We’ve covered Gambler 500 shenanigans numerous times here on Jalopnik and I’m happy to deliver more. The Gambler 500 has grown and spread across the country, with several states now offering their own flavor of the combined endurance rally, trail cleanup and charity event. Now there is a spinoff event called HooptieX, which adds a serious competitive aspect to an already fun meet-up. Over the weekend I participated in my first HooptieX, in southern Indiana, and I’m already addicted.
What is HooptieX? The event calls itself the most accessible off-road racing series on the planet. It’s truly a “run what you brung” series, as you can race just about anything, so long as it passes tech inspection. Drivers bring whatever vehicle they have and try to set the fastest time they can over difficult off-road courses. There is a points system as well, which encourages some drivers to travel around the country doing every race to maintain their position on the leaderboard.
HooptieX events take place on private land, typically off-road parks. The southern Indiana HooptieX I took part in was at the Black Swan Mudpit in Medora, Indiana.
At a HooptieX, you’ll see everything from Smart Fortwos dressed up like Jeeps to RVs and expensive side-by-sides. There are multiple vehicle classes where drivers can compete for the top spot. I’m a Gambler 500 veteran, somehow managing to get to rallies across the country, from Tennessee to Oregon.
I have been reluctant to try HooptieX, thinking I’d kill my car. Normally killing your car is almost desired at a Gambler event, but unlike others taking part, I also depend on that car to get me home. But this weekend I decided to throw fears by the wayside and gave it my fullest send. I had a ride home in case the car couldn’t make it.
Our steed for the Southern Indiana HooptieX was a 1999 Toyota Camry.
This Camry started off as my partner’s daily and project car. We pulled it out of a field and made it legal again to become her daily ride. It’s a fantastic, rock-reliable machine that routinely gets us from A to B without drama. However, it’s not a car I would buy if I wanted to have fun. Or is it?
My partner decided to use the Toyota (still her daily at the time) as her off-road car, borrowing the idea from my own insane experience of using my daily drivers as off-road cars. For the Camry’s first rally, we gave our friends some cans of spray paint and let them have fun creating a graffiti theme. I had already decided that I was going to buy her a car she dreamed of, so all this was OK.
On its first rally alone, the unlikely off-road warrior had already driven through deep creeks, crawled over jagged rocks and spectacularly failed to rescue a hilariously stuck truck. It may have lost its entire front crash structure trying to save that truck, but the little car refused to die.
My HooptieX laps would end up being the ultimate torture test of this rusty family Toyota.
The start of the course is a full-throttle sprint straight into the forest, where drivers meet a couple of smooth curves and a hairpin. Things then get really muddy through sharp forest curves. By the time I started my laps, the muddy curves had deep ruts almost impossible to negotiate in a family sedan. To push the Camry through, I welded my foot to the floor and hoped the all-season tires delivered enough traction to prevent me from getting stuck. If drivers managed to survive the muddy curves, they were rewarded with the most fun part: a section I’m calling the lake loop.
The lake loop is where drivers were not only able to get some of the best speed and drifts, but at the end of the loop there were two intimidating jumps. These jumps threatened to kill radiators and deploy airbags if you didn’t stick the landing. A few unlucky drivers got to kiss airbags with their helmets.
My strategy? Once again, foot to the floor and hold on tight. Admittedly this probably wasn’t the best plan to keep the already wounded Camry alive, but it was certainly the most fun. When I was in the air, it almost felt like time slowed. For the first moment I couldn’t see the track in front of me and I felt weightless. Then my pitch changed, the Toyota slammed to the ground, and so much chaos ensued upon landing that I wasn’t sure if I had broken a bone, broken the car or done both. But a split second check later confirmed that everything was fine. The Camry survived just fine, too!
By the end of my two laps, I managed to have a low 1:50s time, which I was told was among the faster cars in the two-wheel-drive category. Personally, I didn’t even care what my lap times were. I had so much fun that they could have told me I had 10-minute times, and I still would have jumped with joy.
The Toyota had less fun. I sent it so hard on lap 2 that it lost the front bumper cover, pushed up the radiator support and cracked the power steering fluid reservoir. Minor damage considering the rusty junker took off like an airplane at least four times that day. We must have also missed some tire damage, because one of the tires exploded on the way home, resulting in this unfortunate photo:
My verdict? HooptieX is an incredibly fun event that I feel every grassroots racing enthusiast should give a try. No experience necessary, just grab a car, a helmet and give it your best shot. This event had first-timers like myself and racers from across the country trying to maintain their standing on the leaderboard. Prior to that day I had never done any form of actual racing. Now I want to hit every HooptieX event in the country next year.
If you want in on the ridiculous fun, you can find the schedule right on the HooptieX site. The more incapable car you bring, the more fun you have!
Perhaps I’ll even do my own HooptieX build. The fastest vehicles are lifted AWD cars like Subarus. Maybe I’ll add my own flair, like a Volkswagen 4Motion of some kind.