the gambler

The Gambler 500: The off-road Lemons Race

“Don’t worry. This is how the Gambler 500 works.”

The Gambler 500 started as an email chain between friends who decided to go off-road in $500 cars never intended to be driven off-road. There would be no winners or losers, and there were only two rules, which remain the event’s only rules: clean up the trail as you go, and don’t be a jerk. On weekends they met at Wanker’s Corner Saloon outside of Portland, Oregon; someone handed out sheets with waypoints, and off they went down trails in anything from a Toyota MR2 to a Cadillac Fleetwood. “People try to buy respect or admiration, but they earn it by driving a Corolla,” Tate Morgan says.

GAMBLER MINI ENDURO Nelson

Morgan is the Gambler 500’s face. Most of the time, that visage is covered by rainbow-colored Lazer Face sunglasses, which looked idiotically fashionable paired with the bushy, full-length fur coat he wore in Iceland. He is congenial and considerate to everyone, but not everyone loves him. The people at Pop-Tarts and Meow Mix most certainly hate him because he made them fake sponsors of the Gambler 500, and when the companies reacted horribly on social media, Morgan called them out in hilarious ways. He didn’t create the Gambler 500—it just sort of happened—but he did mold it into what it is today. Four years ago, he contracted testicular cancer and lost a cojóne, so he quit his corporate career and dedicated himself to spreading the Gambler’s good word. “There is no goal in the Gambler,” he says. “If you set expectations or a goal, then you have steps to get to that goal. If you have no expectation or goal, then you get to free-form it and let it be what it is.”

Like most great things, The Gambler 500 began as a simple contest among friends. An attempt to navigate beater cars over challenging terrain.  This isn’t a war of time or speed, but purely in the name of adventure.

GAMBLER MINI ENDURO Nelson

In 2014, 26 friends gathered 13 cheap cars in the parking lot of a local tavern in Portland, OR at 6am.  Each were given virtually zero details just a single sided piece of paper with numbered waypoints.  Every 5 minutes a car was released, each participant’s only goal and expectation was to make it from the valley, over the Cascade Mountains to the high desert of central Oregon to an agreed camping spot.  The route would not have been challenging for traditional 4x4s but the majority of these were clapped out 2wd commuter cars.  They filtered in throughout the night, the day’s war stories and whiskey were traded around a campfire.  The next day a fresh set of waypoints were followed back to the tavern they started at, dusty grins were met with laughs and plans for next year.

A 60 second clip of their third year went viral with over 50 million views and 10’s of thousands of requests to participate, hesitant but not a huge fan of the word “no” Tate Morgan the creator, opened it up to all comers.  Today the Gambler which attracts over 6,000 people to central Oregon has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, State Forest Service, BLM, Klamath County, and local officials in a tourism effort to promote the vast off-road opportunities the area offers.

There are just a couple rules. Chief among them: “Don’t be a d*ck.”

“We weren’t trying to launch what is now the largest rally in the world,” says Morgan. “Going from 13 cars to 850 cars in year four— that was unexpected.”

Morgan, who says he visited nearly every national park growing up as the son of a US Geological Survey hydrologist, is well aware of the environmental cost of unleashing so many gas-guzzling junkers on Oregon’s backcountry. So, the event doubles as a garbage cleanup. So far, he estimates, Gamblers have picked up 180 cubic yards of trash en route to rally endpoints.

“It makes sure that we’re getting the right people,” Morgan says. “This is not a wild, crazy, blow-up-a-car rally. This is a fun outdoor adventure where we’re leaving trails better than we found them.”

the gambler racers

The event remains accessible to all with registration, and group camping only costing $40/person. The “rally” consisting over user generated waypoint (track) sets shared by local businesses.  The creators have developed an app released June 22, 2020 just days before the 2020 event UNPVD.com . The navigation app features offline mapping, user profile, waypoint sets and an algorithm that serves for a metric of competition for how much “off-road the user has taken during their travel thus “gameifying” off-road navigation.  The tagline evokes sentiments of a childhood game… “Pavement is Lava”.

koh gambler comes to hammertown

Some may have noticed that “Gambler” events have sprouted up across the country and beyond, 40 states to over 100 events.  International events have occurred in Mexico, Canada, Iceland and upcoming Ireland this Spring.  It has become almost the opposite of a tour agency in that invites participants to go see destinations in a completely different way with the support of likeminded people.  Encouraging people not to have the same canned experiences as other “tourists” have thousands of times before you.

Not wanting to prevent other’s from across the world from experiencing this type of affordable adventure Tate Morgan the CEO, marketing manager, and janitor of the LLC that owns the copyright and trademark permits has made it possible for others to organize a race, as long as organizers sign off they commit not to monetize local events or engage in National sponsorships. Oh, and they must pick up trash along the way.  Tate has also now founded a 501(c)(3) dedicated to the removal and disposal of trash off of public lands, parks and streets which can be found here: sonsofsmokey.com. They’ve managed to bootstrap a growing whiskey brand in the NorthWest, as well grow the brand into something that is approachable by all interested in grassroots motorsports and the outdoors.

As the model of lending out your intellectual property for free does not serve as a great business model they have formed partnerships with large companies and manufactures including O’Reilly Auto Parts, Heatwave Visual and Leatherman to name a few.  The MonsterX tour has contracted with Gambler to provide “Gambler Tuff Truck” participation open to all, at 80 shows Nationwide.  Along with lifetime friend Chuck Brazer and Tate have started a 12 event budget off-road racing series HooptieX (“Hooptiecross) which they hope to be hosting on the infield the Mint 400 this year.  HooptieX.com

A beautiful shit show, where everyone smiled through the pain. After watching dirt pool around my shower drain, I realize I haven’t done anything that childish in a while; “life” gets in the way too often now. It doesn’t get in Tate’s way, and it didn’t get in the way of Tate’s friends, the assistant head coaches of the Mud Dawgs. An assembly of fools, putting themselves in harm’s way in the stupidest way possible, having so much fun. Inspired people who raise cattle as a hobby, build their own houses and create websites to catfish their best friends. Gamblers are charming folk you want to meet.

Chris Nelson, ironandair.com
Matt Martelli

Founder of Mad Media, a multidisciplinary creative and marketing firm and CEO of Off Road Racer and The Mint 400 Matt is one of the biggest influences in Off-Road Racing