Rollin’ the Dice at the Gambler 500

Words by Dan Sodomka
Photos by Jake Hanson

The closer we got to the lonesome mountain town of Winthrop, the more eyebrows were raised as the weekend gamblers and their vehicles rambled into town for the Washington chapter of the Gambler 500. Outside the local pizza shop, the faint sound of cheers and laughter make its way out to the streets, which were lined with beat up and ridiculously decorated vehicles.  

If you walked inside any local establishment with a shit-eating grin on your face and a certain amount of, shall we say, flair, there was good chance that someone sporting a masterfully crafted beer box cowboy hat will shout across the restaurant and ask “You gamblin’?!” This was just a taste of the comradery amongst strangers leading up to this year’s Gambler 500. With our bellies full of pizza on the eve of our adventure, we headed back to camp to rest and put the final touches on the ’92 Toyota Previa we scrounged up the weekend before.

Let it be known that The Gambler 500 is not a competitive race. Rather, it’s more of an excuse to fix up – and then rough up – an old junker rig (with a sub-$500 budget nonetheless) throughout some of the most beautiful forest service and logging access roads Washington has to offer. We were overjoyed to find ourselves side by side with a jolly community of beer drinking, anti-asshole adventure seekers.

As we pulled up to the starting point at 7:30 AM through a cloud of dust from campsite burnouts, there was a line up of cars that resembled a post-apocalyptic party brigade. Eagerly awaiting the long weekend like kids on Christmas morning, each team lined up to collect the GPS coordinates for the day’s checkpoints before delivering a playful dose of dust and gravel to the crowd as they broke off for the first checkpoint.

As the fellows in the BMW convertible lowered their safety goggles, we couldn’t help but picture their future raccoon-like faces powdered in dirt everywhere beyond their eyewear. A shout from a passing vehicle snapped us back to reality. “Vans stick together! Hop in line with us,” shouted some like-minded gamblers as a line of vans sputtered past. 

As we hit the road for the first checkpoint, it felt as though we were 18-years-old again, heading out on our first road trip free from the clutches of life and responsibility.

Right out of the gate we stopped for some guys who had blown out two tires before reaching the first checkpoint. They were headed back to town on bare rims with their heads and shoulders sticking out the windows, smiles plastered to their faces. I’m fairly certain that even if we had spares to give them, the crew would have preferred the rough ride back to town and the story that came with it.

As the day progressed, so did the mishaps and laughter. We had some saints borrow us the tools we needed to make minor repairs to the van – no questions asked. We offered up our last quart of 5W30 to a crew that was burning through oil like lighter fluid and came out of the deal with a tasty bag of Swedish fish. It was the perfect trade, really, as our van was burning through snacks just as quickly.

After two long days of accumulating serious dust boogers and good times, we headed to the ending checkpoint for cap it all off with some final rebel rousing, awards, giveaways, beer drinking, and laughter. As each rogue gambler crossed the finish line back in Winthrop, the crowd would erupt in cheers and applause while the rig took its victory lap, surrounding the entire group in a wall of dust.

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