Mile O’Mud by Malcolm Lightner
Mad Max cruises Alligator Alley
At the heart of Mile O’Mud is the thrilling sport of swamp buggy racing. For the uninitiated, swamp buggy racing consists of custom buggies that are part boat and part love-child of NASCAR and high octane drag racing. The buggies and their driver/pilot tear through swampy, muddy terrain that is more like the lake in the center of Daytona International Speedway than the track surrounding it. And much like the famed rowdy crowds who inhabit the infield of NASCAR races, swamp buggy fans do not disappoint.
Fans pile meat in baking pans, cans of Budweiser in boxes, and stack themselves in bleachers, truck beds, and on top of homemade platforms to cheer for the Swamp Buggy Queen and pray for drivers’ quick recoveries when the track proves too treacherous, because the drivers literally risk life and limb.
Malcolm Lightner grew up down the street from the original “Mile O’ Mud” swamp buggy track off of Radio Road in Collier County, Florida. His own family has roots in the beginning of swamp buggy racing. Lightner’s great-uncle R.L. Walker was one of the first swamp-buggy drivers back in the late 1940s and 50s. Lightner, after getting college degrees, including his MFA, moved to New York in 1999, and he returned at least once a year to the Florida Sports Park from 2002 to 2013 to document the races — missing only 2005 due to a hurricane forced cancellation.
Lightner’s images include portraits of the racers, the fans, the vehicles both on and off the track, as well as traditional events of the sport — including the crowning and subsequent dunking of the Swamp Buggy Queen. There is the thrill of speed and danger at the races, and a palpable rush of energy. “On my first visit to the track, I drove into the parking lot, heard the engines of the buggies roar, and witnessed the great plumes of water trailing behind the boat-dragster hybrids,” Lightner says. “I could feel the vibrations from the raw horsepower pound against my chest, and it almost took my breath away. I thought to myself, ‘this is going to be fun!’”
Lightner’s superb images of this sport and frank depiction of its culture make me feel much the same. I was drawn into the world he has photographed, felt like a voyeur at some southern bacchanalia, and ultimately I wanted to start over at the beginning of the book and view it again. And again.
In addition to the excitement and thrills, Lightner also says “I’ve come to understand Swamp Buggy Racing as a metaphor for life’s daily struggles and the innate drive to overcome obstacles against great odds while trying to maintain a sense of humor and grace. The races demonstrated to me the all-American desire to compete to win, as well as the power of family and community.”
This book documents the people and the culture Lightner is from, but of course this is more than an immersive documentary project. He has shown us his own clan, and paid homage to his family and community. Many of us yearn to escape the world we grew up in, to prove to ourselves and the world that we are greater than small beginnings. Yet for many people, their roots call them back. ‘Mile O’Mud’ not only called Lightner back, but it brought along a cooler of beer, some good tunes, and the thrill of the sport that helped shape him.
MALCOLM LIGHTNER is a photographer who works and resides in New York. Born in 1969 in Naples, Florida, he is a fourth generation native Floridian. Malcolm has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants and his work has been featured in a range of exhibitions including Art + Commerce Emerging Photographers and NYPH (New York Photo Festival). Malcolm’s photography is included in the permanent photography collections at the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Florida. His work has appeared in Dear Dave, The Oxford American, VICE, Aint-Bad and Life among other publications. Malcolm is a member of the photography faculty at the School of Visual Arts in New York City since 2002.
All images are from Mile O’ Mud by Malcolm Lightner, published by powerHouse Books., and used by permission.
Mile O’ Mud: The Culture of Swamp Buggy Racing
By Malcolm Lightner, Introduction by Padgett Powell
Hardcover, 12–1/2 x 11–7/8 inches, 144 pages
For more information about Malcolm Lightner, please see his website: http://www.malcolmlightner.com/
To purchase the book, visit powerHouse Books here
Published originally in F-Stop Magazine