In California’s organic-hipster-foodie restaurants, a waiter will tell you what’s not in the food before telling you the two things that are in it. The same could be applied to this rally: It’s not a chance for wealthy men to flaunt their black cards. It’s not a rolling Grey Goose awareness campaign. It’s not a race between checkpoints. In fact, it’s not a race at all.
It’s called the Dustball Rally, and it’s not like anything you’ve ever experienced behind the wheel.
(Full disclosure: Andrew Medley, the founder of the Dustball Rally, wanted me to attend so badly that he flew me out to Dallas for the start of the annual 2k run, ending in New York. I hopped around from car to car, interviewing the drivers and ingesting a laughable amount of gas station jerky along the way.)
The Dustball Rally is a 2,000-mile drive almost exclusively using this country’s extensive network of back roads. It’s a challenge not only in endurance, but in driver skill, navigation, cooperation with co-drivers/navigators and alertness because no one knows where the routes are headed. The only confirmed and established points are the start in Texas and the end, five days later. Everything in between is a juicy mystery.
What sets this rally apart from others like Gumball 3000 or GoldRush Rally is that it’s not a week-long Cialis stress test for middle-aged day traders with something to prove. Other rallies boast exotic hypercars, A and B-list celebrity participants and parties that would level the economies of some third world countries, but entry fees are astronomical, routes are lackluster and uninspired, and idiot first-and-last timers tend to ruin what little driving fun there is by routinely blasting the doors off of unsuspecting family sedans going the speed limit because they just financed a Ferrari for 96 months and they ain’t taking shit from nobody.
Dustball is about the experience of driving. Nothing more, nothing less.
In the extreme heat and cut-it-with-a-butter-knife humidity of Dallas, I arrived at the first designated meet spot with drivers that showed up in cars ranging from six figure track stars to plasti-dipped modified econoboxes at a sizable bar that proved that things really are physically bigger in Texas.
For most of the veteran runners, the meeting was simply a formality to get through, much like listening to the in-flight safety demonstration on your third American Airlines trip in the span of a week. Instead of simply shutting off, however, everyone was attentive and listened to Andrew as he talked about how to safely pass on two lane roads when traveling in a pack, 10 reasons not to piss off truckers, what happens if you find yourself on the wrong end of a guardrail, and how there is zero incentive to get to the destination first because it puts you at risk for getting a ticket and ruining things for everyone else.
It became readily apparent that the slower drivers would have a better time because, while Takeru Kobayashi may be able to eat a dozen hot dogs in a minute, having just one while sitting at a barbecue with friends is undoubtedly a more rewarding experience.
The one running theme and unofficial slogan for the rally is “No Sniveling”, which may sound like a comical jab at those who just can’t cut the mustard, but it’s a legitimate life lesson and one that I repeat to myself each day. It represents the idea that no matter how badly you’re beaten by a particularly daunting obstacle, it won’t help your situation to sheepishly complain or expect pity from others. The only thing that can change in a given situation is your reaction to it.
Readers, this won’t be a play-by-play of how sitting in and driving awesome cars on great roads means for an unforgettable experience. If you want that, you can check out this article expertly written by Andrew Wilson, one of the enthusiastic Dustballers who took part in the rally.
Instead, I’ll focus on why this rally is one beacon of hope that car culture — which has become more homogeneous and restricted by day — desperately deserves.
For those of you like me, who are woefully and anxiously introverted but tend to think they work well under pressure, you’ll understand why being confined to a car with total strangers for a dozen hours a day can be physically and mentally exhausting. For those of you who can’t understand it, I’m told ignorance is bliss and I wish you a lifetime of sustained happiness.
Meeting new people doesn’t come naturally to me, but this rally turned that crippling notion on its ear by subjecting me to a diversity of thought, background and experience that I could in turn pass on to others in the form of enlightened ramblings.
In the span of five days, I met people ranging from an illegal Taiwanese immigrant who became a partner in a powerful accounting firm to a Spanish teacher with a healthy affinity for Dragon Ball Z. I spoke at length with a disabled veteran that talked candidly and enthusiastically about being homeless, his battles with PTSD, and getting his shit together enough to fulfill his goal of becoming an agent for the FBI. I had an open conversation with an accomplished physician that studied at Harvard about how to lose weight and keep it off, met an all-female team of school teachers who had done the rally without fail every year in a Toyota Avalon because they loved sightseeing, and I discussed the merits and methodology of fracking and global warming with a professional geologist that bought his dream car, a brand spanking new Porsche Cayman GTS.
Every single one of these amazing exchanges were had because these people, of all races, genders and economic backgrounds by the way, had an undying love of travel and the want of a novel experience with their beloved automobile. It was an unspoken, BFF-like camaraderie that included everyone pulling over because an otherwise majestic CL63 AMG had a brake malfunction and one of the other drivers, an ASE-certified technician and race shop owner, took it upon himself to gaze underneath the car’s rear subframe to proclaim that everything was indeed fine.
