The Gambler 500 Rally is in some ways the polar opposite of Sports Car Market. Where we mainly concern ourselves with highly collectible cars in top condition, the cars of the Gambler lean mightily towards the “disposable” end of the spectrum. While the event no longer has a $500 rule, participants adhere to the idea of doing as much as they can with as little as possible. Or simply building a crazy vehicle that still runs and drives. At its best the Gambler 500 resembles a car show crossed with a Mad Max movie.
There is a larger point: The Gambler mission is cleaning up trash from public lands. Unlike more conventional rallies, Gamblers are not scored on time, accuracy, or anything at all. If you haul an abandoned car (or boat, or RV, or…) out of the wilderness, organizers will refund your $40 entry fee. That’s as much recognition as you can get, not counting the cheers and high fives from your fellow participants. This is the other goal of the Gambler: To have some low-cost automotive fun in the out-of-doors.
The Gambler 500 started in Oregon in 2014, which helps explain its emphasis on enjoying nature, camping and off-roading — a trio of pastimes much beloved in the Pacific Northwest. Gambler events have spread wide and far since; organizers have open-sourced the concept and name to allow others to hold their own Gamblers. This year’s original, “OG” Gambler was held this past weekend, with its home base in Redmond, OR, at the Deschutes County Expo Center.
Gamblertown is the nexus of this weekend-long event. There’s a stage with live music, food trucks, merchandise and a huge camping area. You can spend the whole weekend at the town or come and go as you please. In fact, Gamblertown is a lot like the paddock at Goodwood, if Goodwood offered two crashed Geo Metros welded together back-to-back and driven by a pair of maniacs.
In advance of the event, the organizers send out a set of GPS waypoints where you can find illegal dump sites. We hit the trails in a tired 1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320 with over 208,000 miles on the clock. It started and ran reliably, which was more than could be said for a lot of the vehicles. While it rarely rains in the high desert of central Oregon, this weekend’s never-ending downpour made the adventure all the more exciting. Our Benz slipped and slid all over the muddy trails, but got us everywhere we wanted to go – including home again. The whole experience was a blast.
The organizers arranged for half a dozen huge dumpsters at Gamblertown and a few more sprinkled out on the trails. By Friday night the boxes were already full with over 300 cubic yards of trash, so they designated a big, flat gravel area nearby as a dumpsite. Through the day, Gamblers hauled in more and more junk. It came in strapped to the roofs of unlikely cars, in pickup beds, on trailers, and in the backs of SUVs.
By the end of the event, the total haul was roughly 600 cubic yards of trash, 20 to 30 large appliances, and well over a dozen abandoned cars, boats, and campers. All of that junk used to spoil the otherwise beautiful Crooked River National Grasslands. Laugh at the cars if you want — and Gamblers will surely laugh with you — but the service the Gambler 500 renders to society is real. We are proud to count ourselves as members of this unique community.