Off-Roading the Unexpected in the Gambler 500

Photography by Chris Tropea

Off-roading cars that have no business being off road? Hijinks with good friends? And for a great cause?

Sign us up. 

That’s the premise behind the Gambler 500, a series of rally events started in Oregon in 2014 by an enthusiast named Tate Morgan and his buddies, called the OG Gamblers. The idea is to build $500 off-road machines out of vehicles that are mostly or completely unsuited to being driven off road–and with a theme, á la 24 Hours of Lemons. 

The mission involves 500 total miles of mostly off-road drives. To win a Gambler event, though, you have to build the cheapest, wackiest car and then pick up the most trash along the way.

Collecting litter has helped Gambler gatherings access public lands. So far, 40 states plus Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the UAE have hosted more than a hundred Gambler events. 

Competitors and crew don’t report to a central office, however. From the Gambler 500 Facebook page: “Gambler is a universal term. We encourage people from around the world to use this term as a calling card for cheap fun.”

Yes, others are welcome to use the format and logo, but only if they don’t monetize the events and they clean up trash–and be good humans–along the way. “Divisiveness serves the few,” the group’s Facebook page continues. “Empathy benefits all. Be good, be patient and love everyone.”

There is some money involved in the deal, though, as the original Gambler 500 in Oregon has support from companies like O’Reilly Auto Parts. Gambler merchandise, like stickers and shirts, are available on the group’s website.

Building a Gambler

When the Florida Gambler 500 was announced–based at the Hog Waller Mud Bog at the edge of the Ocala National Forest, just an hour or so away from GRM world headquarters–we put it on our schedule. Running around in the woods while doing good deeds appealed to us. 

Then we needed the right vehicle–or vehicles, since we’d have a few people in our posse. Two quick searches netted us a 1985 Buick Riviera–immediately dubbed the Redneck Riviera–and a stripped-out wishbone Honda Civic. 

But no matter what the question, the answer is always Miata. We needed one of those as well. 

Expect plenty of socializing, plus camping in the woods. (Don’t forget the bug repellent.) In addition to our zebra-striped Miata, we also entered a Buick Riviera and a Honda Civic. Prep work mostly centered on wiring up the winches. 

We called Wes Saunders at Treasure Coast Miata, as he’s into off-road Miatas. Sure enough, he had one ready to go: an actual 2005 Mazdaspeed Miata. The car was gutted and the turbo drivetrain was long gone, replaced by a VVT engine and six-speed transmission. The Miata already featured a Paco Motorsports 3-inch lift kit. 

We added a skidplate from Paco to protect the sump and transmission, then fabricated another skidplate to shield the radiator and steering rack. Next, we incorporated a winch and mounted a spare tire to the trunk. We then sourced some tires appropriate for the mission: 275/75R15LT BFGoodrich mud rubber from Tire Rack.

To finish it all off, we got ahold of our buddy Rusty at Side Effects, a local graphics shop. One zebra-stripe package, please. 

The Gambler 500 Format

The format varies some from event to event, but here’s the gist: You show up, sign a waiver, and have fun. The events are promoted primarily through Facebook event pages and typically run on Saturdays and Sundays, although our local event had a Friday component as well. While our credentials were never checked, vehicles are supposed to be street-legal, registered and insured.

After a drivers meeting, where the event organizers mostly told us to behave both at our campsites and in the forest, we were handed a list of locations in the form of GPS coordinates.

Each team’s job is to get as close as possible to each set of coordinates and take a selfie. No directions. No hints as to how to get there. Each day usually involves 10 checkpoints and about 250 miles of driving–a mix of on- and off-road. 

Here’s how the event operates: Each team must find a set of GPS checkpoints and take selfies upon arrival. How they get there is up to them, but they have to collect trash along the way. Pith helmets are recommended but not required. 

There’s no one to log in teams at those checkpoints, either, as it’s all based on the honor system. And if you think the route is finely crafted and exhaustively pre-run–like the rally events we host for our sister magazine, Classic Motorsports–you would be wrong. We learned this lesson the hard way, as more often than not we encountered a blocked trail and had to find an alternate route. 

At night, competitors head back to Gambler Town (as the camping area is usually called) to party, check out the cars, drink beer and swap war stories. As our event took place in a pandemic, those festivities were minimized, and we skipped them altogether. 

Making a Difference

Yes, the event was fun and yes, we dragged trash out of the forest. Another reason to go? The community. It almost seemed like people were waiting for their fellow participants to get stuck just so they could experience the pure joy of dragging them out. 

Unlike a lot of other motorsports events, there isn’t much of a competition aspect here: It’s crazy people driving crazy cars while picking up crazy amounts of garbage. The spirit of the event feels kind of like our $2000 Challenge meets 24 Hours of Lemons meets a rallycross.

Wanna spend a weekend bombing through the forest with friends? Here’s a way to do it. 

The participants included a real cross section of America. There were SCCA racers and rallycrossers and BMW CCA and PCA peeps out for a good time. There were certainly $2000 Challengers and Lemons racers there, too, as well as a few rough-and-tumble country folk. 

We noticed that most entrants broke into smaller groups that tended to stick together. CB radios provided communication in areas with little or no cell phone coverage. Our improvised group consisted of the three cars we brought, the Beer Can Bronco, a rallycross-prepped Volkswagen Beetle, and a Ford F-250 daily driver that its owner brought when he was unable to finish his Gambler build in time.

Would we do it again? Absolutely. It’s like rallycross on steroids and with few restrictions. The mission: Go out and drive all day. No lines, no wait. But there’s just enough of a competitive edge to keep it interesting. 

All weekend, though, we tried to figure out why the event was called the Gambler 500. We finally realized what the gamble was: that your car can survive a punishing weekend across all kinds of terrain. In our case, the bet paid off, and we can’t wait to do it again.

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