So no kidding, there I was. I was standing outside of a decommissioned prison, next to a vehicle that looked like something out of a Mad Max movie, and having a very interesting conversation with three American heroes that would rather make self-deprecating jokes about missing limbs than receive accolades for their sacrifices. Sound like the plot to some strange movie or an episode of a TV show making fun of all things pop culture?
Have you ever heard of the Gambler 500? I hadn’t. When I heard about how participants of the event would acquire a vehicle worth five hundred dollars or less and then take that vehicle for a trip across hundreds of miles, involving both on and off-road driving, I knew I had to see it. It just so happened that this particular event was taking place at a newly renovated and re-opened former prison outside of Knoxville in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains.
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary boasts a large grassy area with primitive camping right out front, as well as a restaurant and moonshine distillery on site. Brave souls can also take a tour of the former prison. For our purposes, the campground offered a perfect staging area for the approximately 200-plus participants in the inaugural Tennessee Gambler 500.
Gambler 500 events have taken place in many states across both the United States, as well as Canada. The off-road, rally-style event was originally started by Tate Morgan in his hometown state of Oregon in 2014 as a challenge to see how far $500 cars could go. The first year saw the participation of 14 cars, and by 2015, the number of participants increased to 28. By 2018, the Gambler 500 had 4,000 attendees and approximately 1,600 vehicles at the base camp in Chemult, Oregon.
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 rally. At the 2018 Chemult event, there was enough trash collected to fill three large dumpsters.
As event organizer and Tennessee Gambler 500 founder Mason Dixon stated, “All of the police, sheriffs, and town leadership around here have been really supportive of the event. They like that we’re being good stewards of the land and leaving things better than we found them.”
Like all other previous Gambler 500 events, prizes were awarded for the most trash collected during the event. One of those awards went to Ben Huffman of team Garbage Can, who had the forethought to construct a rack system on the top of their rig to carry both gear and trash during the event. A second litter award went to Travis Hawn who had a pink Civic also with a roof rack for trash.
It’s probably easiest to think about Gambler 500 events as being part of a franchise. When an individual organizer takes an interest in putting on a Gambler event in their home state, they reach out to Tate Morgan, the original organizer, and he will assist in all of the specifics to get started. The big thing to consider before taking this step is that the event is organized and created without financial support from Tate Morgan or any other source. It is the responsibility of the organizer to create a sponsor list if possible, or pay out of pocket for any costs to establish the event.
This certainly creates a challenge for people and potential organizers, as long hours and some cost will always be involved. However, the motto of any Gambler 500 event is – always be gambling. With that in mind, it makes sense that even the establishment of the event in the first place is a gamble with an organizer’s own time and possibly finances.
Tennessee Gambler 500 founder and organizer, Mason Dixon, described that gamble by stating that, “It’s kind of a love for the event. I’ve spent some of my own money to get this going, but it’s free for participants and we want to keep it free. It’s a passion.” Mason did report that there was a $20 camping fee for those that wanted to stay in the campground, and that this fee did help to offset the cost of the campground use and other event expenses.
But we think that its safe to say that the amount of time, money, and effort that went into the event probably well exceeded what was recouped through the camping fee. Mason stated, “I’ve been in the woods my whole life and I grew up around here. Then I moved away to Minnesota for 10 or 12 years, and now that I’m back, I just want to do things that help out this community. Also, doing this is just a blast.”
The beauty of the event is that there is not a lot of structure. GPS coordinates provided to participants Saturday morning detail 10 checkpoints for participants to navigate to. Once there, a photo is taken next to the checkpoint marker and posted to the event Facebook page. However, no specific route to the checkpoint is provided. It is up to the participant to navigate in his or her own way. It’s also important to note that it is not a race, and no award is given for the first one to reach all the checkpoints.
Two additional bonus checkpoints, as well as two bragging rights checkpoints, were also provided. In Tennessee, a permit is needed for access to many lands, but the amount of old mining and access roads that lead to other parts of the counties make it possible for great off-road opportunities. This, all while remaining completely legal without permits, as is the case for the Gambler.
“Its all about being good stewards of the land and the fun and impractical,” Mason said. “Five Gambler 500 rings are given out, and they’re kind of like Super Bowl rings. We award them for things like most trash picked up, most incapable car, most unique build, most likes on Facebook, things like that. We also give out the scepter award, which is a Gambler of the Year award.”
This was the first event organized by Mason and we see it as a huge success. Plans are already in place for another event next year, and we would not be a bit surprised if additional events pop up, too.