With this kind of sticky social glue keeping everyone together and on the same light-hearted page, it’s as if I was thrust into a scenario in which total strangers would all jump at the chance to help me move. I’ve never met a bunch of more kind-hearted people in my life.
The enthusiasm and joie de vivre among the drivers spread quickly to the people who would bear witness to the rally. The small town rest stops that prompted teams to refill their snack supplies and fuel tanks, while emptying their bladders (no, not at the same time) were legitimately big deals for the people living in those towns.
“I’m gettin’ the boys! They’d love to see this!” a Kentucky mom exclaimed as she sped off to collect her sons to see the rolling car show. The men and women of law enforcement were equally on board as more often than not, local police gave us a guided escort through town. For a large group of somewhat loud and powerful cars, police presence was never a problem, mainly because the groups never made it a point to speed through residential or areas populated with traffic, if at all. Wherever this caravan of car enthusiasts went, the love of cars followed.
People doing yardwork applauded and cheered, kids in the backseats of their mom’s crossover stopped playing Game Of War enough to snap some pics of a passing car, and construction workers threw their thumbs in the air as an unquestionable and universal sign of approval. It was an extremely efficient system of delivering automotive enthusiasm and the group dynamic was the reason why it worked.
While some fearless people might strike up the occasional conversation with a secretly miserable Ferrari owner at the gas pump, it’s a completely different animal to see a pack of a dozen cars from all economic spectrums, stickered out, with some costumed participants from all walks of life and talk to them. It’s a tantalizing gap of knowledge that no one with a spark of interest could legitimately resist.
However, if we forget the great people, the near-celebrity status that’s bestowed on you in every small town and the insane variety of cars that surround you, only one thing remains - the absolutely bonkers, breathtaking, bucket-list topping roads.
Listen: Even if you operate an automobile with any sort of penchant for performance, there’s a very good chance that it was not designed for true race track use. Yes, even if it was tested on the Nürburgring and has a “Corsa” mode, which I’m told is Italian for “jail time.”
Its natural habitat is on the road filled with variables like off-camber dips, slippery surfaces, elevation changes, potholes, and the occasional bug splatter. This rally puts the car in a place that’s familiar to it but foreign to its owner, forcing the drivers to find their own limits without touching those of their cars.
To delve a bit into it, one particularly memorable experience was right after a quite severe rainstorm that slowed the pace of the rally’s first few hours to a near-crawl after entering West Virginia on the rally’s second-to-last day. The rain eventually subsided, and the road’s elevation took a steep uptick, giving way to massive fog clouds which rested on the sides of the mountain range we were currently driving through. The road would twist almost endlessly for the next 50 miles.
This wasn’t the bike-heavy Tail Of The Dragon. This wasn’t the CHP ticket haven Pacific Coast Highway. This was an untapped resource that some intrepid car nuts had simply stumbled upon because a wily and resourceful mapmaker had fun in mind. This road was a gift - an all access pass to a paved playground.
At that point, horsepower didn’t matter. The amount of digits in your bank account balance didn’t matter. It was you and your car in a perfectly synchronized waltz with the scenery surrounded by others enchanted by the same awe-inspiring experience. Everyone needs this because it gives you both a sense of child-like wonder and a mature understanding that the best things in life are worth getting off your ass and working for.
It’s not for everyone. The routes aren’t the highway-heavy bore-fests that usually encompass cross-country trips, and are subsequently much longer than one would normally expect the trip to be. The average time drivers spent in their cars each day was closing in on 11 hours and with such a demanding journey in front of them, it’s not something the casual participant may find particularly comfortable, not to mention the strain the machines experience.
Damages like windshield cracks, rock chips, breakdowns, and the inevitable bout with a suicidal skunk were commonplace. It’s just how the game is played.
Having said that, the overnight stops in some of America’s most culturally significant and diverse cities are worthwhile adventures unto themselves. With overnight stops at historic four-and-five-star hotels in Dallas, Memphis, Cincinnati, Washington D.C. and New York, traversing the city and decompressing after a physically exhausting day of driving seems like exactly the right thing to do - especially when you consider the fact that you’ll be doing it all over again the next day, willingly, with big-ass grin on your face.
As the rally came to a close on the fifth day and the cars - now sporting a thick coat of swept back dirt as a badge of honor - were carted off to an underground car park by eager-yet-liability-conscious valets in New York, I boarded a train across the Hudson back home to New Jersey. I can safely say that I’d love for it to be a personal tradition, as an enthusiast and observer of car culture and travel.
It’s an unmistakable reminder that cars don’t have to be simply transportation and at no point should you be afraid of taking the road less traveled because although you may be bruised, tired, and weary beyond measure from your journey, you’ll have one hell of a great story to tell.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes and makes videos about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn’t feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.