Gambler 500 Road Rally zooms through Putnam County
GRANVILLE — Walking out of the Minit Mart in Granville on Saturday, a mud-covered Chevy Impala was seen parking. Its front fenders had been removed and the rear wheel openings had been cut for the installation of larger, off-road tires.
“That looks like you’re having fun,” the driver was told.
“It is, it’s a lot of fun,” the driver exclaimed.
Initially it was thought this was simply two guys who’d been goofing around on muddy farmland somewhere. But, looking toward the fuel pumps and on to Highway 71, several other muddy, questionably roadworthy and admittedly comic looking vehicles were filling their tanks. Many others sped past and continued down the road.
What was seen by Putnam County residents, and even reported to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, was The Gambler 500. The Gambler is a rally adventure in which participants spend no more than $500 on their choice of vehicle and then see if it can complete the 500-mile course. There’s also additional fun challenges they can complete for extra points.
The first Gambler 500 was held only a few years ago in Oregon with 14 cars. That event has grown to approximately 1,600 cars and the enthusiasm has spawned other Gambler 500 events across the country. This year, the Illinois Gambler 500 attracted more than 180 vehicles.
The teams in Granville all listed “fun” as their top reason for entering. This was the second year for the Illinois rally and every team spoken to had returned after the first year, many with the same vehicle. The starting point was at JC Whitney in LaSalle and drivers spent two days traveling to a series of 49 waypoints.
“We don’t know everywhere we’ll be going until we get started, but we do know we’ll be ending somewhere in Indiana,” Dennis Mann, of Herscher, said.
Mann’s teammate was his son, Aidan.
“He’s 17, and this is a great way to spend time together because it’s nothing but fun,” Dennis said.
Mann said their morning included a trip through the popular off-roading site The Cliffs, in Marseilles. Portions of The Gambler are off road or include routes that take drivers along the less frequently traveled, rougher and muddier paths through the rural countryside, hence the reports to the sheriff’s office, according to a deputy.
Putnam County Sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Frund stopped in at The Minit Mart and was asked by a driver/navigator team to autograph their vehicle, thereby earning extra points by completing one of the items on their “Shenanigans List.”
“We had a report of a bunch of vehicles out on West Bottom Road and usually it’s only the people who live out there who drive on that,” Frund said.
“It looks like they’re all having fun,” he added.
Midway through the two-day event the racers gather together to camp and there’s also an end-of-rally party.
Rules for the event are positive, straightforward and simple. They include don’t be a jerk; this isn’t a race, it’s a fun rally adventure; be weird and choose weird or impractical vehicles; no minors allowed; if you have a 4WD vehicle be prepared to help others; leave no trace of yourself; you can’t abandon your vehicle; and vehicles must be street legal.
Leaving no trace of yourself is an important aspect of the race and extra points are awarded to the team collecting the most trash from the campsites and along the routes.
“We work on this all year and the group has a saying — ‘ABG’, or ‘Always Be Gambling’,” Jordan Ritz, driver of a 1991 Subaru Justy, said.
He added the group’s members are all friendly and help each other online to locate parts and repair and/or modify their vehicle.
Max Gastel, of Rockford, was driving a 1988 Honda Civic station wagon. Its appearance is hard to describe and he got several laughs when he announced it’s his daily driver.
“I drive this every day and part of my soul is in this car,” he said proudly. Anyone putting faith in such a vehicle should be commended and he added that he’s never been in doubt of making it to the finish.
One of the final vehicles to pull into Granville was a replica of the famous Pizza Planet truck from the Toy Story movies. While not a Toyota, the yellow Ford Ranger belonging to Micheal Caceres and Angela Denault was surprisingly accurate. The rooftop and door signs, as well as all the correct bumper stickers, had been recreated and there was even a chain of green army men descending down the tailgate.
The team had just gotten pulled out of a ditch and were concerned there might be damage. Seeing Denault in a Toy Story alien onesie completed the Pizza Planet theme.
The last item on the race’s “Shenanigans List” was a “Make Your Own Shenanigan”. This Putnam County reporter had the idea to write “Get yourself in the newspaper” on the back of a business card, signed it and handed it to Denault.
“We got extra points! This is why I love doing this, it’s so much fun,” she yelled as she laughed and jumped back into the truck to head toward their next adventure.
For more information visit www.gambler500.com.