WhiteAndGold New Reader
4/30/18 5:47 p.m.

For anyone who hasn’t yet seen or heard of the Gambler 500, in a nutshell it is an on/off road adventure for beaters. There aren’t any hard and fast rules other than Rule #1: Don’t be a dick. The price point to shoot for is $500 for your car but really as long as you’re bringing something weird and having fun no one cares. The end goal is to just have a good time, try to visit as many waypoints as you can and clean up the trails while you’re out and about in the wild.

Part 1: Prep and The First Leg of the Journey

We were riding in this magnificent beast: Pokey the 1982 Vanagon camper.

HippieWagon bought this van off an impound lot in South Detroit and it had previously housed a man who was literally living in a van down by the river. After clearing out this guy’s junk it turned out to be a pretty solid example of the last years of the air-cooled VWs. For $1800 it was a steal considering the inflated market for these things. One other funny note is that this is actually a Canadian van which was subsequently abandoned in Detroit, so there was no title at the impound lot and some import paperwork had to be done between HippieWagon and the lot he bought it from but in the end they figured it out and it’s now tagged and legal (but hard to determine how fast you’re going since the speedo is in kph AND horrendously inaccurate).

I was supposed to be driving a 1986 Fiero but as I mentioned elsewhere it blew up in my face and has headed to greener pastures (Indy-Barely Functional-Guy’s yard/driveway). So I rode up to Detroit in the FiST Friday morning and we got to work putting the final touches on the van. A new fuel pump, some Amazon special offroad lights and a smattering of mildly illegal strobes were all we needed to get on the road.


Naturally we needed to do some testing so we did some fast and furious style street races through the neighborhood. Now normally I wouldn’t recommend drag racing right next to an elementary school, but when it’s an air-cooled Vanagon vs. a Coleman minibike with a beat clutch, you can get away with it. So it turns out a minibike will beat the van for about 75 yards, or until the van gets into second gear at which point it can finally surpass the bike’s 22mph speed limit.

Got some funny looks from pedestrians as we rode around the block with the sliding door open taking pictures of the minibike in action then we packed it up and grabbed some well earned dinner.

A few hours of shuteye later and it was time to load up and roll out. We had 5 people in a 4-seater van so we had to add some extra seating in the rear and I was surprised at just how well this van swallows 5 people’s worth of gear; there are so many nooks and crannies for stashing things! We were going to be camping out of the van up in northern MI tonight so many a blanket was packed, along with essentially half a garage worth of tools. Even with all this stuff there wasn’t any intrusion into the passenger cabin area which was very nice for the long haul later.

Registration/Check in was just north of the city in Troy, and we got to stage with the cool kids in the special paddock – I guess they just respected the insanity of bringing an old bone stock ACVW on a 500 mile trip. This was awesome not partly because it meant we were one of the 50 or so vehicles that the organizers thought was cool (out of 813 vehicles that showed up) but we also got an extra recovery token, which is basically how you can pay other gamblers for helping you out of a bind. We were by far the most “normal” vehicle in the cool kids paddock, some of these guys had some seriously off the wall stuff. Compared to some gambler photos I've seen I think that the Detroit Gambler has stayed pretty cheap, I didn't see a lot of high dollar vehicles other than people who were there exclusively to help recover other Gamblers. Some highlights follow:

This rampage scratched an itch I didn't know I had and now I want one.

This Probe had a grill built on the back and was radical.

Gotta watch out for the tacticool Party Patrol (also the colonial explorers and their trackin' dog).

One of the more interesting amalgamations of car and camper we saw.

Seeing a couple Fieros made me sad mine didn't make it, this guy basically did exactly what I was planning on doing just with a different paint job.

Warthog tribute and a sweet Whiskey Rebellion flag.

Paint roller pans and HVAC components as hood scoops was a common theme.

One of the guys in this van was wearing a Scooby Doo costume and it messed with my dog's head.

Definitely not a $500 car but berkleying awesome nonetheless. 

Some slightly dubious frame lengthening or reinforcement or something, this was basically a foxbody exocet hack. Surprisingly lasted the weekend, we saw him driving home on Sunday.

These guys will be important later...

Am I the only one who thinks an Acura TL looks way better without a trunk?

Or maybe it was just the fine selection of horns and severed heads...

These guys were channeling the Mad Max in a strong way and I was a big fan.

A good example of some of the guys who came along to rescue stuck beaters on the offroad portions of the trip.

There's more than one way to skin a car...

"Runs great just needs a little bodywork"

We had about an hour to roam around and hang out before the driver’s meeting to kick off the event so we checked out cars and chatted with other teams, other folks had some more… interesting activities to pass the time.

