Swamp Buddies

A father. A son. A Swamp Buggy race to be won. 

Did it have to come down to this?

Father vs. son.

Dan Greenling and Dan Greenling Jr. are close. They work together in the family roofing business. They play together. Best of all, they share a rare passion: swamp buggy racing.

Swamp Buggy Racers

The Greenlings share a rare passion: swamp buggy racing.

Unique to the Naples and Gulf Coast Everglades region in Collier County, the quirky, pulse-quickening sport gets passed down through generations, and families earn legendary status. That includes the Greenlings. Dan Sr., in particular. He’s won tons of races, and has twice taken the Budweiser Cup, the overall winner of the three annual World Famous Swamp Buggy Races held at Florida Sports Park, 10 miles from downtown Naples. He holds the course record: 47:97 seconds.

Dan Jr. has only been at it a couple of years.

Father and son race in the top class, “Pro-Mod,” so it was inevitable they would race each other at some point.

On a warm Sunday afternoon in November during the fall 2015 Swamp Buggy race event, that time has come — and with it a little feeling of unease. When their matchup is announced, they exchange sheepish grins in the team’s tree-shaded pit area. Ladonna Greenling, wife and mother, shakes her head, fidgets, tries to smile.

Father and son would prefer their showdown come some other day but, like Dan says, “that’s racing.”

On the Saturday night before their fateful meeting, Dan and Dan Jr. talked about how Swamp Buggy racing has forged a bond between them — and what it would mean to face each other.

The Slime that Binds

Swamp buggy racing is a gritty tradition dating back to 1949.

Swamp Buggy racing, which dates back to 1949, maintains a gritty tradition on the edge of the Everglades in Florida's Paradise Coast, providing a fascinating cultural contrast to nearby Naples and its famous white sand beaches, increasingly known as one of the world's top luxury destinations. 

Buggies in various classes glide, splash and slog through a 1-mile course of muddy water that runs from 18 inches to five feet deep. The Pro-Mods are custom-made vehicles that generate up to a thousand horsepower and can exceed 80 miles per hour. 

To build and maintain a competitive Pro-Mod buggy, race teams spend countless hours and lots of dollars, far more than any prize money they might win.  

Team Greenling gathers a couple of nights a week year-round in a garage that sits next to the family’s spacious home on five acres — a garage that’s bigger than the house. The guys wrench and weld and shape metal, measure and tweak, mold the tall, skinny tires — anything to gain the slightest edge.

Together, the team works on both machines: Dan’s “Roll On” and Dan Jr.'s “Let’s Roll,” which consists mostly of parts handed down from Dad.

Splashing toward a showdown

Let's Roll and Roll On prepare to race.

Saturday’s preliminaries, featuring timed solo runs, set the table for wet-and-wild Sunday, where buggies careen around the course side by side.

The races go by fast and furious. Dan loses one he was expected to win, which sends him into the loser’s bracket. That means more runs, more stress on his machine. Dan Jr. squeaks out a nice victory against a tough opponent, but also loses a race. The afternoon wears on under a warm November sun. 

The race announcer calls out the next pairing:

“Let’s Roll vs. Roll On. Ten minutes.”

The Moment of Truth Arrives

Roll On and Let’s Roll pull into the murky water, take their place at the start line, and rev their engines.

Dan Jr. looks over at Dad. Dad looks straight ahead. The starter drops his flag and Dan Jr. surges to an early lead.

Mud, sweat and no tears

With his superior machine and racing experience, Dan Sr. wins the race.

It’s over in less than a minute. With his superior machine and racing experience, Dan Sr. wins going away.

Dan Jr. pulls back into the pit area first, not surprised at his defeat. As the victor’s buggy arrives, Dan Jr. steps out of his cockpit, stretches, shakes his head and chuckles. He strolls over and lightly taps fists with Dad. 

LaDonna, looking on, spreads her arms wide and gives her son a big hug and a peck on the cheek. Dan Jr., bantering with his father, ambles away and absently wipes it off. 

It’s all good. The inevitable has taken place, the outcome decided. The Greenlings father-son bond — the family bond — has been strengthened. 

There will be many more races.

It’s not over ‘til it’s over

Dan Greenling Sr. had to race Roll On several more times in quick succession for a chance to win the championship. He found his groove and it looked like he might pull it off. 

His buggy slumped, motionless, in the muddy water. His day was done. ​

In the semifinal Pro-Mod race, Dan took a giant lead and, cruising down the backstretch to victory, his left rear tire fell off and bounded a dozen feet in the air. His buggy slumped, motionless, in the muddy water. His day was done. 

As Dan likes to say: “that’s racing.”

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