On Saturday morning, over 400 rusty crap-cans assembled in Troy, Michigan to partake in the grueling Gambler 500, an on and off-road rally in northern Michigan specifically for $500-ish cars. It was an awesome shitshow filled with some of the most questionable repairs I’ve ever seen.
Upon arriving at the start line for the Gambler 500 in my $600 1995 Jeep Cherokee (dubbed Project Swiss Cheese), I was greeted by hundreds of vehicles that made my old beater look like a Mercedes S-Class. These junkers had chopped tops, horrible artwork (there were, unsurprisingly, many penises), enormous tires that didn’t fit, and more zip ties and duct tape than I’d ever seen in my life.
After witnessing the first of many burnouts on the well-maintained suburban street, I realized that this trip was going to be the Wild West of car rallies—lawless, crude and just downright hilarious.
The organizers gave each driver a list of waypoint coordinates, and after a short drivers’ meeting, the rally was on. Our first checkpoint was near Detroit, and the challenge was to see how large of a ledge people dared to take their vehicles over. The most impressive display of DGAF-ness came from a gentleman in a vehicle named “Burbanator,” which dropped off a three-foot ledge and banged the crap out of its rear quarter panel. The driver didn’t mind the least bit.
From there, the 400-plus gamblers drove to the Packard plant to jump the train tracks. I didn’t get much air in my Cherokee thanks to all of that suspension flex, but some vehicles—including this GMC Jimmy—went balls-out.
This Ford Contour landed directly on its radiator, shooting coolant all over the road:
Dozens of cars were pulled over on the landing side of the train tracks trying to fix what they had broken:
As a Jeep Cherokee connoisseur, I was moved to help a fellow XJ owner in need, and met a guy named Tim (that’s him under the Jeep). His fuel pump had all of a sudden quit, and he was worried he’d have to drop the tank to fix it.
After I showed Tim that he could access the pump from the front of the tank, he removed the assembly and discovered a wiring fault. Our solution? We just hard-wired the pump directly to the battery.
Sadly, Tim had accidentally dropped the rubber seal into the tank, so the fuel sending unit no longer held all the gas in, as we found out during the next fuel stop.
The solution was to just never fill the tank all the way to the top. Were we concerned about our electrical-taped wiring perhaps arcing in front of a leaky fuel tank? Sure. But safety third.
The theme of “Safety Third” continued once we got up to Northern Michigan, where—on the dirty off-road trails—a number of vehicles found themselves stranded.
The Mercury Grand Marquis in the picture was one of these broken down cars. I stopped to tow them out of the dirt, at which point their exhaust pipe broke off and wrapped around the axle.
What’s happening in the image above is a Jeep (out of the picture to the left) is pulling a tow strap to try to bend the exhaust pipe so it can be removed from the Mercury’s axle. For whatever reason, the gentleman in the image thinks he can help the Jeep, and doesn’t think putting the tire on the car (rather than supporting the vehicle on sand precariously via a jack and a wobbly jack stand) would be a good call.
It was a sketchy fix, as that exhaust could have just came flying out from under the vehicle and the car could have fallen off its jack and stand (which are both just sitting in loose sand). But it all worked out. The Jeep bent the exhaust pipe, and the driver’s extracted it so it would no longer rub against the ground as they drove. Safety third at its finest.
Eventually, we all got to the campsite, where over a thousand people were camping alongside their crap cans and engaging in all sorts of strangeness. For example, here’s a guy cooking pulled pork via this can-rotator mechanism built from a windshield wiper motor:
And here’s a guy showing me the outhouse fastened to his Jeep Grand Cherokee (it’s a bucket with a toilet seat on top):
The next morning brought tons of off-roading, including time trials through a very loose dirt trail. Here’s the line of vehicles at the start of the time trials:
And here’s the inevitable crash that brought the event to a halt:
After a Jeep yanked that chopped Camry from the creek, we all continued on through fairly difficult off-road terrain that challenged even my Cherokee (granted, I was on bald 215-section tires, but still).
At one point, the organizer of the event (named Tom) told me not to continue driving down one of the trails because it was too difficult; even he, in his HMMWV wouldn’t dare attempt it.
In my idiocy (and because “Safety Third”) I figured I’d give it a go anyway. The obstacle involved getting to the other side of a very steep sandy hillside. I nearly made it there, too, but my bald tires just couldn’t grip, and I found myself sliding down the slope. The more I struggled, the more likely it was that I’d go careening down the hill into the abyss. As this was happening, it began pouring rain, and I feared I’d be washed off the face of the earth, so I got pulled out and pretended it never happened.
After all the trail riding was over, the remaining Gamblers whose vehicles had made it through the off-road trails returned to the campsite, where a crazy man was strapping a fuel tank to the top of his Buick Roadmaster.
The previous day, he had jumped his Buick over the Packard Plant train tracks, and promptly cracked his frame. A few ratchet straps held up his car’s butt just enough to allow a Chevy S10 to tug him to the campsite.
But once there, he just hacked off the entire rear end, and rigged the fuel tank to the roof:
After hooking the taillights to the top, the owner of this green Roadmaster had himself a theoretically-driveable vehicle. While I never got to see it drive after this repair, this “Safety Third” fix—with a heavy gas tank zip tied to the roof—was the weekend’s most brilliant jerry-rig job.
After lots of great off-roading, my buddy Tim’s hack-job fuel pump wiring finally gave up the ghost, and he was stranded in his Cherokee on the side of I-75. So I drove back and hooked up the nylon tow strap to his front bumper, and my Jeep towed him to the nearest gas station.
After failing to fix his vehicle, Tim and I decided to just tow his car back to Flint. 100 Miles. With a Nylon tow strap looped around his bumper. It was among the sketchiest things I’ve ever done, especially since my brake lights didn’t work, and Tim’s brakes were awful (his brake pedal went all the way to the floor—see brake warning light below).
The whole damn event was sketchy and dirty and just downright lawless. It was filled with burnouts and fluid leaks and exhaust parts left strewn throughout the woods (though it’s worth noting that volunteers cleaned up afterwards). It was a very “back to basics” approach to cars. It wasn’t about luxury or fuel economy or ride quality or handling—it was about one thing: can we somehow rig these cars up so they will drive for just a couple of days? That’s it. And there’s something magical about that.