2020 Gambler 500 Colorado

2020 Gambler 500 Colorado

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Photos by Kathy Locke, Ashley Eriksen, Max Gomez

It’s a Friday afternoon in the middle of August in the northwest suburbs of metro Denver. “We should get going. We absolutely have to be there when the Gambler caravan from the Ozarks comes in,” says Clark.

I’m at my friend Clark’s house meeting up with him and his friend, Frank, as we get ready to head out for a long weekend near Red Feather Lakes in northern Colorado, about an hour northwest of Fort Collins. Our caravan consists of my FJ Cruiser, Clark’s 2015 Tacoma, and Frank’s Ford F-350 towing a well-loved pop-up camper with little wheels Clark is sure are going to explode on the highway on our way up.

Many thoughts go through my mind about this Gambler caravan from the Ozarks. I’m trying to not let the stereotype of the Ozarks cloud my judgement or poison my experience with them. Even saying “them” feels like I’ve already categorized the people I will soon meet, and I feel my ideas of them are already tainted. My only knowledge of the Ozarks comes from my childhood watching the “Beverly Hillbillies” or other Appalachia caricatures from TV and movies. I keep driving and try to focus on what I hope the weekend will entail and try to keep my mind open for unchartered territory at my first Gambler 500 Rally.

Toyota trucks and 4runners at Colorado Gambler 500 Rally 2020

We stop at Orville’s Restaurant on our way up and run into Josh Patt, one half of the duo running the Colorado Gambler 500. We all chat for a bit but he’s headed back to base camp about four miles up the road at a private residence with some food from Orville’s. He throws on his helmet and goggles and jumps into a burgundy-colored Gambler car that started life as an early 90s Mercury Cougar, but now has yellow flames on the hood and lightning bolts on the passenger doors. Although it might’ve lived a more glamorous life in the 90s, it now screams of an old, tired, and weathered lady of the night, who smells of stale cigarettes wearing her tattered and worn pleather miniskirt. Bright bubblegum pink spray paint haphazardly covers the front bumper as if to say, “screw beauty.” It no longer has a front windshield, or a roof, hence the helmet and goggles. This is my first taste of a Gambler in the wild.

Josh and his wife, Niki, the other half of the duo, took over the Colorado Gambler 500 two years ago after attending other Gambler rallies. Two hours after winning the Kansas Gambler in 2018, they were approached about taking over the Colorado Gambler. “We talked about it on the entire drive back to Colorado from Kansas. We talked about the pros and cons, and plans and ideas, and brainstormed. I mean, it took some serious conversation to make the decision because we also knew that once we started it, it’s not like we can do it once and be done. It would be something that we had to commit to long term. And we’re busy people, so that was a big conversation about that,” says Niki.

Toyota trucks and 4runners at Colorado Gambler 500 Rally 2020

What was most important to Josh and Niki for the Colorado Gambler 500 was creating an event that culled from their experiences at other racing events they’ve attended and competed in. Josh competes in Ultra 4 with his Rock Tech Racing team, most recently winning 3rd place on the podium with his 1981 Toyota pickup at Nationals this past October. “Baja 1000, King of the Hammers, the Mint 400, Vegas to Reno—all these professional races, that’s the type of atmosphere that we pull from. You know, I don’t even look at it as an event--what I aspire to create is a festival,” says Josh. “I want the only complaint from someone is they say they just didn’t have enough time to do it all.”

We arrive in plenty of time at base camp and greeting us at the entrance is “The Green Growler,” Josh and Niki’s drab, pickle-colored 1973 Ford LTD with KC Baja lights and BF Goodrich KO2s. We check-in and get our Gambler shwag and registration materials, all contained inside a nice, manilla envelope. Clark, Frank, and I find our secluded camp spot near the entrance but above the open area of the property, where most of the other Gamblers will probably camp. “It gets a little rowdy and loud at night,” says Clark, with a little nod to let me know if we want any sleep, we should stay away from that area. I pick up on the hint quickly and completely agree—I love a good party, but my partying days are long gone. I love sleep now.

Toyota trucks and 4runners at Colorado Gambler 500 Rally 2020

I meet up with my navigation partner, Jessy, whom Josh and Niki had introduced me to a few weeks earlier. Jessy, affectionately known as the “Gambler Queen,” won that famous title at the 2019 Oregon Gambler, or OG, as it's known in the Gambler community. She is going to be my Gambler teammate for this event. Different than the map and compass navigation I’m used to after competing in the Rebelle Rally, this event allows the use of GPS, which for me, feels a little like cheating.