Since this is the Detroit Gambler, Tom, the guy who puts on all the Gambler events up here, wanted everyone to get to see some “real” Detroit first. The first waypoint, “The loneliest spot in Detroit”, was by the city airport (not the main airport, Detroit Metro), in an area where there used to be full blocks of houses but now there was just grass, wreckage and a couple still inhabited houses scattered around. Everywhere we went in town, people were stopping to watch all the whackos drive by in their beaters, we got lots of waves and thumbs up in the van. It was definitely interesting seeing the really desolate parts of Detroit that you wouldn’t ever see if you were just passing through town. Got to do some “urban offroading” in that the roads almost cease to exist in places.

Trash, tires piled up all over the place:

Abandoned and less abandoned (but no less sketchy) homes. Hard to believe we are in the heart of a major metropolis here.

Next we headed down to the River Rouge/Zug Island/Fort Wayne area which from all I could tell was pretty much all either a former, current or future EPA superfund site. Here there was some real offroading in an area that used to be houses but was now a giant mud pit. We didn't attempt it in the van and by the time we had circled around the block, Detroit PD had shown up and shut the whole thing down. So it was on to the next waypoint, a railroad crossing that wished it had been in Dukes of Hazzard. 

But it wasn't quite steep enough to make the cut...

This was the only car we saw catch any air, a bone stock Acura which I'm pretty sure was this guy's daily.

Next stop was the Detroit river, and with it came a big flippin boat. I'm sure the van felt at home in its natural habitat.

At this point we'd spent about 2 hours driving around the wastelands of eastern Detroit and it was time for some lunch. The spot to hit was the Eastern Market. They essentially have a farmer's market type spread set up in the old warehouses here, as well as lots of good eats along the road next to the market itself. Got some killer pierogis and kielbasa at the market and got to see some more gamblermobiles here.

We also parked right behind David Tracy's $800 Grand Wagoneer which was neat. As a couple of us were walking back to the van from lunch a guy stopped us and asked "what's going on with all these crap cars with stuff piled up on their roofs driving around here?" We told him about the gambler and what we were doing and about the focus on trail cleanliness and he was very appreciative. Turns out this guy is the section chief for ORV trails with the Michigan DNR. He gave me his card and asked me to send him some pictures and info so I'm hoping he sees this when I email the link to him, in which case hi Paul! 

With lunch finished we were done with the first leg of the journey. Next step was to head north and hit the trails up north of Saginaw. That will be coming tomorrow (hopefully) in part two of this adventure!

maschinenbau Dork
5/1/18 8:02 a.m.

This looks amazing! I wish I could have gone!

RevRico UltraDork
5/1/18 8:07 a.m.

That looks like such a blast. A handful of local guys from another forum went out, they had a big old caddy and a big burban. 

As I've not seen the same vehicles in your pictures or theirs, I'm guessing the turnout was rather large? That's good to see too.

HippieWagon New Reader
5/1/18 8:24 a.m.

In reply to RevRico :

It was a massive turn out! Something like 800 vehicles...so who even knows how many people!

Enyar SuperDork
5/1/18 8:50 a.m.

Very cool

5/1/18 5:35 p.m.

MAN I need to participate in one of these.

mazdeuce - Seth
mazdeuce - Seth Mod Squad
5/1/18 7:46 p.m.

Did you say eight.......hundred......cars........

Holy crap. 

More story please? I love me some Gambler. 

WhiteAndGold New Reader
5/2/18 6:56 p.m.

Part Two: Heading Up North

After lunch it was time for the scary part of the journey: driving several hours at top speed (about 60mph) to get up to the trails. We had a brief scare early on where it seemed like we were losing power, but it turns out we were just going up a slight incline. This thing is literally pegged in fourth gear to maintain a somewhat acceptable highway speed.

Van dog was much happier to be cruising at a constant(ish) speed over smooth roads finally.

A nice thing about camper vans is that it is much easier to keep your passengers entertained for long journeys!

After about 60 miles it looked as though we’d already drank half a tank of gas so we pulled off to top up and sure enough there was a bit of drippage coming from one of the soft lines out of the tank. Tightened down some hose clamps at the pump and we were back on our way.

Once we got up to Sterling, about 3 hours later, we were finally ready to hit the first trail of the weekend. This was the only trail rated as “easy” so we figured we’d be good. There were a couple muddy spots but nothing major; for the most part we were riding on washboard. HippieWagon got a little excited seeing dirt and decided to start driving the van like a rally car. I can tell you, when you are driving what is essentially a mobile kitchen, having the tail loose on a dirt path is a great way to get all your passengers up in arms. Van dog was not pleased by this development either. We pulled up on our first flooded section and decided to have a look and see if we could make the crossing. A couple low riding cars made it through just fine and so we were safe to cross there was only one problem: the van wouldn’t start. HippieWagon was ready to start tearing things apart but with a quick tap of a hammer we were back in action.

Forded the creek and I hopped out to get a picture of the van when it circled back around and came through the puddle again. Only problem was the trail I thought circled back did not appear to circle back, and it got real rough. Of course I didn’t know this since I wasn’t driving the trail anymore so I told a few guys that was the way back to the main trail. One of the guys who came by was that Acura that was jumping the tracks earlier – he looked like he regretted his life choices after trying to drive that thing down an ORV trail. The guys in the van circled back to us and told us about the lack of meeting up with the main trail and so we went back out the way we came in.

