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Bog heaven

Every Saturday, hundreds make a pilgrimage to Pasco County to play in the mud. Their toys: four-wheel-drive pickups. Their playground: a pit as big as a football field.

By LANE DeGREGORY
Published June 16, 2003

photo
[Times photos: Lance A. Rothstein]
Trucks at the Play Hole in Land O'Lakes get so covered with mud that drivers have to roll the windows down just to see where they are going. Here a driver works with a friend trying to get his truck out of the mud, as seen through the rolled down driver's window.

photo
Down and Dirty
The mud bog is open from 6 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Admission is $5 per person.
To get there, take SR 52 to U.S. 41 south. The gate is about 21&Mac218;2 miles down U.S. 41, on the right side.

LAND O'LAKES - By 7:30 p.m., the mud is perfect: thick and oozy, like chocolate oatmeal. With stuff stuck in it: like Chevys.

Mud filling a pit as long as a football field. Mud swallowing Jeeps jacked up on tractor tires. Mud splattering pickups parked around the pit. Mud dripping down kids' cowboy boots, covering their corn dogs.

"Okay, guys and girls, I hope y'all have fun here tonight," a deep voice with a twang says through the loudspeakers. "But before y'all drink too much Budweiser, make sure you get all those glass bottles into the trash cans. We got a lot of little kids out here, and we sure don't want any cut feet."

In the shallow end of the pit, three ATVs are flitting around like mosquitoes, doing doughnuts and burnouts and racing up the slippery banks. In the center, a Bronco buried in sludge past its hubcaps is belching black smoke. And in the deep end, some guy in his 20s is peeling off his T-shirt. He eyes the black mud below. Then he points his arms above his head, palms together, and dives into the ooze.

These folks might tell you that they come to see the tires, some as fat as Toyotas. Or they'll say that they're here to check under each other's hoods, see who's packing what.

They'll tell you that the Playhole gives them something cheap to do with the kids: clean family fun (so to speak).

Then they'll tell you about the mud. That's what really sucks them in.

"We all want to beat that mud," says Adam Skumautz, 22, of Port Richey. "That's what it's all about."

Every Saturday night, about 400 people make the pilgrimage to this mud mecca in Pasco County. Some drive more than an hour, coming from Pinellas Park and Citrus County. Their pickups are packed with toolboxes and tow ropes, beach chairs and coolers.

The Playhole is one of the last places left to go mud-bogging, legally.

"Oh, we get doctors, lawyers, contractors coming in here. All sorts of folks. It's just like a big ol' picnic," owner Ray Goodwin says. "They drink their beer, have their fun, drive down in the pit if they want to. Pull each other out when they get stuck. We don't never have no problems. Never have to call in the law. Everybody gets along real good out here."

On this steamy Saturday, just after school's out, clumps of kids are slapping mud into slimy volcanoes by a concrete berm. Behind them, perched on open tailgates, their dads are bragging about muscle-car motors. And on the edge of the pit, in front of them, a pregnant woman is holding a video camera, waiting for her husband's wild ride. She wants to preserve this night, so her new daughter can see what Saturdays once were.

The pit is about to dry up.

This is the last summer of mud.

Good ol' boys

For generations of rural families, mud-bogging is as American as John Deere. Kids grow up steering tractors across soggy farms. They start competing in the pits before they're old enough to earn driver's licenses.

Doug Weaver, who lives in New Port Richey, has been playing in mud for 35 years. He used to drive a Toyota 4x4 named "Mombo." But he traded her and her 40-inch tires for a Jeep that hasn't yet earned a name. Weaver is 48. He spends every spare hour in his garage, tweaking a Buick V-6 engine he plans to plant under his Jeep's hood. He's saving to buy bigger tires.

"Some people don't understand what real tires can do for you," he says.

Weaver and his buddies started out borrowing their dads' trucks, jumping ruts under the old power lines near Oldsmar. "We'd have so many guys out there, it looked like Disney World on the weekends," he says. "Then they made that land into a bird sanctuary. Birds have to have somewhere to land, I guess."

So the boggers migrated to Dade City.

"I used to race there, real bracket racing, with cash prizes and trophies. Then they closed that place down in '85. So we came over here," Weaver says.

"It's getting harder and harder to find somewhere we can go. Swiftmud says we can't drive in the wetlands. All our woods are getting cut down.

"This is about the only place we got left."