Around 9 pm that night, loud sirens and blaring lights appear in the distance amid a cloud of dust from the dirt road and we’re roused from our small talk in our camp chairs and cozy propane campfire. I begin thinking the sheriff has come for some reason, but as they get closer, Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” can be heard playing loud and clear. A large van that lived its previous life as a transportation vehicle for a mental health institution and is now known as the “Beerbulance” drives in, towing a Volkswagen Rabbit with “Pony Keg” emblazoned in large script on its sides. Behind it, one peculiar and outrageous Gambler vehicle after another, either towed or trailered, steadily make their way into camp. Horns honking and sirens blaring, people hooting and hollering. Heads and arms hanging out of windows holding their choice of road trip beverage in hand. I’m in awe at what I am witnessing and can’t resist the excitement and energy emanating from their loud, jubilant cheers.

 “They’re here,” Clark says with a smile. I smile along with him and begin cheering and clapping along as they make their way in, this caravan from the Ozarks.

I'm beginning to understand.

Toyota trucks and 4runners at Colorado Gambler 500 Rally 2020

Race day

The Gamblers did stay up late. Some were still coming into camp through the night. Some were partying and reuniting with their Gambler family, or Gam Fam, and spreading moonshine cheer. Some, like the team with the completely stock 2002 Volkswagen Jetta, were busy installing a two-inch lift, shocks, coils, brake lines and cutting the body to accommodate the bigger tires, over a period of six and a half hours that night.

“Here’s what’s so Gambler-esque about it,” Josh says proudly. “They had four guys to their team. The two times I went over there to check on them, there were six or seven other guys working on it who were just random dudes from camp that went over there to help out. At one point, there were probably 20 guys working on that car and they got it done and they Gambled it all weekend. The whole Gambler camp helped them do it. Right there. Everybody brought tools out, they had a generator with electricity and power tools—they built it right there in the trees.” They also installed a Rhino-Rack roof rack the morning of race day, because, why not?

We attend the driver’s meeting, get our coordinates, and are debriefed on the fire, which is still a good distance away, but is clouding the skies and filling my sinuses with smoke. Day two of the rally will be rerouted due to the fire.

Jessy and I get into the FJ and she vigorously starts plotting the coordinates into the GPS, and when it’s our turn to leave, we head out and start Gamblin’.

Along with having cheap and raucous fun, and driving vehicles that should’ve never left a paved road and are now decorated like they're from the land of misfit Mad Max rejects, picking up trash scattered about the forest roads is one of the expectations of the Gambler. It’s something the Gamblers take seriously and are proud to take part in. “Leave it better than you found it,” says Niki.

Toyota trucks and 4runners at Colorado Gambler 500 Rally 2020

“I've met some of the most unique people being a part of the Gambler 500. You'd be surprised how many different walks of life care about cleaning up trash,” says Gambler photographer and proud co-owner of the Beerbulance and Pony Keg, Ashley.

“Colorado is a wonderful state to share with people who respect the outdoors and want to help clean up our lands,” says Charlie, one of the crew members from the “Sirch and Rascue” teams. “Plus, the crap box cars are a hoot!”

It’s a blast driving through the trails, even though I’m in my FJ which is perfectly capable taking on the Colorado back roads. When I initially decided to compete in the rally, I confessed to Josh and Niki that I felt guilty having a significant and unfair advantage over the Gambler vehicles competing in my FJ. “The original concept of the Gambler was a $500 car or 500 miles,” says Niki. “Our philosophy is “500 miles, 500 smiles,” so it’s not about how much money you spent on the car, we don’t care. We had a guy last year that brought his Ford Raptor.”

“The thing too,” Josh chimes in, “is a $500 car nowadays isn’t going to be too safe going down our mountain roads, and why do I care what somebody spends? If he buys it for $500 and puts $5,000 in it, what’s the difference? And frankly, I just want them to be there. I don’t care what they’re in.”

I soon realize there are many more perfectly capable Toyota vehicles competing—a 60 and 80 Series Land Cruiser, a couple of first and second gen 4Runners, a first gen Tundra, and of course a 2001 Corolla. I’m not feeling as guilty any more—maybe a little nervous for the Corolla—but otherwise, no more sympathy from me competing in my FJ Cruiser.

As Jessy and I drive throughout the day, we check in often on Gamblers pulled over on the side of the road, making sure everyone is ok. Some are pulled over with the inevitable mechanical problems that plague these living-their-best-life cars. Other Gamblers are hanging out having some lunch or taking a swim in the river, swimsuits be damned. My friends, Clark and Frank, also part of the “Sirch and Rascue” teams, are searching for broken-down Gamblers in Clark’s Tacoma. Their Gambler nicknames are “Zip Tie” and “Dog Rocket,” respectively, and they are having more fun “fixing” the broken-down Gamblers with meticulously placed zip ties and taking photos of their handy work. When I see Clark’s photos of random zip ties attached to various car components, including door handles and tire rims, I have tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. “See, I fixed it,” Clark says with a big smile. “Frank actually had more mechanical knowledge than I realized, so when we would find broken down Gamblers, he often had good advice for a possible fix,” Clark tells me, despite their nifty zip tie work.

