SARASOTA — Conquering mud is a Kelly family tradition. Before the Everglades were drained, Danny Kelly's grandfather built a primitive mud buggy from Henry Ford's original Model A truck, replacing the tires with chain-wrapped airplane wheels.
The modifications were a necessity for hunting in the swamps. Since those days, muddin' has morphed into a popular hobby.
Popular enough that Kelly went into debt and spent $1 million in his quest for the perfect mud pit.
The investment seems to be paying off, with thousands of people flocking to rural eastern Charlotte County, paying $30 a day to test their custom-built buggies on Kelly's soggy new 800-acre playground for off-road vehicles — playfully named the Redneck Yacht Club.
Amid a sagging economy, with real estate and stock prices floundering, mud might be a good investment.
"Florida has golf courses, boating — this is just another place for people to go play," Kelly, 57, said last week, his Jeep bumping along a dirt path in the park.
The Redneck Yacht Club opened in February after a rigorous two-year government permitting process. Already it is generating major buzz in the state's muddin' subculture.
About 2 miles long and a mile wide — with enough space for more than 3,000 vehicles — the park is the largest off-road vehicle attraction in Florida, an earthly paradise for ATV enthusiasts and swamp buggy aficionados.
Mud as far as the eye can see.
Big mud pits.
Small mud pits.
All surrounded by three campgrounds, secluded forest trails, a racetrack, barbecue vendors, even a "buggy wash."
"Awesome, that's all I can say about this place," said Tony Bilhardt, an Englewood native with a jacked-up 1983 Dodge Ram who grew up spinning his tires in mud pits around Sarasota County, before "they closed everything up and left us with nowhere to play."
Kelly had people like Bilhardt in mind when he began sketching out his plan to convert part of his potato farm into a massive mud park three years ago.
Growing up in Fort Myers, Kelly was chased out of more than one mud hole.
Off-road enthusiasts are often reduced to trespassing, a frequent problem in places like North Port and rural Southwest Florida.
Kelly wanted something legitimate and safe. He employs 15 security officers and has two paramedics for every event. His insurance costs are so high he refuses to even talk about it.
Kelly also wanted something nice.
He realizes that people unfamiliar with the subculture might not think a mud hole can be nice.
But many Redneck Yacht Club visitors are impressed with the park's orderly design and management.
"It's secure," said Venice resident Callie Wallace. "I like the fact that they have rules. Other place are kind of a free-for-all."
Kelly is a marine contractor who employs 50 people. He makes a good living building bridges and marinas from Key West to Tampa.
Precision and quality are obsessions for a man who worked hard for his success. The son of a small potato farmer, Kelly began his marine career by fixing propellers and scraping barnacles off boats.
Every section of Kelly's park is neatly divided with fences constructed from leftover dock pilings that Kelly recycled from his marine business.
Much like a groundskeeper on a golf course, Kelly grooms his park regularly — only with a bulldozer instead of a lawn mower.
The mud must be a certain consistency. Too soft and too many people will get stuck. Too hard and it is not a challenge.
Driving through the park, Kelly stops to pick up any stray bottle or piece of plastic.
This is his dream. He wants it to be perfect.
Kelly's brown cowboy boot steps on the gas and his Jeep Wrangler plunges straight into a mud pit.
Tires 40 inches wide churn in three feet of muck.
Kelly grins from under his red baseball cap and his tan hands grip hard on the faded steering wheel.
The Jeep stops moving. The engine revs for a few seconds, and Kelly cracks that it might be time to start pushing, before the vehicle finally lurches forward again.
"If there ain't a chance of gettin' stuck, it ain't right," Kelly says.