At this point the sun was starting to go down so we figured we’d better head to camp before it got dark. About a mile from camp there was an American Legion Post with this sweet M47 Patton out front so obviously we had to get a shot with our "tank".

Thankfully the campsite was only a few more miles up the interstate from the trail we were on and we got there with an hour or two of daylight to spare. The campsite was like redneck paradise, when we pulled in there were people doing jumps off some ramps that had been set up near the entrance and to find  a site you basically just pulled up on the grass and drove among the tents till you found a mostly flat, non-tree-covered area. We staked our claim and got to work pitching tents and collecting firewood. Unfortunately I don't have any pics from the jumps because by the time we found a spot and got set up they were done; evidently a reaction to last year when they ran the jumps long enough that many people (drivers and spectators) got way too inebriated, leading to some scary close calls between the cars and the crowds.

With a hearty fire rolling we cooked up some Jambalaya in the dutch oven which was definitely the fanciest meal I’ve ever made on a campfire, and boy was it awesome. We even had enough to share with the dog. The rest of the night was spent drinking homebrews and meeting other nutcases who were out on this grand adventure. Despite all the blankets and having a 30 degree sleeping bag it was brutal trying to sleep that night, though it was nice having a furry little personal heater to keep the core temp up.

I thought my toes had turned to little bricks when I got up in the morning. Thankfully we had enough wood stashed to get a little fire to thaw ourselves and our water. Cleanup is a major operation here and as far as I know the entire field was successful in not leaving behind any trash. That isn’t to say some people didn’t leave their trash behind, but other, much better people came around and picked it up. This is one of the things I really loved about the Gambler, the conscientiousness of the general population who realize that if we made a big mess every year this event could never happen.

How to deal with leftovers like a pro:

After the previous day’s trail experience we figured we’d try the “Rose City Oil Well Challenge” which was not advertised as a trail adventure on the points list but as a scavenger hunt – get your picture with 15 wells in Rose City. We were letting google direct us to the waypoints and it took us deep down a trail near camp which got rougher and rougher as it went. We found what looked to be a flooded area but upon inspection the mud was frozen solid and we were good to cross.

Maybe it was the confidence from that last muddy section but as we headed into a new stretch of mud, everyone was clamoring “let’s just go for it!” So we went for it, and ended up stuck in a ditch. Turns out the first puddle was much deeper than it looked so we dove into it, bottomed out the front suspension, scooped the bumper into the mud and the momentum carried the front of the van out of the obstacle but not the rear. We were very stuck.

Being the proud engineers we are, we decided to try and fix this issue ourselves before even considering heading to the main trail to flag someone down for help. We tried stuffing logs underneath the wheel, but we couldn't get it to rid them out of the pit. So we used the floor jack we’d brought to pick up the rear corner and drop wood and the battery cover carpet underneath the wheel to raise us out of the mud and give us just enough traction. This actually worked and we got about 2 feet back before we got stuck again.

First we tried laying some big logs down to try and create a balancing beam type bridge across the mud, but we quickly realized this would just cause us to either slide into the deeper middle section of the road or sit on top of the slick log with no traction.

Conveniently, someone had recently been chopping wood right next to where we were stuck so we started making a new wooden road over the mud pit. Only problem was we couldn’t get the rear wheel to hop up on the first log; it was just spinning and digging in deeper.

So the floor jack came out again.... but to no avail.

An hour and many logs later and we were still stuck. It was time to call for help. We sent a couple guys back to the main trail, which was only about a quarter mile away and they almost immediately found someone to come help us – The Tetanus Express!

Their winch made quick work of pulling the van free of the mud, and we were able to help them out with some fresh water as their 3-times-JB welded radiator had cracked open again. They also led us on a safer route back to the road before we parted ways.

After that excitement we figured we were better off heading back to Detroit than getting stuck in more mud. It was at least a 3 or 4 hour drive back and I had another 5 hours home after that so with it already being almost noon it was time to roll on. The ride home was (thankfully) uneventful and thus against all our expectations we made it home with no real mechanical failures on the van!

It was an awesome weekend and I would definitely recommend the Gambler to anyone close enough to one to go, it’s a very GRM adventure AND they're all over the place now. I’ll hopefully get to try out the Texas one next year since I’m moving this summer and who knows, maybe I’ll come back up for the Detroit one too, it was rad.

HippieWagon New Reader
5/2/18 7:02 p.m.

Pokey the Van turned out to be by far the most reliable ACVW I own! No valve train failure, crippling loss of compression, or...well its an ACVW so basically everything is possible...

Billy_Bottle_Caps Dork
6/26/18 8:36 p.m.

Great write up

Bent-Valve Reader
6/28/18 10:03 p.m.

I have come back to this thread and read it several times. I really like the pictures of the vehicles.

I also laugh almost every time I run across the dog in the sleeping bag picture.

Great write up.

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