Water the color of potatoes lapped at Sippi Morris' armpits as he sat helpless, his swamp buggy trapped in a gaping pothole in the bottom of the canal. It had snared him only 20 yards past the starting line. His weeks of painstaking tuning and tinkering had been wasted.
Year after year Sippi Morris has become mired in the same spot on the swamp-buggy racecourse in Naples, Fla. The filthy water washes through his garage clothes and chunks of mud splatter his whiskey face. This time Sippi's engine had been drowned out, as the buggy drivers say, despite a rigging of tiny bottles and tubes that Sippi invented just to head off this very disaster. "Where'n hell the water come from?" he puzzled as he waited for the rescue tractor to tow him out. Later, Sippi would blame his aborted effort on poor driving: "Went out with a woman last night 'n' she got me tight."
A stark blue February sky hung over the annual winter races at the Mile o' Mud, a scrubby 40-acre plot on the edge of the Everglades. But a breeze from the Gulf of Mexico blew away the mosquitoes, and the only drivers or mechanics perspiring were those who had not fully recovered from the booze they had consumed right there at campfires the previous night.
It was in the second heat for six- and eight-cylinder engines that 69-year-old Sippi Morris had challenged the strong-armed young crackers, who in many cases surely had spent their last dollar building grotesque contraptions 18 and 20 feet long that could slosh through water up to six feet deep, rise with a mighty groan from immense potholes and tear angrily around yawning curves, their drivers desperate to qualify for the feature race, whose winner would be crowned, yes, Swamp-Buggy King! They had slaved for a month and more over raucous engines in their yards, quitting only when a voice called out from a police cruiser, "Jeez, Chester! Cut that damn thing off!" No blueprints guided their efforts. They began, most of them, by scouring junkyards for a frame that captured their fancy. The rest spilled from their imagination. One rangy, bare-chested driver named Jim Emfinger explained, "Y' jest start dippin' in your checkbook, and your old lady goes t' screamin'." At a cost of almost $4,000, Emfinger, a laboring man, had been building and rebuilding his buggy for three years and expected that he never would be finished. Why, then, does he bother? "Lack o' good sense, more'n anything else."
The prize money is puny, and there are only three racing days a year—two in Naples and one in Fort Myers. Leonard Chesser, a carpenter and for the past two years the reigning king, won $1,300 in the 1971 Naples fall races after having put $1,600 into his motor. "You don't do it for the money," says Chesser.
Milton Morris, called Sippi because he sprang from Mississippi, personified this amateur spirit when on this February day he first appeared wheeling his buggy into place at the starting line. Unlike the others, he was not from the proletariat. He had managed a Florida territory for Firestone, then retired to a home in Coral Gables ("right behind Claude Pepper," who presumably hurls shoes from his bedroom window when Sippi is tuning his buggy) and in restless retirement had taken to selling real estate, some of it swamp. "Waterfront is what we call it," he said. Which is how he found out about buggy racing. In the 23 years since, Sippi had never won, yet he persevered at the Mile o' Mud. As the years passed, the crackers stood up their buggies on five-foot tractor wheels and built them larger, wilder, more powerful and outlandish. Parked in the pits, the 44 machines in the held made one's senses reel. The freewheeling shapes—monster grasshoppers, brontosaur skeletons, mammoth coffins, outsized kayaks, flying saucers, giant serving trays—had been created from equipment gotten from junkyard scavenging and supply houses. There were improbable elements: plastic pipe, builder's steel, aircraft tubing, plywood, a distributor enclosed in an ammunition box, beer kegs serving as gas tanks, paint buckets and bedroom waste-baskets for exhausts, plumber's weights bolted down for front-end balance, and, on one buggy, baling wire thoughtfully mounted on the rear for mid-race emergencies. Splashed on in bold paint were the names: Supergator, Phantom 309, Water Witch, Hound Dog, Dragon Wagon, Dirt Dauber and Husier (as in Hoosier?). Two of the buggies—call any of them a car and you earn a sharp glance—bore in addition stickers advertising "Wallace Country." Sippi Morris, however, had named his buggy The Coach of Many Colors. Half the size of the others, it was a tidy red and white wooden machine vaguely resembling a buckboard, in which Sippi in another time might have taken a young lady to church.
He had stood poised in a foot of water at the inside position in his heat, gazing out upon a broad canal shaped like a backward B. Suddenly Sheriff Doug Hendry had flashed the starter's flag and the four machines had leaped forward with a deafening roar, their huge rear tires kicking slabs of mud into the air. Twenty yards downtrack they plunged into the Sippi Morris Hole, the first of many obstacles. As usual, Sippi was the only contestant not to emerge. The other starters, at speeds up to 50 mph, tore up the straightaway to the top of the course, tossing a 40-foot spray in their wake. They fought for the inside on the turn, then negotiated the upper loop and came back through the lower half of the straightaway, where Sippi was working feverishly to get his engine restarted. His rivals next swung around the bottom loop before crashing one last time down the lower half of the straightaway, throwing water and mud on Sippi as they made their final pass through the Sippi Morris Hole, where the old gentleman now sat stolidly, awaiting the rescue tractor.
Over in the pits a rawboned young man named Byron McDowell, his eyes mirthful beneath the shade of a floppy mountaineer hat, said he understood why Sippi kept coming back year after year. The swamp buggy, he explained, holds a grip on men. "I had a buggy I called Do-it To-it. It had a Chrysler hemi and was the runnin'est sonofagun you ever seen." Wanting to show off to friends, Byron McDowell took Do-it To-it for a run on a paved road (which of course was illegal, because any swamp buggy would give state inspectors heart seizure). "Well, I took a turn and one of my front wheels hit a damn ditch and that buggy throwed me slap-out into the palmettos. Took me three days to find my shoes and another day to find my wallet. But I got right back up on that machine." To remount was a point of honor. "Yeah, it's like a horse. If it throws you, get back on your feet and whip that machine with a two-by-four and get right back on it. Listen, I got a new buggy in the works, and we gonna stick a six-cylinder in there, and boy, we gonna talk to 'em."
No driver has been killed while racing swamp buggies. Sometimes they turn over on their drivers in deep water, and men have had to be cut loose from their seat belts in a race against death by drowning. Serious injuries occur infrequently, but the potential for injury and even death hovers over the battle, accounting for the fact that most drivers would rather lose a race than employ reckless tactics that endanger another. When a driver violates racing courtesy, trouble flares. "One time," says a race official, "a driver put his front wheels on the back end of another entry, and we had a knife fight right there in the ditch. Yes, to the tune of 18 or 20 stitches. Finally, both of the drivers fell off into the mud and after a while thrashing around they decided it was a bad deal."
The greatest of the swamp-buggy racers was Jack Hatcher, a burly man who in buggy parlance "won the king" seven times, but Hatcher disdained accepted ethics, crowding his opponents and fiercely swerving to cut them off. On the backstretch once, drivers and their families stoned him. At the depths of his unpopularity Hatcher carried a double-barreled shotgun in his buggy to facilitate his departure from the pits after a race.