Swamp buggy legends Langford, Thornton leave behind decades of contributions to local sport

Adam Fisher
Naples Daily News

Swamp buggy racing lost two legends, two historic drivers who have been linked to the local sport for more than half of its 72-year existence.

Terry Langford and Ray Thornton were related by marriage and close friends – so close that the names of their swamp buggies mirrored each other. They were former champions in the sport who started racing in the 1970s, and who both passed their love of it to their sons.

They died 31 days apart this summer, both succumbing to cancer. Thornton died on June 21 at the age of 74. Langford passed away Thursday at the age of 72.

• Obituary: William Terry Langford, 1948-2021

• Obituary: "Capt. Ray" Thornton, 1946-2021 

There was more sad news in the swamp buggy community this month. Longtime driver Lenny Dunn also died. Dunn drove the pro-modified buggy Stand On It in the 1980s and 1990s and was a two-time Big Feature winner. He was close friends with Langford and died just days before his fellow driver.

Swamp buggy drivers and friends Terry Langford (left) and Lenny Dunn pose in this undated photo. Langford and Dunn were good friends who both drove pro-modified buggies in the 1980s and '90s. Both drivers died days apart from each other in July 2021.

Langford and Thornton grew up in Naples. Thornton was born here in 1946, while Langford’s family moved to town in 1960 when he was 11. They went to school together back when there was only one school in town.

Langford caught the racing bug first. He started racing swamp buggies in 1976 and moved into the pro-modified class, the largest classification, two years later with his buggy Rubber Duck.

Also in 1978, Thornton started driving his buggy Cold Duck – which he bought from Langford.

Thornton’s wife and Langford’s wife are first cousins, and the two families were close. Langford’s kids referred to Thornton as Uncle Ray.

Longtime swamp buggy drivers, friends and cousins by marriage Ray Thornton (left) and Terry Langford (right) share a laugh following a race sometime in the 1990s. Both drivers, giants in the swamp buggy community, died from cancer within a month of each other this summer.

The drivers presided over the heyday of swamp buggy racing, the 1980s and ’90s when the races were broadcast on TV and reporters from around the country came to Naples to do stories on the unique sport.

The TNN motorsports show American Sports Cavalcade aired swamp buggy races during most of the show’s run from 1983-95. Langford and Thornton were interviewed during the nationally broadcast show in 1986, the first one at Florida Sports Park, the swamp buggies’ current home.

The 1986 episode of American Sports Cavalcade, where Thornton wins the Little Feature, can be found on YouTube.

‘A true gentleman’

In 1980, Langford won his first Big Feature, which is the championship race at each swamp buggy event. He went on to win 10 Big Feature titles.

Terry Langford climbs out of his pro-modified swamp buggy Rubber Duck after a race in this undated photo. Langford died following a battle with cancer on July 22, 2021, at the age of 72.

In 1992, Langford became the second winner of the Bud Cup, the season-long points championship trophy created by Swamp Buggy Racing Inc., the year prior.

“He loved racing and he loved building stuff,” Brian Langford said of his father. “He always wanted to be involved (in swamp buggies). Back then there wasn’t much to do in Naples. You either hunted, you raced swamp buggies, or you worked. He just really enjoyed it.”

Langford raced for 25 seasons before retiring in 1999. He figured the timing was right – it was the 50th anniversary of the sport, Langford was 50 years old, and his buggy was No. 50.

The youngest of Terry and Teresa Langford’s two sons picked up the Rubber Duck mantel. Brian Langford started racing pro-mods shortly after his dad retired, using the same name for his buggy.

This past season, Brian Langford won the Winter Classic in January with his dad and brother, Kenny, on his pit crew. Kenny also raced swamp buggies for a few years in the 1990s.

Brian Langford, left, holds the winner's trophy along side his father, Terry, following a swamp buggy race. Terry Langford started racing swamp buggies in 1976 and passed the sport on to his son Brian, who currently is a buggy driver. Terry Langford passed away in July 2021.

“I’m really thankful that we won and he was with me,” Brian Langford said. “It’s a good memory, that we did it together. We were real close as father and son.”

Terry and Teresa Langford were married for 54 years. In addition to their two children, the couple has four grandchildren. Langford started his own lawn service company in Naples in 1968 and, despite retiring recently, still served a few clients until his death.

“He is a local legend,” Brian Langford said of his dad. “I never heard a bad thing said about him. He was well-liked by all. He was a true gentleman. That’s one thing I’m proud of. A lot of people were drawn to him because he was so kind, so gentle, and a really good person.”

Decades of dominance

Thornton is perhaps the most successful 4-cylinder driver in 72 years of swamp buggy racing, which was invented in 1949 and is run solely in Naples. Thornton still owns the 4-cylinder track record.

Ray Thornton, 1946-2021

His involvement in the sport dates back before he started driving in the late ’70s. In his driver bio from the 2018 swamp buggy races, Thornton said he used to ride in Lee Hancock’s buggy in the late ’60s, back when there were two-seaters and passengers were allowed.

“That’s when I got my first taste of the ‘Mile-O-Mud',” Thornton was quoted in the bio. “Early in 1977, I sat in the stands to watch the races. In that moment I turned to my wife and told her I would never again be a spectator. I was going to race! I had caught the swamp buggy racing bug!”

Thornton was a mainstay at the races for the next 40-plus years. He won the 4-cylinder class more often than not – “too many to count” he said in 2018 about his swamp buggy trophies – and won many Little Features, the finals race among the three classes with the smallest engines (Jeep, air-cooled, 4-cylinder).

In 2001, Thornton took a break from racing and turned Cold Duck over to his son, William “Buddy” Thornton. The younger Thornton continued to be just as dominant, winning Bud Cup titles in 2002, 2007 and 2009.

Ray Thornton (left) sits in his 4-cylinder swamp buggy Cold Duck with his son, Buddy. Ray Thornton spent five decades as a swamp buggy driver before dying from cancer in June 2021. Buddy Thornton now drives Cold Duck.

During his hiatus, Ray Thornton continued to build and work on buggies with his son.

“I grew up around this,” Buddy Thornton said of swamp buggies. “As a kid, I’d go to Terry Langford’s shop or Lonny Chesser’s shop. That was the coolest thing. I’ve been fortunate to always be around it.”

Ray and Janice “Cricket” Thornton were married for 56 years. They had four children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

When Buddy Thornton went into the merchant marines, Ray Thornton resumed driving around 2013. The elder Thornton won his class and the Little Feature as recently as the Spring Classic in March 2020 at the age of 73.

After his father got sick, Buddy Thornton stepped into Cold Duck and won the 4-cylinder title at the Fall Classic in December 2020.

Buddy Thornton, like Brian Langford, followed in his dad’s footsteps in business as well as on the track. Ray Thornton was a commercial fisherman. Buddy Thornton grew up on a fishing boat with his father and now owns Native Sun Charters, where he takes guest on private tours of the water and fishing excursions.

“He was born and raised here, so he knew everybody,” Buddy Thornton said of his dad. “At his funeral there were hundreds of people. That speaks to what he meant to this area. If anybody needed any help, he would do whatever he could do, whether that was working on something or giving advice.”