Fast as a Shark: East of Eden: The Fall of the Gumball 3000S

Alex Roy, Gumball organizer Julie Brangstrup and Michael Ross just before the cars are released at at the airport in Athens.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If that glory can be killed, we are lost.
-John Steinbeck

There should have been something in place. Morocco, 2004, on the running of the fifth Gumball 3000 should have been a warning. A Ferrari 360 ate it in spectacular fashion. The Reyland Escort Cosworth nearly took out Team Polizei. Jerry "Torquenstein" Reynolds survived what looked to be a death blow of an accident when the ass end of his Viper got loose on a North African road. But Gumball organizers Maximillion Cooper and Julie Brangstrup got off easy. Single-car pileups, as it were; no fatalities, and only Reynolds' bandaged head at the finish line to illustrate that anything had gone wrong.

So when an elderly couple pulled out in front of Nick Morley's Porsche in an old Golf, the ultimate result wasn't a surprise to anyone. I talked to Dan Neil not long before I left and he cautioned me, "Be careful. One of these days, somebody is going to get killed on one of these rallies." The worst case scenario, of course, was that said somebody would happen to be a civilian.

Yes, the Gumball is a rally, not a race, but let's step back a moment. It took me twenty-two hours to get from Tirana, Albania to Bratislava, Slovakia. Around an hour and a half was spent in a police station in Montenegro with Team Polizei and a few completely confused real police officers. Another couple of hours passed in Croatia waiting to hitch a ride in a VW Sharan support van after the Dubrovnik checkpoint. If you've laid out around 40k in entry fees, had your car shipped from points unknown to London, been shut down around 50 miles from a checkpoint on the first day of the rally, been held in a Turkish airport bar while your car is diverted to Athens, you're going to be anxious to hit the fucking road.

Part of the problem was with the ALK CoPilot nav system handed out by the organizers. Instead of being held responsible for setting their own routes via their own GPS units or by good old-fashioned paper maps, the CoPilot — a system designed to work with mobile phones — was obscenely unreliable and required a great deal of attention to work with any semblance of accuracy. Nevertheless, Cooper defended the CoPilot's accuracy at the driver's meeting in Albania. Later that day, the CoPilot directed Team Polizei and numerous other drivers to a blocked-off tunnel. Who should come up the road but Maximillion himself? Roy leaned out the passenger side window and commented, "So there's no problem with the CoPilots, Max?" Admittedly, in short order, the under-construction tunnel was unblocked for our convoy, but problems with the units were legion during the rally, and time lost (a Kuwaiti team in a Murcielago en route to Albania ended up routed to within 300 km of Turkey before they realized that everything was wrong and sped back) led to fatigue and fast driving in situations where it may not have been prudent.

Interestingly, I don't believe that Nick Morley was engaging in wanton speed-freakery in Macedonia. I was in the support van called to the scene; according to the CoPilot people, we were the closest support van to the accident. Reports were mixed. Serious inuries. Wait. Gumballers walked away. Oh wait, a death. Rumors started flying. We debated de-stickering the Sharan and hiding Gumball-related articles of clothing. We worried that we'd get into Macedonia and not be able to get out. We sent the van behind us forward as bait, telling them to wait for us at the border while we ate at a rural gas station. We hoped they'd be unable to resist testing the border in their urge to spank us in the unofficial Crewball 3000. Somehow, the knowledge that we weren't going to be left to fester in a Macedonian prison outweighed losing a stage to the other Sharan. I immediately developed a stress-related cold that I've yet to shake.

We passed the accident site somewhere in the night, having missed it as the result of some wrong turn, we suppose. Kemal Sadikoglu of the Turkish Taxi team pulled into the Albanian border checkpoint a half-hour after we did and claimed that they'd held Nick Morley's brother Oliver up once the authorities called out that shit had changed when word came down that Vladimir Cepulyoski had died of a heart attack after Morley and Matthew McConville's TechArt Porsche had T-boned their Volkswagen. Although the information I've been able to glean is muddy, the #19 M6 piloted by a Russian couple pulled up and Morley and McConville hopped in, only to be yanked out at a border checkpoint, while the Russians were allowed to continue.

The next day, Roy, Ross and I were detained for an hour and a half by Montenegrin cops due to the use of the Polizei M5's use of lights and sirens in traffic. They pulled the Russians in simply because they were in a stickered BMW that happened to be stuck in traffic while they were taking us to the police station. I can't tell whether the Russians were dumb or just stereotypically Russian, but I'm guessing that you don't get to own an M6 in Russia by being dumb, although playing ignorant and foreign is an advantage in plenty of Gumball situations. It got us the hell out of Montenegro, after all. I honestly can't say one way or another that the Russians knew what they were involved in. Their English was too bad; yet I don't know if it was on-purpose bad.

