Well, it’s going to be a long weekend. That’s the thought that crossed my mind as I stepped out of my truck and onto the soggy ground at the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. It was time for the second Tennessee Gambler 500 event, titled “Redemption.” The organizer, Mason Dixon, had named the event this because the 2018 inaugural Gambler 500 was held in the same location. It also had most of the same GPS coordinates. The event was named redemption to encourage past participants to push themselves to get further than they did previously. For new participants the event name mattered little as they had never been a part of a Gambler 500. Some had only heard that the first event was a blast. This time around, new participants seemed to outnumber previous participants.
Proper boots mattered little at this event, as Tennessee was experiencing abnormally high amounts of rain. We saw the falling of enough of it during the event to wash out trails and cause significant flooding. In fact, February 2019 set a new record for most rainfall along the Tennessee River valley. That added up to one wet weekend. But that did not hamper participation or positive attitudes. In fact, registration was up for this years’ event. Participants came from as far away as Louisiana, Florida, and Minnesota.
For those that are not familiar, the Gambler 500 challenges participants to acquire a vehicle for approximately $500 or less and then wheel that vehicle to established GPS coordinates. Extra cool points are provided to those that create an especially different or impractical rig. Gambler 500s have taken place in many locations across both the United States and Canada.
The one theme that persists among all of the events is that fun is greater than rules. The off-road, rally-style event was originally started by Tate Morgan in his home state of Oregon in 2014 as a challenge to see how far $500 cars could go off-road. The focus has always been on the idea that there doesn’t need to be a set of rules that everyone has to play by. Instead, creativity and fun are emphasized far above any specific dollar amount spent or any adherence to any specific rules of participation.
The first year saw the participation of 14 cars; by 2018, the participation reached 1,600 vehicles at the base camp in Chemult. This isn’t just an event to smash up some cheap cars either. The hallmark of the event is stewardship of the land. A prize is handed down to the participant that collects the most trash on the trails during the event. At the 2018 Chemult event, there was enough trash collected to fill three large dumpsters. That’s a pretty significant achievement that goes a long way toward gaining the support of local communities and law enforcement agencies.
Ric Deshaw and Roger Robbins found out about the Gambler 500 at a concert and looked it up on Facebook. There was no stopping them once they saw all the fun that was taking place. They put their ’90s model Hyundai Elantra together as fast as they could to be a part of the festivities. We caught up to them as they were packing up on the second day. They woke up early that morning to find water in their tent, so they booked a local hotel for a hot shower and meal before returning on the final day to search for more waypoints.
“We ended up going way to far north today,” Ric and Roger stated with big grins. “We were almost off the map that was handed out. ‘Yeah, we might be a little off.’ We still found half the points though!”
A custom air intake, bobcat tires, massaged fenders, and a skid plate were added to make the rig Gambler ready. “If we were going to make one suggestion to anyone who was going to run in a Gambler, we would say get a legit GPS unit and a CB radio,” they said. By having the CB radio, the pair was able to communicate on the go with other gamblers ahead of them on the trail. That communication saved them on more than a few occasions.
Fellow first time gamblers David and Stephanie LeDoux also had water in their tent that same morning. They scoffed at the idea of a hotel. “This ain’t the first time we’ve been out camping and got rained on a bit,” David said.
The couple had made the trip from Louisiana after finding the event on Facebook. “We’re used to monster trucks and mud trucks, so the five-hundred dollar cars and the terrain are different,” said Stephanie. “Plus, the checkpoints are cool, because it’s not just driving around in one mud park; you are going all over the place. We’ll definitely be back for the next one in September, but we want to build a car for that one.”
The couple had tailored their 1995 Jeep Wrangler with ample suspension and mud tires for the event. That just made things too easy. “We were following those guys in the Elantra and they were bouncing over stuff and looked like they were just having the best time,” David said. Stephanie added, “When you have a car, it’s a lot harder. In the Jeep, we can just crawl all over everything. That challenge, though, is part of the fun. Even though it’s nice that we didn’t worry about being broken down so far from home, now that we know what the Gambler really is, we will definitely be back with our own car build.”
A small car fire did little to slow down gamblers Izak Pornovets and Trevor Sofford. They were headed out to one of their first checkpoints on Saturday morning at about 7:20am. “We had just left camp and got to the top of the first hill, and I kind of smelled something and thought that I saw some smoke, but I thought, ‘Hey, this car has been running flawlessly, there’s no way it can be us,” said Trevor.
“Well, we pulled over so we could pop the hood and take a look around to see if we had any issues. I didn’t even get the chance to get out before a guy ran over and pounded on our window to let us know that we were on fire,” Izak explained, with lots of laughter. Apparently, the vehicle had some grass and mud packed around the exhaust, and that resulted in a slight ignition. Izak and Trevor (as well as a fellow gambler) quickly extinguished the small fire and everyone was back on the trail.
Team Ranger Road Motors was once again an honored participant. Brand ambassadors Colin Pascik and Joe Yantz made the rounds throughout the weekend, hitting big jumps in their rig – the “Exploder” – and dishing out Ranger Road swag to those interested. All in all, it was a pretty great weekend – over five tons of trash was picked up, friends were made, mishaps were had, and awards were handed out for Most Incapable Build, Most Likes for a Check-In on Facebook, and Most Gambler Build.
The next Tennessee Gambler is already being planned for a new location with new waypoints and even more outlandish builds. We hope to check it out come September 2019.