This weekend, an automotive freak parade stretched from the streets of Detroit to the back woods of Northern Michigan.
It's the second year for the Gambler 500 in Detroit. Piece of junk cars were lined up bumper to bumper for close to half a mile in downtown Troy early Saturday morning.
There was an old Buick Century painted up like NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon's famous number 24 car. The drivers took out the Buick's roof with an electric saw and hung an American flag on the back.
“We have never owned a convertible before, so we figured we [should] turn it into one,” one of the drivers said.
Event organizer Tom Nardone started the Detroit-based Gambler 500 a year ago.
“I wanted to go on some sort of mid-life crisis adventure and Burning Man seemed far away,” he said.
The event is a 500-mile trek along a "secret route." Drivers get GPS coordinates the day of, and teams are supposed to spend $500 dollars or less on their rides (although it's apparent this rule is frequently broken).
The #1 rule is: "Don't be a dick."
That sometimes warrants further explanation, but seems to be a philosophy easily understood by most.
Nardone says he got in contact with organizers of a Gambler 500 event based in Oregon, who in turn encouraged Nardone to start his own “Detroit Edition.”
The event's participation nearly doubled in its second year. Nardone says 813 cars turned in registration slips.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there who like motor sports or cars in general. But almost everything that involves that is astronomically expensive and inaccessible,” Nardone said. “This is so approachable and so affordable.”
Before the rally starts, there’s a cul-de-sac full of crazy, weird, and goofy-looking cars ready to parade through Troy. A guy in a blow-up T-Rex costume stands next to a 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee spray-painted to look like a car from Jurassic Park. It's yellow, green, and red with stenciled logos. Plus, a loudspeaker and a light bar.
Vincent Marsella, Max Sobel, and Mike Lee are driving the 1998 Jeep that cost them $460. They call it the "Jurassic Jep" because one of the E's is missing from the hood. The upholstery is coming unglued from the ceiling, and a broken sway bar has been conveniently zip-tied out of the way.
The three young guys living in Detroit were there for their first Gambler 500.
"We just stumbled upon it on the internet like two months ago, and we decided to make the irresponsible decision of joining,” Marsella said.
The Jurassic Jep and the rest of the "gamblers" leave for the first few Detroit checkpoints around 10 a.m.
Marsella eventually pulls to a partially flooded vacant lot across the street from Historic Ft. Wayne, where dozens of cars are lined up.
Drivers take turns streaking through the mud, trying to get air on nearby train tracks, and relishing the chance for some urban off-roading.
We get to the front, and these guys are amped.
But come lunchtime, Mike Lee (unofficial co-pilot of the Jep) is ready for wilder country.
"[I’m] looking forward to seeing how well the Jep does in the mud because we haven't taken it off road yet,” he said.
“Speed and power,” Lee and Marsella repeated to themselves as a sort of mantra for the weekend.
Both Marsella and Lee work in the auto industry. They’re definitely car guys (the Gambler 500 beckons to gearheads). Max Sobel – the guy dressed in the T-rex costume at the start of the weekend – admits he doesn’t know anything about cars. He’s along for the fun, and to play music on the three-hour trek to St. Helen, Michigan.
By the middle of the afternoon Saturday, the cityscape of metro Detroit gives way to the open farmland of central Michigan. The Jep passes across the Zilwaukee Bridge in in Saginaw County, and follows other gamblers north to state forests filled with hardwood and conifer trees.
Turning down the first off-road trail, there's a beautiful view of a perfectly clear blue sky, tall trees, and sunshine.
But nobody in the ‘Jep’ knows where to go.
The route of the Gambler 500 was secret until the day of the rally. Drivers have to input latitude and longitude coordinates into map apps on their smart phones. But cell service is touch and go up here. A crew in another Gambler 500 car, already partially covered in mud, pulls up and asks for help, but doesn’t get it.
“I don't know which way's which,” the driver said.
Sobel, Lee, and Marsella answered in chorus: “We don't know either.”
“Well, what's the worst that will happen?” Marsella asked.
“Hey, there's at least two of us right?" the other driver yelled back.
Marsella was into it.
“There's at least two of us, exactly, do it dude!”
The roar of the two engines starts a long afternoon of riding trails through the mud and sand, and watching more than a few people get stuck.
Plenty of cars end up breaking down, some before even making it out of Detroit. Another Jeep in the rally caught on fire while trying to power over a hill in an unkempt part the city.
As for the Jurassic Jep, much of the first day was spent rescuing a Volkswagen Beetle with lifted suspension and off-road tires. A couple of rally car drivers thought it could survive a romp through the wilderness. But a broken axle shortened that drive.
Overnight, a lot of those gamblers camp out in the state forest. Lee, Marsella, and Sobel end up drinking a few beers and sleeping overnight in the Jep.
They reported back that 20-degree car sleep isn't all that satisfying. But the next morning at breakfast, they want more time on the trails.
Neither Marsella nor Lee have had experience off-road driving before this weekend. The Gambler 500 was a cheap way to dip their toes in. And it’s helpful to have so many other gamblers around and willing to help out.
“You can take a car you don't care at all about, but there are just tons of other people here in the exact same place, doing the exact same thing, with the exact same level of car,” Marsella said. “And it takes some of the risk out. There's that safety net, and you can really have fun. There's that community."
They take off ripping through the countryside again after breakfast. Deep in the woods, Marsella finds the steepest part of any trail they've seen. There's even some lingering snow on it.
But the Jurassic Jep has proven trustworthy so far.
“I have confidence,” Lee says as they got ready to climb.
After two failed attempts. Lee blurts over the loudspeaker to the only other vehicle in sight, “We're coming up again.”
Marsella hammers the gas, hits the hill, and sends a bunch of mud and snow flying backwards. With the right combination of speed and power, he finally gets it to the top of the hill with a triumphant biological roar to echo his mechanical steed.
This is the crowning moment of this year's Gambler 500 for this team.
The whole weekend the Jep didn't meet a trail it couldn't beat. Before they even make it back to Detroit, the guys are already brainstorming ideas for the paint job on next year’s Gambler 500 car.
With a bunch of vehicles coming in under $500, it's hard not to wonder if anyone got stranded after breaking down. But the Jep made it to Detroit just before 6 p.m. on Sunday. Earlier that day, the same red VW Beetle the team helped rescue was seen headed south on I-75, evidently with a replacement axle that had been competently installed.