What I do know is this. The Macedonian roads on the proscribed route would be hell on cars like that TechArt Porsche. Our diesel Sharan was as fast as just about anything on those byways. And if, as the CoPilot people suggested, we were on the route that ultimately claimed the lives of the Cepulyoskis, I'm willing to believe Cooper's claim that Morley was in the neighborhood of the speed limit. The aforementioned Kuwaiti Murcie had been purchased brand-new for the rally; its crew had been directed up and down a dirt road for over an hour before we showed up. The car was fucked-up, dirty and making unfortunate noises. Macedonia is no place for a purebred supercar, and a TechArt Neun-Elf is essentially that. And beyond that, a Mk II Golf is no match for a modern Porsche in terms of safety systems. It's not particularly surprising that an elderly couple in such a machine would succumb to their injuries, however sad and tragic the circumstances may be. Nevertheless, the oncoming vehicle they pulled out in front of could just have as easily been a truck, and the world media never would have heard about it.

Yet it was a sticker-covered sports car driven by two wealthy Britons. It's news. Because those two Britons were scared shitless of a Macedonian jail, even if it was the elderly couple who pulled out of them when the Porsche had the right-of-way, it's not hard to understand why Morley and McConville ended up running. In such an accident in the United States or the UK, one generally knows what to expect. People have posited that the guys deserve to die in prison for running. On the other hand, I'd ask our readers, if they thought they had a chance to get out when everything turned to shit and they faced rotting in a second-world jail, if they might not attempt to get away as well. I'm not calling their runner the right decision, but I'm not damning them for it either, given that from what I've been able to piece together, it apparently wasn't their first instinct.

We got into Tirana at 4am. I walked into the hotel and found Herr Roy at the hotel bar. It had been a brutal day for everyone. I slept on a hardwood floor with a bathrobe for a mattress and woke up three hours later. Max proclaimed at the drivers' meeting that there a ton of rumors flying around Gumball and urged us not to talk to the press; to let the Gumball PR machine handle things.

Not long afterward, at 7am EDT on Thursday, May 3rd, Team Polizei's support guru J.F. Musial called the Macedonian embassy in London and confirmed that Cepulyoski was dead. That's noon in London. 1 or 2pm in Eastern Europe. If some 21-year-old college student in Hoboken, New Jersey could verify that the accident had resulted in a fatality via government channels, one would think that the rally organizer would certainly know well beforehand. Yet the morning briefing in Tirana was essentially a plea to keep a "first rule of Gumball, don't talk about Gumball" code of omerta in place with not even a slight whiff of death's maddening stank.

Just past Dubrovnik, Team Polizei tendered their resignation from the rally. On the road to Split, in a Sharan with a number of green Gumball volunteers in their early twenties headed by Kitty Cooper, Max's younger sister (who, by the way is a total sweetheart) we ran into a number of Gumballers on the side of a suburban road. We chucked the people-carrier halfway up a driveway and hoofed it back to the huddled crew. Cooper's flat-black vinyl-wrapped XJ220 sat two driveways behind us. For the first time I'd seen, Max wasn't wearing his sunglasses. He seemed a small, tired confused man. He laid out to the crew what I'd set down an hour earlier from my experience in the support van the day before. He asked me to remove the posts from "that website." Kitty played dumb. But she knew. She'd known.

Of course she'd known, as one of Maximillion's own. The other crew boys, who'd signed up as volunteers as a way to collect foreign poontang and see exotic cars were shocked and pissed that they hadn't been informed. They were crew, in their minds. The drivers were trying to piece together what'd gone down from reports from those who'd happened on the scene, the news media reports and word from drivers close to the Morleys. Kemal recalled Oliver's face going sheet-white when the authorities said that Vladimir was dead and that Nick and Matthew needed to stick around. Bear in mind that Oliver Morley is an irrepressible individual who generally arouses the ire of anyone he decides he doesn't like.

At the morning-after press conference in Tirana, Max announced that we were indeed going to Germany; that there would be a police escort to Berlin and to get back to the UK, every team would be provided with safe-passage papers for every German state on the route. For most drivers, that fell apart somewhere in Croatia. The word had gotten to the mainstream media. Although the polizei roadblock outside Hahn was apparently the work of one overzealous policeman, it was obvious at that point that the whole mess would be spun in his favor, despite the last few days of work the Gumball staff had put into getting everything re-sorted. Sadly, though, more effort had gone into that than informing the drivers and crews of the accident, its aftermath and Morley and McConville's attempt to escape Macedonia.

A tad more Steinbeck: "Christ, I wish they hadn't killed off all the grizzly bears. In eighteen-eighty, my grandfather killed one up near Pleyto weighed eighteen-hundred pounds." But what if? What if the grizzlies set themselves up to be killed by doing the only thing they knew how to do? And if Gumball 3000 is the eighteen-hundred-pound grizzly of open-road rallies, it stands to reason that Max and Julie — only knowing how to be Max and Julie because they'd gotten by on being Max and Julie for years — didn't blink in the face of the small man with the rifle, because how could he possibly hurt them? How did it all come undone? Simple. They'd nearly bled out before they realized that the wound was serious. Thanks for listening. We'll see you again Wednesday.

"Fast as a Shark" is a weekly electronic broadside aimed at what has been historically right and terribly wrong with the autmotive industry and culture. And yes, Johnson's iPod is engraved with an Accept reference.

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