The GPS coordinates take us through some beautiful scenery through Wyoming and Colorado and we work our way back to base camp, which is on private property this year due to the Cameron Peak fire, with its billowy pompadour-shaped cloud plume still looming in the distance.

The rest of the Gamblers make their way back into camp for dinner and after stories of mishaps, breakdowns, and off-road maneuvering skills are shared, the real event begins.

Almost as a release of the day's travels and maybe even pure joy of just being where they are at that moment, a crowd starts assembling in the middle of the camp. Typically, they are lured by a large bonfire but the fire restrictions put a halt to it this year. Instead, smoke and dust from spin outs and the deafening sounds of roaring engines and cheers in the camp signify another spectator event is happening instead.

I approach and see the Corolla has a tow strap pulled through the trunk and is attached somewhere inside the car. The other end is attached to the rear of what looks like a mid-80s model LTD. I watch as a tug-of-war takes place between the two Gambler vehicles. The strap breaks free and I can’t tell who wins, or if there even was a winner, and before I can process what is actually happening, another vehicle quickly zooms in to be the next challenger.

The shenanigans last a long time—I did not stay up late enough to witness all of it and can’t even fathom how everyone is still filled with so much energy that late at night. Driving off-road is mentally exhausting, at least for me, and my two sleeping pads and my ear plugs in the back of my FJ were softly calling my name. Gambler party machine, I am not.

Toyota trucks and 4runners at Colorado Gambler 500 Rally 2020

The next day, the rally is re-routed due to the fire and we won’t be heading southwest as originally intended, as that will lead us directly towards the fire. We make our way to an intersection near Glen Echo Resort and are stopped by Max, another photographer and Sirch and Rascue team member. He’s informed us that even the alternate route has been closed and there is a sheriff waiting at the bridge where we are supposed to cross. It looks like our final rally day may be finished before it even gets started.

We eventually work our way east towards the bridge we are supposed to cross and there with Clark and Frank is the sheriff, who I’m sure has been thoroughly entertained by their zip tie stories. They tell us the bridge is closed and that we have to continue along eastbound. We happily oblige.

Jessy and I manage to maneuver our way to a few waypoints further east, eventually seeing where we would’ve wound up had we been able to access the bridge earlier. We decide it’s best to call it a day and work our way back to basecamp. The smoke from the fire is burning my sinuses and eyes anyway, and I can only imagine what the locals are going through worrying about their homes and livelihood.

We hang for a few hours as we wait for the rest of the Gamblers to get back to camp. Some have already left and headed back home. The others, still being teased by the day’s coordinates, manage to complete the route backwards, therefore getting the rest of the checkpoints for that day.

Winners for the Gambler 500 events are decided by having the Gambler Spirit—of camaraderie, great attitude, being helpful on the trail, and of course, a crazy car. In the Oregon Gambler, it involves “The Scepter” which is handed down from the previous winner, and in 2019 was passed down to my navigator, Jessy. After spending the weekend with her and driving with her during the rally, I understand why. The Gambler Queen has a heart of gold, embodies what the Gambler is truly about, and truly loves her zany, wild, and carefree Gam Fam.

For the Colorado Gambler, this year’s prizes range from a large metal map of the rally route, a few bottles of Gambler 500 Whiskey—one of them of course wrapped in zip ties, a bicycle sculpture made from a bicycle chain, a pear covered with a sticker, a beer koozie, a t-shirt, and a “Try Not to be a Dick Today” wooden ornament.

Yup, you read that right.

Toyota trucks and 4runners at Colorado Gambler 500 Rally 2020

Although others may view these “prizes” as not worthy of their time, for Gamblers, this hodge-podge of odd and quirky items is reflective of the people who compete in these rallies across the country. It is an acknowledgement of their personal Gambler Spirit and the love of adventure and friendships born from them.

Max, another photographer for the event, sums it up best: “It's a big family that loves to have fun. Plain and simple. They're definitely competitive, but when we all get back to camp, everyone just melds back together.”

Respect at the Gambler isn’t earned by being the fastest, the coolest, or even getting the most waypoints. It doesn’t matter in the least, and in fact, if you’re trying that hard it’ll be frowned upon. You get it simply by “not being a dick,” enjoying an off-road adventure while picking up trash, and helping out your fellow Gamblers.

Oh, and of course, driving a really abominable and perfectly incapable car.

Toyota trucks and 4runners at Colorado Gambler 500 Rally 2020

Sidebar: The sky was hazy and an auburn tint surrounded us as the Cameron Peak fire, about 40 miles away at the time, had started literally a day before the event. The first day of the rally was northeast of the fire and clear from any danger. The second day was redirected further southeast to avoid the fire and kept the Gamblers well within safe distance and out of the way of responders. Josh and Niki took every precaution to ensure the safety of everyone competing or helping with the event, and all competitors were cautious and aware of the fire at all times. The Cameron Peak fire eventually became the largest wildfire in Colorado history, burning nearly 310 square miles over a period of 112 days and became 100% contained by December 2, 2020.

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