Swamp buggies: Troy Ortega wins the Big Feature at Budweiser Fall Classic

Scott McIntyre/Staff
Troy Ortega squeezes his wife, Courtney Ortega, tight with a hug after he won the feature race at the Swamp Buggy races at Florida Sports Park on Sunday.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Troy Ortega squeezes his wife, Courtney Ortega, tight with a hug after he won the feature race at the Swamp Buggy races at Florida Sports Park on Sunday.

Class and feature-race winners in Sunday’s Budweiser Fall Classic swamp buggy races at the Florida Sports Park:

Big Feature – Troy Ortega, Terminator 3

Intermediate Feature – Lorrie Johns, Lady Liberty

Little Feature – Joey Smith, Duck Tape

Pro Modified A Main – Tyler Johns, Patriot

Pro Modified B Main – Troy Ortega, Terminator 3

V8 Sportsman – Lorrie Johns, Lady Liberty

6-cylinder – Roy Ortega, Terminator

4-cylinder – Joey Smith, Duck Tape

Air-cooled – John Parks, Sidewinder

Jeeps – Jeremy White, General Lee

Troy Ortega wound up holding the biggest trophy.

Fellow competitor Tyler Johns ended his day with the nose of his buggy stuffed into the pit-out gate and banking after he failed to make a wild right-hand turn around the Mile-O-Mud's north island in the thrilling Big Feature.

The final race of Sunday afternoon's Budweiser Fall Classic at the Florida Sports Park was a doozy, to say the least — the kind of show race officials hope will spur attendance when racing resumes in January.

Sunday's Big Feature also included Intermediate Feature winner Lorrie Johns. But her V8 Sportsman machine was nothing but a horsepower sandwich as she sat between the two Pro Modifieds at the starting line. Ortega and Tyler Johns, Lorrie's son, left her in their wake, and then it was the wake that later on decided the outcome of Sunday's championship hair-raiser.

"I thought I had a chance to make the turn. But the wake got both of us up in the air. For me, everything went 90 degrees but I didn't go all the way over," Tyler Johns said. "Troy's a good driver and he stuck it in there and made it through.

"It didn't actually hurt the buggy too much. Just the gate," the fearless driver of the Patriot said laughing.

For Ortega, Sunday's Big Feature victory came after getting to the finale twice before.

"I didn't know whether Tyler would make the turn or not," Ortega said. "I saw him on two wheels and went by. Once I got around, I was just hoping he was OK. He has a baby daughter and my wife, Courtney, just had our baby daughter. You think about things like that. You don't want to see anyone get hurt."

Tragedy had struck the Ortegas' extended family earlier in the weekend. On Friday, Courtney Ortega's uncle, Joey Gratton, was involved in a powerboat racing accident during the World Championships in Key West. Gratton, 59, died Saturday morning at the Ryder Trauma Center in Miami from injuries sustained Friday, said Super Boat International spokesman Roderick Cox. Gratton's racing partner, Stephen Page, of Fort Myers, was released from the hospital Saturday.

Gratton was living in Sarasota and during his younger years when living in Naples, he was well known for his moto-cross racing achievements.

"I want to dedicate the races today to Joey," Troy Ortega said. "He loved to race, had the need for speed as us racers do, I guess you could say. Joey was a very funny guy, always a jokester. He had two twin boys."

Sunday's buggy event was the first in which, the two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive Pro Modifieds were combined into one class. There were 12 in all, divided into A and B divisions of six each.

Johns won the A Main final over nine-time Budweiser Cup champion Eddie Chesser. Ortega won the B main feature over Troy Rodkey's Dats Da One. That's how the two wound up in the Big Feature against Lorrie Johns.

Lady Liberty, the V8 Sportsman class winner, took the Intermediate Feature honors in another crazy race. Roy Ortega's 6-cylinder class winner Terminator was in the lead with one turn to go, and Johns bearing down from behind. The engine in the Terminator seized up at just the wrong time, allowing Johns to storm by for the win, with Joey Smith's Duck Tape, a 4-cylinder qualifier, a distant second.

Smith had earned his berth in the Intermediate Feature by winning the Little Feature.

"Oh my gosh, I prayed a lot out there today," a jubilant Lorrie Johns said. "It was awesome. I'm just glad Tyler's OK after that last race. It was a wild one."

The Fall Classic was the first of three points events that will determine the 2011-12 Budweiser Cup winner. Subsequent races are set for Jan. 28-29 and March 3-4.

The event was run Sunday after it had to be postponed in late October because of high standing water in the Florida Sports Park parking lots.

Sunday's festivities — including the traditional Queen's Mudbath with Swamp Buggy Queen Jennifer Federico and Ortega at day's end — were held under sunny skies. Race officials said the spectator turnout was encouraging considering the postponement and economy.

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