But the 12 acres Goodwin leases have been bought by a developer. Some corporation plans to build 300 houses on the backside of the pit: new houses bringing new people to Pasco County. People who might not appreciate the throaty grumble of a 429 Cobra engine; people who probably wouldn't want a mud trough in their newly sodded front yards.

"I'm hoping to keep the hole open at least until Labor Day," Goodwin says. "After that, who knows?"

Child's play

For $5, you get in the gate.

You can park along the rim of the pit and watch. Or plunge right in.

You don't have to pay more to plow through the mud. You can go into the hole as many times as you want until 11:30 p.m. Just drive around to the deep end, skid down the slope and have at it.

"We used to run races out here," Goodwin says. Now drivers just noodle around making ruts, carving wakes. Trying to show whose rig can go deepest, who can get the most air, who can pull out the most stuck trucks. "The only object is to have fun," Goodwin says. The only reward is bragging rights.

"As the night goes on and the drivers get more Bud in 'em, they start bringing the bigger trucks out and it gets better," says Jennifer Watkins, 26. Every Saturday, she and her husband bring their 6-year-old son, Cody, to the Playhole.

"He bugs us all week: When's Saturday?" she says. "He dug his own hole by our shed at home. Filled it up with the hose and made all this mud. He drives his plastic trucks through the pit, making engine noises. And when one gets stuck, he ties a string on another and tows it right out."

Jennifer and her husband live in Land O'Lakes. They've been regulars at the Playhole for two years. They don't own a truck. They park their Pontiac Grand Am in the dirt by the snackbar. They come to watch other rigs, cheer their favorites, to be outdoors with their family "doing something wholesome," she says.

"I was kind of bad when I was a teenager," Jennifer says. "I wanted Cody to have something to look forward to, something he could do with us instead of getting in trouble.

"Everyone's so friendly here. We all know each other - or at least all the trucks."

One night, a guy told Jennifer he'd drive her down in the pit, so she could see what it was like. He told her she could sit on the hood of his F-250. "He didn't tell me he'd just washed and waxed it," she says. "So he drives straight down into the pit, and of course we get stuck."

She slid off the hood, head-first. "I got buried up to my neck in mud," she says.

"That was one of the best nights, for sure."

Home movies

The mud smells like sweat, gas and garbage.

At 10:30 p.m., groundwater is still pouring through the PVC pipe on the far end of the pit. The sludge is getting deeper, thinner. It's starting to flow like Willy Wonka's chocolate river (only stinkier).

The trucks are so caked no one can make out what color they used to be. The windshields are plastered with an inch of mud. Drivers have to roll down their windows and hang their heads out to see.

The engines are revving harder. Tailpipes are backfiring more often. Lines are growing at the portable toilets.

And radios are starting to war.

Classic rock on one side of the pit: Pink Floyd and Sugarloaf, pumping from the windows of a gray beard's red pickup.

Country on the closer side: Travis Tritt crooning from a teenage girl's green Chevy.

The old man and the young girl keep leaning into their trucks, cranking the volume. For the first time all night, the music is louder than the engines.

Down in the pit, Butch Haas is jumping mud moguls with his Ford Super Duty. It's packing a 429 Cobra Jet engine under its faded blue hood. The truck weighs 21/2 tons. Its tires are 4 feet tall. "Cost me $250 apiece," Butch says. "They're too big to drive on the highway. I have to haul her in here on a trailer."

Butch is a welder from Wesley Chapel. He grew up grinding Fords into the sandy ground.

"My old man has been a mechanic for 100 years, so I've been coming out here since this place opened," he says.

Butch's truck is one of the biggest at the Playhole. Word always gets around when he's coming. He puts on a great show. Splashes all the kids up front. Digs other guys out, when they can't cut it.

Tonight, about 30 of his friends came to cheer him on, be his pit crew.

And his pregnant wife is walking around the edge of the pit, videotaping his wild ride.

Their baby daughter is due any day now. Butch wants her to be able to see her daddy like this: baseball cap spun backward, brown bangs caked with mud; gripping the wheel with his right hand; pumping his left fist out the window for the crowd; hooting and hollering; spraying Chevys with his brown wake.

His daughter needs to see her daddy tearing up the hole during this last summer of mud.

The Playhole is open from 6 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Admission is $5 per person.

To get to the Playhole, take SR 52 east to U.S. 41 south. The gate is about 21/2 miles down U.S. 41, on the right side.

[Last modified June 13, 2003, 13:22:49]


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