly severing his arm. Lightner said the driver was airlifted out of the race and a surgeon was just barely able to reattach the driver’s arm. The driver was back out competing the following year.

    Generations of families come out to enjoy and participate in the races and the events around them. Lightner’s photography not only documents the races and the self-taught buggy engineers, but the culture behind this niche sporting event: the “swamp buggy queen,” little boys wrestling in the mud, Confederate flags on hats and homemade stands.

    Lightner worries that this one-of-a-kind event might be coming to an end. Many problems plague the swamp buggy community, from issues within the racing organization to the changing landscape of Naples. What used to be a blue-collar town, he said, is now an affluent city flooded with upper-middle-class transplants.

    “The track for Mile O’ Mud used to be somewhat remote, and now there is a high-end community that butts right with the track, so there is this constant struggle of maintaining this very cultural sport,” Lightner said.

    “Back in the day, this was the big game in town. The whole community would pour out and they would watch the races. There is a very strong sense of community and a sense of identity, and it would be a shame to see it completely disappear.”

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    Malcolm Lightner is a native Floridian who teaches photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York. His book “Mile O’ Mud” is available from powerHouse Books. You can follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.