What It's Like
May 21, 2001
What It's Like...through Beth's eyes
I can tell you "What it's like" to be on one side of the swamp buggy racing scene since I am the wife of Tony Hamm and a part of the 4 Play/Old Duck team. I have seen the pros and cons of swamp buggy racing. I can't even begin to tell you how many nights Tony has been up late working on buggies (his own and other's). The cost is high, and I would be willing to bet I don't even have the whole story when it comes to the "money" part. It all seems worth it though when he gets out on that track, especially if he's done well!
Thanks to a couple of incredible men, I can now give you a whole different scenario of "What it's like"!!
Ray Thornton (owner and driver of the Cold Duck) and Gary "Bubba" Smith recently bought a swamp buggy which Ray's son Buddy named, "NUNYA". Buddy has been racing NUNYA for them until this race. Ray has a knee injury that is keeping him out of the Cold Duck for this race. He decided to have Buddy drive his buggy, which left NUNYA with no one in the driver's seat. I guess my name came up, but they wanted to ask some of the guys that are always there working on the buggies. Apparently they all declined and that brought my name up again. I never really knew about any of this at the beginning. It was all being discussed with Tony. I used to race stock cars and I am sure that is the only reason I was considered and I am also sure that they knew my answer would be yes! Once I was registered to race, I started believing it was going to happen! Now I'm going to tell you "What it's like" from my perspective.
Just days before the race, Tony had asked me if I was nervous. Of course I wasn't! I had raced stock cars and was never nervous about that, unless I was driving something other than MY own car. He even asked if I was nervous about turning the buggy over and being "trapped" under water. My answer was always "NO". The safety crew at the Florida Sports Park is awesome and I have seen them in action many times before. They can flip a buggy over so fast, it's amazing. But then I did have to admit that I was nervous. Not out of fear though. This isn't MY machine. What if I break something? What if I don't perform well? What if I don't meet Ray's and Bubba's expectations (and Tony's for that matter)?
Having never raced a swamp buggy before, I had to qualify in front of track officials. So Saturday we headed to the track for testing and qualifying. Now the butterflies started to come on. Nothing to serious, just little flutters. Now comes the time for me to get out there on the track and qualify. I'm starting to get a little more nervous now. This first time on the track was unreal! What a rush! I had a hard time with the tranny brake and the shifter is in reverse order so I ran the whole lap in LOW GEAR! OUCH! Even worse was the steering! When I first took off I was all over the place. I finally got it together (somewhat) and headed down the back shoot. Not to bad, but I was still having a hard time steering. But I was OK with that. I just needed to do this lap for qualification and to get a feel for the buggy. Now I'm heading down the front stretch and right for the Sippi Hole. I kept telling myself, "Please get over that hole!". I just didn't want to sink in it. Oh the embarrassment if that would happen. OH MAN! I made it. Pretty much just glided right over it! The feeling of this run was so awesome! When I got back to the pits I was embarrassed about my performance, but was pleased to hear that I was now an official swamp buggy driver. I felt like the next day, race day, was going to be OK.
We had to bring "padding" for me to fit in the seat. The day before I couldn't reach the fuel or ignition switches with my hands. Had to use my feet. Is that pathetic or what. I also couldn't reach the release on the shifter. Now with the "padding" in, I feel much more comfortable. But ya know...I started having a hard time breathing. Must be the heat! It was a terribly hot day.
I was hoping to race Tony in a heat race but the luck of the draw decided against it. I was now going to go up against Mike McClullin in High Anxiety and Ray's son Buddy in the Cold Duck. So now I know my only real chance of winning against the Cold Duck is for her to break down. That is one fast 4 cylinder.
I'm still having trouble breathing and I am starting to feel sick to my stomach. I hope I'm not suffering from heat exhaustion. I decided to go find a spot in the shade and cool off, if I can. While sitting there, I was rehearsing my race start. Tranny brake. Reverse shift pattern. Steering. Oh great! Now they call me to "stand-by". As I'm getting in the buggy I can feel the butterflies entering my stomach. That's when I realize that it hasn't been the heat making me feel this way....it's my nerves! OK Beth, now think. Tony and Ray have gone over everything with you several times and you can do this. While waiting to drive onto the track, a couple of very experienced drivers (can you say Lonnie Chesser) asked how I was feeling. According to them, they still get nervous before a race. And what? Is that supposed to make me feel better??? I had to keep telling myself to breathe! There were so many butterflies in my stomach I think a few of them were escaping every time I opened my mouth. OH great. Now guess what? I have to go to the bathroom. I can't believe I am feeling this way!
OK...time to go. I pulled the number 2 spot. I lined up just the way Ray and Tony told me to. I had that shifter in the right spot and my thumb on that ol' tranny brake. I have to do this! Ray said, "When you see the flagman's arm start to raise that flag, GO!". I listened and as soon as I saw his arm flinch, I took off. (After the race everyone told me that I beat the other two buggies off the line by at least a buggy length.) Before I got to the Sippi Hole I was in high gear. I did it!!!!! Now, steer this baby! I made it through the hole with no problem but Buddy got by me coming out of it. Now I was in his "spray/wake" and it was just as you would imagine. IMPOSSIBLE to see!! I kept my foot in it though! I made it back around and over the Sippi Hole again and was headed for the back shoot. I gave it everything I could going down that back stretch but, going around the south end of the track I could feel the buggy leaning. I just knew I was going to flip over! The steering wheel felt like it was going to rip right out of my hand. I couldn't get it under control and I went up on two wheels but finally got all four wheels back on the track and was heading for the finish line and one more trip across the Sippi Hole. Mike and his buggy didn't make it out of the hole so I was trying to make sure I stayed clear of him. I made it!!! I made it!!! Just across the finish line I noticed Buddy and the Cold Duck sitting still on the track. I headed for the pits and before I could get off the track my buggy died. I couldn't get her re-started. Buddy and I had to be towed off the track.
The race is over! I was so excited and relieved, I wanted to cry! The whole thing was so incredible! I only wish I could have raced Tony. Even though we both finished 2nd in our heat races, I had a better "lap time" which means I would have won. Would that have been cool, or what?
This was only a one time deal but it was worth every breathless second! I would do it again in a heartbeat!
I really want to thank my husband Tony for his support and encouragement and I especially want to thank Ray and Bubba for allowing me to do this. I am glad you had enough belief and trust in me to drive your buggy and I hope I didn't let you down! I really don't know how to show you how much this meant to me and how much I appreciate you! Thanks guys! I love you!