Gambler 500 Rolls Through Sweet Home

Benny Westcott

People who spent at least a modest amount of time around Sweet Home’s Main Street on Friday, July 14, probably heard hoots and hollers from passing motorists and witnessed those same drivers having an unusual amount of fun in various vehicles that would normally only be seen in a junkyard.

These sights and sounds could only mean one thing: Gambler 500 weekend was upon us.

The concept is pretty simple. Trick out a rig in an unusual way, or find a way to give a seemingly hapless car a second life with some creative ideas, and you have yourself a Gambler-ready ride. Then take off to remote parts of Oregon and pick up trash off the side of the road, meeting lots of like-minded motorheads along the way.

This year “Gambler Town,” or ground zero for the Gambler 500’s shenanigans, was at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds. Live bands entertained the crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, and Saturday featured HooptieX and mini bike racing.

Steelhead Fitness Owner Dave Bauer’s Gambler ride was a 2000 Ford Mustang convertible with a custom storage area on top. The black car had a white flame design on it as well as big checkerboard flag imagery on its backside.

Bauer and his friends took off from Sweet Home at 6:30 p.m. on Friday night, for what he said was a hot and dusty Gambler.

He and his crew found plenty of opportunities to pick up trash on backroads in the outskirts of Redmond.

One memorable rig he saw was a big old station wagon jacked up on a four wheel drive frame, with an exposed engine and huge pipes that went all the way from the engine to the back of the station wagon across the vehicle’s top.

But really the time he spent with others was what made the event special. “It’s always a great bunch of people,” Bauer said, who was participating in his fourth Gambler 500. “They’re out there to have fun obviously and ball around in their crazy cars and show them off, but they’re also all out there picking up trash and cleaning up around the areas, and everyone gets along. It’s just a good time.”

Kody Knurowski, who lives in Lebanon and works at Sweet Home’s O & M Point S Tire and Auto as a service advisor, experience his first Gambler, and said he would definitely come back again.

He split the cost of a $500 Ford Focus with a buddy six months ago. “I wanted to stay true to the original Gambler rules of a $500 car,” he said.

In Redmond on Saturday he got up early and grabbed some breakfast, then went out on trails for three hours picking up any trash he could find. He said the biggest items he grabbed were tires. He then drove back to camp, grabbed lunch, and set out for another four hours, going as far as the Madras area.

“Not a bad way to spend a weekend,” he said.

“Everyone there’s super friendly,” he added. “Kind of everyone there is like-minded and just there to have a good time. I didn’t see any fights, I didn’t hear any yelling. It was kind of an awesome thing.”

He was glad he finally took the plunge with his buddies and gave the experience a try. “Ever since I heard about it I always wanted to do it,” he said.

Knurowski’s red, white and blue Ford Focus, which had 260,000 miles on it, somehow managed to keep on going.

“It was definitely not well-suited for the environment that I put it through,” he said with a laugh. “I was going on trails that I probably would have been uncomfortable in a lifted Jeep on.” The Ford was outfitted with winter tires that were “super old.”

“The key thing about the car I drove is that it was not suited for what I did, and yet it survived,” Knurowski said.

A self-described Subaru fanboy, he said he wasn’t about to take his Subaru (the fifth one he’s owned) to the Gambler event. “It’s too nice,” he said.

But he did see a lot of cool Subarus, and a couple monster trucks, that caught his eye at the event. He was blown away by the effort people put in.

“I thought we did a good job on our car, and a lot of people were like, hey, cool car, but you drive through there and see what some people create, and it humbles you really quick, because some people get really, really wild,” he said. “And we did not go crazy enough.”

He saw a PT Cruiser that someone cut the roof off of and caged, and put a platform loaded with a go-kart on top.

Everyone was welcoming. “As soon as they heard that this was our first year, they’re like, oh, you need to come check this out,” he said of the more experienced Gamblers who greeted him. “People who are veterans are really welcoming to new people.”

He appreciated the broader goal of the event too, in addition to the partying.

“I love going out and playing in the National Forest, I like going hunting, and I like going out wheeling on roads, and it always bugs me when I see trash,” he said. “So knowing that organizations like this go out there and clean it up once a year is really awesome. During the day, your goal is to go out and clean up a national forest, and for the most part everyone was out there.”