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Swamp Buggy Races: Drivers band together to buoy sport during COVID-19 pandemic, recession

Adam Fisher
Naples Daily News

When the current economic downturn hit the swamp buggy races, the drivers banded together to ensure one of the oldest traditions in Naples stays alive.

At this weekend’s rescheduled Swamp Buggy Races Fall Classic, those drivers will be racing for no money. Not that swamp buggies are a lucrative hobby – even the winner usually spends more than he earns on a race weekend.

Longtime buggy owners recognize the global coronavirus pandemic has touched their sport, one created in Collier County long before it became a tourist destination. As such, they’re willing drive for free to keep the Mile-O-Mud open.

Tyler Johns and Eddie Chesser make their way to the starting line during the Swamp Buggy Races on Saturday, March 25, 2017 at Florida Sports Park in East Naples.

“I love the sport,” said Eddie Chesser, who’s won the Bud Cup season championship 11 times. “It’s been in my family since the ’50s. It’s more than just a sport or a hobby, it’s in our blood. Whatever we’ve got to do to keep it going, we should do it.”

Last time out:Tyler Johns beats dad for Big Feature, Greenling wins Bud Cup

More:Swamp Buggy Races Fall Classic season opener postponed due to flooding

Florida Sports Park holds the swamp buggy races three weekends a year, normally between November and March. The races don’t turn much of a profit, park office manager Maria Rodriguez said because they donate money to the organizations that volunteer during the events.

Instead, the park and Swamp Buggy Inc. make money by renting out the reception hall on the grounds. With the coronavirus and limits on public gatherings, Florida Sports Park has not been able to rent its facilities.

Leonard Chesser (middle) is presented a cake for his 78th birthday before the Swamp Buggy Races Spring Classic at Florida Sports Park on March 3, 2018. Chesser has been called "The Godfather of Swamp Buggy Racing" and owns the record for most driver wins in the sport. Chesser stands with Swamp Buggy Queen Erica Flesher and mascot Swampy.

Normally the total purse on a racing weekend is around $10,000 depending on how many tickets are sold, with the winner of the Big Feature final race taking home around $3,000.

This weekend the drivers agreed to still pay their entry fees despite no purse.

“If you got into this sport to make money, you’re in the wrong business,” pro-modified swamp buggy driver Tyler Johns said. “(The prize money) helps out, but we’re not out here to win money.”

Like Chesser – whose father and uncle are swamp buggy legends and his siblings and cousins also race – Johns has a family connection to the sport. He and his parents, Randy and Lorrie, started driving swamp buggies 20 years ago, right after Tyler graduated high school.

Johns said he has no problem running the Fall Classic without prize money if it keeps the sport, which started in 1949, alive and well.

Swamp Buggy Inc., the nonprofit that runs the races, received a financial boost when car dealership Naples Jeep Ram stepped in as sponsor this season.

This weekend’s Swamp Buggy Races Fall Classic presented by Naples Jeep Ram will be the first races in nine months. The last time out, Johns beat his dad to win the Big Feature in March. However, it was Dan Greenling who took home the season points title, claiming his third straight Bud Cup Championship.

At the start of the swamp buggy racing’s 72nd season, Greenling looks to continue his run of dominance in his pro-mod Roll On. The drive won two of the three Big Features last season. He was so far ahead in points that he won the Bud Cup even though he didn’t race in the season finale due to transmission problems.

Dan Greenling, center, celebrates his overall win of  the 2019-20 Swamp Buggy series at Florida Sports Park in Collier County on Sunday March, 8, 2020. He claimed Bud Cup. On the right is Tyler Johns, the winner for this weekend. Greenling won the overall competition on points from previous races.

Greenling hasn’t lost a race in more than two years. His last loss was in the 2018 Fall Classic when Roll On suffered a breakdown with a big lead in the final stretch of the Big Feature.

Although COVID-19 has affected Florida Sports Park, Greenling doesn’t think it’s hurt the drivers much.

Many drivers are small business owners who might have felt a pinch as the economy slowed down. But Greenling said the months of staying at home has racers ready to go. Plus, the drivers haven’t had much else to do the past nine months but make their buggies faster.

“Everybody’s been waiting for something to do for so long,” Greenling said. “There are probably going to be as many pro-mods as we’ve seen in a long time. There are a lot of really good ones. It should be good, competitive racing.”