Sometimes, you have the chance to experience something and you know that it’s going to make an impact on you. Recently, we had the chance to participate in a unique event in Tennessee. The event was the Tennessee Gambler 500, which was a pretty cool experience all by itself. But the real impact took place through our time spent with a group of three event participants. Before we get into who those participants are, we should really talk about how awesome the event was.
The Gambler 500 are weekend events that challenge participants to acquire a vehicle for 500 dollars or less and then wheel that vehicle to established GPS coordinates. Extra points are provided to those that create an especially cool or impractical rig. Gambler 500 events have taken place across both the United States and 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 fourteen cars; by 2018, the participation jumped to 4,000! Of those, about 1,600 vehicles made it to 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 event, and at the 2018 Oregon 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 in the local communities where the events are held.
The inaugural 2018 Tennessee Gambler 500 had some pretty fantastic people in attendance, but none were more celebrated than the members of Team Ranger Road Motors. For those that may not be familiar, Ranger Road is a nonprofit organization based in Rancho Cordova, California. Their mission statement emphasizes “bringing veterans together through extraordinary experiences by empowering the transition to the next chapter of their life.” Ranger Road Motors is a subset of the Ranger Road organization dedicated to using motorsports to help both seriously injured veterans and civilians connect in a meaningful way. For the veteran, motorsports are a way to bridge the gap created by a serious injury.
Not all of the veterans assisted by Ranger Road have physical disabilities. However, Jordan Stevenson, Joe Yantz, and Colin Pascik are all lower limb amputees. Jordan is a former Naval Special Operations soldier that sustained a gunshot wound to the head which resulted in paralysis of his right side. He had his right leg amputated below the knee to enhance his recovery. Colin is a former Marine and Joe was in the Army, so there was always plenty of good-natured ribbing going on. Colin sustained injuries resulting in a double leg amputation above his knees following an IED strike and Joe was also injured in an IED strike that resulted in his right leg being amputated above the knee.
As Jordan put it, “Out here, it doesn’t matter that I’m missing a leg. I can still be just as good a driver as anyone else. It also helps because sometimes people are afraid to come and talk to us, but out here, it just seems easier. That’s what we really want. We just want to be treated like regular people.”
Not only is the story of how these individuals came to be at the event quite exceptional, but also the rig they wheeled all weekend was also something to behold. Joe had wanted to do a Gambler event for a couple of years, and he and Colin had been discussing it for a while. They decided on the Tennessee event, contacted Jordan, got the go ahead, and the rest is history. Ranger Road Motors provided the funds to purchase the vehicle, and the boys were on their way.
Joe, a Georgia resident, lived closest to the event, so he was tasked with the job of finding and storing the Gambler rig. Since Joe had the Mountaineer about a month prior, he also started the build process. New seats, tires, and rear bumper were added. A new paint job was completed and general maintenance – an oil change, new spark plugs, etc. – were done. A pretty sweet roof rack and rear shackle kit were also installed, and the front torsion bars were cranked to full height, giving the truck about two and a half inches of lift. A friend of Joe’s completed all of the vinyl work and airbrushing to complete the Ranger Road look.
Once at the event, the real fun started. The truck was bought with a bad front driveshaft, so Jordan and Joe came to the event a day early to search local junkyards for a replacement. A replacement was found, but in the end, the decision was made to keep the truck rear-wheel-drive only.
A sawzall was later used by the trio to remove the top half of both the drivers’ side and passenger side doors. Colin explained that since the air conditioning was kaput, to combat the high temperatures that weekend, the group decided to make the modification as they had trouble seeing through the muddy windows that couldn’t roll down. “We made safari doors,” he said.
A slight trimming of the newly installed front bumper was also necessary. “I use the term ‘bumper’ very loosely,” admitted Joe with a smirk. A winch was purchased and shipped to Joe, but it never made its way onto the SUV due to the bumper needing to be completed first. Instead, it made the trip in the back of the vehicle, where it was basically useless. Throughout the weekend there was never a shortage of harassment sent Joe’s way by Colin for that decision. For us, it was a never-ending source of comedy.
Following a spirited day of adventuring on Saturday, the group sat around the campfire reliving their adventures and the plans for the next day. It was then they decided that at the next Gambler event, the chosen vehicle would have to be a bit less capable. We just shook our heads as we marveled at this group’s need for even more of a personal challenge. While this event was never about accolades or awards, it was pretty amazing to see them awarded the Gambler of the Year award at the end of the event.
It was universally agreed amongst both organizers and participants that seeing them overcome their own adversities, physical challenges, and geographic distances separating them to participate in the Gambler event epitomized the “Always Be Gambling” spirit of the Gambler 500. Event organizer Mason Dixon stated: “When they came back and told me that they jumped their rig, I knew that they deserved the award.” We can’t wait to see them and their next rig at the Tennessee Gambler next year.