What makes the latest version of the Hi-Tech Redneck different from all the rest of the mud-slingin' swamp buggies the crafty Lonnie Chesser has concocted?
"Oh, it's about like all the others," the 61-year-old said nonchalantly Saturday at the Florida Sports Park in preparation for today's Budweiser Fall Classic. "I guess we did make a couple of little changes on this one."
All he forgot to do was wink.
For everyone hanging around the bright orange machine in the pits knew that the guru of swamp buggy builders just doesn't make "little changes" for nothing. Speed is the name of the game in the Pro Modified division and any new wrinkle Chesser throws is meant to shave precious ticks off the stopwatch when he buckles in for a soupy lap around the canal-like Mile-O-Mud.
The first green flag drops today at 12:30 p.m., officially kicking off the 2005-06 Budweiser Cup Series points championship. Subsequent races in the series will be in January and March. About 70 drivers are scheduled to compete, with the four hours of motorized mayhem to end with the traditional Queen's Mudbath.
The winning driver will do the honors of giving new Swamp Buggy Queen Leiren Ragan her first Sippy Hole dunkeroo.
"I'm not really nervous about it, but some of the other girls have been giving me tips," Ragan, a Lely High grad now attending the University of Central Florida, said Saturday. They have told me things like plugging my nose. I definitely don't want oil up my nose."
Buggies will race in seven classes in all, ranging from the slower Jeeps and air-cooled creations to the roaring Pro Mods that come in both four-wheel drive and two-wheel driver configurations.
Today's action originally was scheduled for the last Sunday in October, but had to be postponed because of Hurricane Wilma.
"We'll be there, that's for sure," said Lonnie Chesser, who has built a variety of buggies for other drivers over the past several years.
This will be the first time in three years that he will be back behind the wheel.
"I keep retiring," he said with a clever smirk. "I just do it to aggravate Leonard. Heck. I told him when he quits, I'll quit."
Leonard, of course, is 65-year-old Leonard Chesser. He's Lonnie's brother, and at the controls of the Dats Da One buggy, has reeled in more feature wins than anybody in the history of the sport that began in Raymond Bennett's sweet potato patch in East Naples back in 1949.
Lonnie, whose son, Eddie, once won six straight world championships, seemed overjoyed to be among the competitors again on Saturday, when drivers and crews put their machines through practice laps at the track located at the intersection of Collier Boulevard and Rattlesnake Hammock road, about three miles south of I-75 Exit 101.
"I got me a new sponsor this year and we have a lot of fun," Chesser said of "Barefoot Bob" Williams, owner of AWP Plastering and Drywall.
Like swamp buggy racing itself, history and Williams go hand-in-hand. He's the grandson of John Archer Williams Sr., for whom the rural Barefoot Williams Road is named. "Barefoot Bob" is the son of John Archer Williams Jr., one of 14 living children in his family.
Painted in bright lettering on the sheet metal that covers the Hi-Tech Redneck's powerful big block Chevy engine, are the words "Barefoot Florida Living." They don't represent any business — just the down-home way of life that Southerners and Floridians have enjoyed for decades.
"This buggy is for the fans," Williams said. "It's for the tourists. And we hope they all come out to see our races."
The Hi-Tech Redneck's first visit to the track on Saturday wasn't without snags. Chesser said the engine only had about 15 minutes of running time on it and when he made his first and only practice lap of the day, a rocker arm in the powerful motor broke.
There was no internal damage and after making a quick repair, Chesser refired the engine just to check it out. He promised that everything would be tuned thoroughly before today's first heat.
Also primed for action on Saturday was defending Budweiser Cup Champion Bonnie Walsh, the first woman ever to capture the points title.
Sitting calmly in her six-cylinder machine called Fatal Attraction, she was still pinching herself to see if last year's championship was real.
"It's like it still hasn't sunk in yet," she said, decked out in her trademark pink T-shirt. "When you want something for such a long time and then finally get it, you tend to wonder, 'Did it really happen?' "
The Fatal Attraction is made to growl. Under the "hood" is an engine prepared by NASCAR engine builder Ernie Elliott — tweaked, of course, by master mechanic John Fillmore of Naples.
In her class, Bonnie may see a familiar face across the way at the starting line today. For the first time ever, her husband, Terry, will drive. He will be in a buggy that he and Bonnie bought at the spur of the moment last spring in order to keep her world-title hopes alive.
"Would he let me win if we have a close race? Not a chance," Bonnie said, adding that no matter what happens on the track, the two will remain sweethearts.
"Hey, we've gotta go home together," she laughed.
In Saturday's warm-up competition, Tony Hamm's 4 Play won the V8 Super Stock division with a winning time of 1:07.13. Honors in the Jeep Class went to Rod Kincheloe's 007, who nosed out Steve Armstrong's Evil & Wicked.
The pro mods race only against the clock in the Pro Modified Challenge. Dan Greenling's Roll On racer topped the field with a slick lap of 52.75 seconds. Tyler Johns was second as his Patriot recorded a lap of 54.72 seconds.
Race organizer Sandy Montz of the non-profit Swamp Buggy Inc. said all those still holding tickets for October's scheduled event can use those tickets today. Those who don't yet have tickets may buy them today at the Florida Sports Park ticket windows.