The story of the first Illinois Gambler 500 begins a couple weeks ago. I ran into a good friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in probably seven years. His name is Tom. Tom’s an engineer. He’s a gear-head, you might say, a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Tom told me about this road rally called the Gambler 500 or “The Gambler” for short. I immediately knew I had to tag along. What is the Gambler 500? Well, it sounds simple enough. The goal is to drive 500 miles in a car that costs $500.
There’s more to it than that. This is about a community of car enthusiasts coming together to have some fun and take a gamble on some old vehicles that might have otherwise gone to the junkyard — all while exploring parts of the state they may have never seen.
Tom showed up to my house to pick me up the morning of the rally in a flat black 1965 Chevy Corvair (a Monza for you Corvair nerds). Well, technically, it was only a Corvair from the waist up. The frame, drivetrain, engine — all of that was from a 1993 Blazer. Tom bought it like that. It was Frankenstein’s monster, if Frankenstein were a fan of road rallies and American steel.
The Gambler started at 6:00 a.m. at an auto parts store in LaSalle. Tom was in a wedding party the night before, so we were late to join the rally. We had a stop to make before catching up with the rest of the group.
"This is the off-road park in Seneca, pretty crazy off-road areas," Tom said, hinting at the damage the rally could do. "There we go. There's our first car. Let's see what these fine gentlemen need."
The car we were here to help was a 1997 Crown Victoria. It had a lift kit, the doors were ripped off, and there was a big gas power generator ratchet-strapped to the roof. You could hear it running as we rolled up to the scene.
"Right now what we're doing is we're running a generator on the roof to run a battery charger, to charge the battery, to make up for the lack of an alternator," the Vic's owner said. "I'm just going to run the generator going down the road and call it good."
Everything under the hood of this Crown Vic was coated -- just encased -- in dried mud. It took them about 10-15 minutes to get it scraped clean enough to get a solid electrical connection. Finally, with the help of our Corvair battery the Crown Vic roared to life. And with that, we had started our journey off with a good deed. Good “car-ma" so to speak.
"I mean, you've gotta help these people out, because you don't know when that's going to be you," Tom said. "I think there's definitely a 'pay it forward' atmosphere about this kind of thing. Because they're all five-hundred dollar cars. You really don't know what's going on with them."
Our next goal was to catch up with the rest of the group, already a couple counties away.
The route of the Gambler was released the morning of the rally. It was a spreadsheet full of numbers — latitude and longitude coordinates -- arranged in order. These different waypoints would take you through an all-day route that snaked through the northern part of the state -- from LaSalle to Freeport, Galena to Rock Island. The rest of the group was currently approaching Freeport.
"It should be right there," Tom indicated. "Yep, there's another one."
We had finally caught up with the rest of the group, and made our way through to the next couple of waypoints in a mini-convoy. West of Lena, we came to a dirt road occupied by a cluster of fellow Gamblers. It looked like a scene out of Mad Max. There was a group crowded around a bright orange Saab, with a Swedish flag painted on top.
"Tell me about your vehicle here," Tom said, approaching the group.
"It's a 1990 Saab 900S," the driver said. "We decided to make it a Swedish-themed General Lee."
"So it's called..."
"The General Bork, complete with Swedish flag on the roof," said a man acting as the car's navigator. "We were trying to blend the culture of Sweden with American 80's pop culture with the General Lee, so we came up with the General Bork. We just really like The Dukes of Hazzard and The Muppet Show, so we tried to blend the two together and this is what we came up with."
Speaking of Muppets, there was another vehicle there. It was a Land Rover covered in blue fur.
"It's the Land Grover," it's driver said laughing.
There was another group crowded around a disabled Mercedes. The car's owner explained their situation:
"This wonderful gentleman right here decided to take it down that gravel path and slammed a hole in the oil pan, because he was trying to keep up with another vehicle."
People were trying their hand at making it down this steep, rutted gravel road. Not to be outdone, Tom made the executive decision that we would try. I didn’t get to opt out.
We had a problem. In Tom's enthusiasm to conquer this dirt road, he had gotten our Corvair high-sided, high-centered, bottomed-out, whatever you want to call it; we were straddling a dirt embankment, spinning our wheels, miles away from the nearest service station. We. Were. Stuck.
Then we heard a puttering engine coming up behind us. It was a Geo metro. Certainly not a tow truck by any means, but it was somebody. Dylan and Tall Bill -- the Geo's crew -- did rally cross, and they were confident that they could help. First we tried shoving rocks and sticks under the tires to get traction, but it wasn’t working. Our last chance was to bring the Metro around in front of the Corvair and tow it out. We needed to push the Corvair from behind as well. This was an all-hands on deck situation.
"YEAH BABY YEAH -- THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT WHEN I MEAN AMERICA!"
We survived, and we were humbled. Tall Bill reassured us:
"We help each other out. That's the whole thing. Whether it's State Line Rally Cross, or whether it's doing the Gambler 500, or any kind of racing, you find it's the nicest people in the world. And all we want to do is help each other out, because next time it's going to be us that's stuck. It's what we do man. We help each other out."
"Thank you," said Tom.
"No problem. No problem at all. You're welcome."
We made our way down the Mississippi River to the final waypoint for the day: Cordova International Speedway, just north of the Quad Cities. It was quite a sight, a bunch of post-apocalyptic junkyard cars making their way through rows of $500,000 top-fuel dragsters. But there was a common thread.
"It doesn't matter if you have a fifty-thousand dollar car or five-hundred dollar car, it's the spirit of what you're doing -- Getting out there," Tom said. "It's the combination of man and machine. No matter what it is, it's a beautiful thing. I think we all understand it. We all can come together with this. They let us stay here. They invited us in because I think they really understand what this is all about."