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gambler 500

Competitors in the Gambler 500 Nebraska met at Sonic in Beatrice Thursday night for a car show before Saturday's event.

It’s not a race.

In fact, if you make the run too fast, they’ll smash out your back window.

It’s the Gambler 500 Nebraska and, again, it’s not a race.

So, what is the Gambler 500? Organizer Joel Wilgers described it as a navigational challenge, but really it’s about seeing what the worst car you can buy can do on the worst roads you can find.

One part endurance rally and one part kinda-sorta GPS-based scavenger hunt, the second annual Gambler 500 Nebraska takes off on the roads less traveled in the cars less wanted on Saturday morning from Beatrice. There are about 70 teams registered for the Gambler 500, most from Nebraska and Kansas, but some coming in from Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and even one team coming in from Connecticut.

There aren’t any rules, per se, but there are guidelines. The car should, ideally, cost $500 or less, hence the name. The more impractical, the better. It will be run on public land and roads, meaning each vehicle has to be registered and insured, and the driver needs a valid license. All laws have to be followed and teams have to find their way to GPS waypoints and answer questions based on the location to prove they were actually there.

The original Gambler 500 started in Oregon in 2014 and has quickly spread across the country, with different states organizing their own. Last year, Wilgers said, he saw a video on Facebook of the Oregon Gambler 500 and three weeks later he’d organized his own.

Several teams met Thursday night at Sonic Drive-In in Beatrice for a car show, including a Ford Club Wagon van, painted in an American flag theme, a camouflage-painted Chrysler Grand Voyager minivan, a Jeep Cherokee with the doors removed, a Volvo 240 with off-road tires and a 2001 Cadillac Deville, complete with a leather-appointed upholstery and heated front and rear seats.

The Cadillac, from the Carriage Motors team Piston Pimps, will be driven mostly by mechanic Austin Nouzovsky, with help from Jesse Thompson and Ryan Norris.

“It’s going to be the most comfortable vehicle, that’s for sure,” Thompson said.

The first Gambler 500 Nebraska only had about 16 entrants, Wilgers said, and of those, only 11 finished the race. This year’s is a big leap forward, he said, extended over two days and making a loop through the back roads of southeast Nebraska back to the starting line in Beatrice.

There will be volunteer recovery groups along the way, as well, for the inevitable breakdowns, though Wilgers said that will cost them points in the long run. All drivers start with zero points, and the aim is to keep it right around there. Missing a GPS waypoint adds 45 points to the score, coming in under the time limit adds five points per minute and leaving a question blank adds 10 points to your score.

The team with the lowest amount of points over two days is the winner. There are also trophies for the most redneck ride, oldest ride, longest distance travelled and the ultimate gambler gets a homemade trophy that Wilgers referred to as the “duct tape and paling wire award."

Dennis Lyons, general manager of Sonic, paid $200 for the Grand Voyager. It’s not much, he said, but he’s got an air mattress and a battery powered fan for camping and the air conditioning blows ice cold. There’s a bumper sticker on it that said “Thanks Vietnam vets,” which is where his theme comes from.

“I painted it camo,” Lyons said. “My father and stepfather are both Vietnam vets, so I thought, what a way to give them a tribute.”

A lot of the cars had stickers that read “ABG," which stands for “always be gambling," the spirit of the event, Wilgers said. It’s all about taking a car that, by most standards, should be heading to the scrap yard and making it do something it was never intended to do. There have been drivers whose cars broke down and they’d head out and buy a new one just to finish the race, he said.

“One guy said this is what they should have done instead of Cash for Clunkers,” Wilgers said.

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