Have you ever wanted to drive a $500 car 500 miles? What if that 500 miles was from the Detroit suburbs through abandoned automobile factories and dystopian city neighborhoods then north several hours to off-road in the forests of northern Michigan?
Created by Detroit entrepreneur and philanthropist Tom Nardone, the Gambler 500 is a race as unconventional as its creator. Nardone, also the creator of the Detroit Lawnmower Gang showed up in a Mustang GT with large off-road tires and a spare strapped to the roof.
A $500 price for the car is merely a target, most have much more invested, some in modifications to help the car perform in the wide variety of conditions it will be exposed to during the race. Others in entertaining and zany themes, some resembling art cars seen at Burning Man.
The race is not a test of speed but more of route-finding, cooperation between competitors and a bit of sight-seeing. Followed by off-roading and camping in the woods of northern Michigan.
The off-road sections require cooperation as many of the modified sedans and other 2 wheel drive vehicles found themselves on the end of a tow strap more than once. Every team was issued a token to be given to another team that helped them out. The team that helped other teams the most and collected the most tokens won a prize.
Teams were encouraged to collect garbage left by prior campers at the camping area and all their garbage as well as parts that fell off of cars was collected and hauled out. After several hundred Gamblers exited their campsites on Sunday, the only evidence of their presence was their tire tracks.
This years Detroit Gambler 500 had over 900 vehicles registered, roughly twice as many as last year. This was in spite of the bitterly cold weather for this time of the year. It was in the 20s at night which reduced the number of campers at the northern Michigan event site.
We camped in the back of a 4wd Toyota Tundra set up for Overlanding with a mid-travel suspension and a winch on the front. It felt like cheating but it was comfortable and handy for helping others on the trails. We were consistently amazed at how far other competitors could make it in (among other vehicles) large rear wheel drive cars with off-road tires driven by drivers with no concern for equipment. Even more impressive, the vast majority of these cars drove several hours back to Detroit under their own power.