Road rallies: Not just for millionaires anymore

Imagine tearing up the freeway in an Italian V-12, dodging speed traps and blasting flat-out to a checkpoint. Imagine outrunning carjacking gangs in Latvia, or streaking across Morocco with the King’s permission to speed with impunity. Now picture doing this with 300 crazy rich people, and you have some inkling of what happens every year on the Gumball 3000.

If you can’t manage the four-figure speeding fines, five-figure entry fees or six-figure cars of the Gumball 3000, other rallies offer excitement at a fraction the cost. Whatever their stripe or target demographic, road rallies are really marvelous fun.

I was hooked from age four, when I first watched that black Lamborghini tear up the opening credits in “Cannonball Run.” This popular comedy was based on a real event: The Cannonball Baker Memorial Sea-to-Shining-Sea Trophy Dash.

The Cannonball was an underground cross-country road race: a no-rules, non-stop outlaw sprint from New York to Los Angeles that fast became an automotive legend. In 1971, stock car driver Dan Gurney won in a Ferrari Daytona, hitting speeds in excess of 170 mph and finishing the 2,900-mile drive in less than 36 hours. One rival team answered a classified ad, and agreed to transport a Cadillac Sedan de Ville across the country for a wealthy businessman; they did so in just 37 hours, and were only narrowly beaten to the finish by a customized van laden with 350 gallons of fuel. The Cannonball was run only five times, but spawned a rash of movies and remains firmly rooted in the annals of automotive history.

It was not until 1999 that an event rivaled the notoriety of the Cannonball, when British millionaire Maximillion Cooper invited 50 friends on a 3,000-mile jaunt around Europe. His event spanned six days, with planned stops for wild parties at five-star hotels. No official time was kept, and no prizes were awarded for placement. Instead, competitors roared across the continent in million-dollar cars plastered with sponsor decals, partied like the Rolling Stones and left stunned onlookers in their wake. The Gumball 3000 was born.

Since then, the Gumball has become a massive affair. Hundreds of supercars participate in this annual orgy of speed, and several TV specials, films and magazine features have followed it. Our overspending, MTV-fed society devours so-called “aspirational lifestyle events” with a special ferocity, and this all-out, blinged-up brand of fast-living delinquency definitely fits the bill. The Gumball has spawned more copycat events than can comfortably be listed here; but whatever their distinct slant, they all share a common theme: a gaggle of teams drive long distances, party hard and generally live it up. To the dismay of lawmen and the delight of county treasurers, cross-country rallying has once again gone mainstream.

Defending such rallies is a delicate task, since no legally satisfying justification exists for speeding around on public highways, however exciting it may be. Maximillion’s official angle is that the Gumball 3000 does not sanction breaking the law; and although his edict is often delivered to raucous laughter and a good number of nudges, he maintains a poker face and the story nonetheless stands. Most major rallies exist in this gray area: They officially prohibit speeding, but some participants do so anyway.

Opponents argue that a driver speeding in a Ferrari — no matter how competent — will compromise public safety; but despite six years and almost 20,000 miles covered by hundreds of supercars at outrageous speeds, not one fatal crash has occurred on the Gumball 3000. Personally, I worry more about road users applying makeup while barking into a cell phone and dressing kids in the passenger seat, or weaving along in the fast lane with no idea how their 5,000-lb. SUV behaves in the wet. Speed may aggravate matters, but a good number of people probably shouldn’t be driving at any pace. Inattention and complacency breed highway hazard.

Of course, this debate becomes moot when all participants obey posted speed laws. I’ve done several rallies myself, and can assure you that tremendous fun can be had whilst obeying the legal limit. (Indeed, the famed Cannonballers of old discovered that driving near the speed limit often won the race; the Cadillac that averaged almost 100 mph lost far too much time to traffic stops.)

A good rally is not a speed race, and not quite a road trip; it’s sort of an anything-goes party on wheels, an amalgamation of cars, good friends and zany competition. The great rallies succeed in fusing the Cannonball’s daring with the wacky cheer of the ensuing films and the decadent joie de vivre of the Gumball 3000 — no small feat for a bunch of yahoos driving student cars up I-95.

You don’t need a Carrera GT to have a great time on the road. Join an established group, or gather some friends and seed your own event. Mind the speed limit, and you’ll have a terrific time.

Michael Seringhaus is a fifth-year graduate student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

Comments