Geared up for Gambler 500: Rally impacts SH with stream of cars, local participants

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

A vehicle costing no more than $500, 500 miles of driving – much of it on unpaved roads, and picking up trash is the way hundreds of people decided to spend last weekend as they visited waypoints throughout Oregon before settling into camp in Chemult as part of the Gambler 500.

By the end of last week, a steady stream of beaters, many of them cleverly decorated and modified, were rolling through Sweet Home. Some of them contained local folks, who’ve left the sidelines to join in the fun.

During the Gambler 500, every “gambler” participant picks up litter and trail trash along the way. An award is given for cheapest car, the coolest people and being helpful on the trail, but organizers say they hate rules and people are welcome to bring more expensive, reliable, late-model cars and join the fun.

Some did. In Sweet Home Friday a wide assortment of vehicles, 1980s-era beaters mixed with crisply painted and themed SUVs, rolled through town, stopping for fuel.

Gamblers began with a rolling start at the World of Speed museum in Wilsonville Friday and Saturday mornings, with a kickoff party at Conversion Brewing for waypoints. From the south, drivers had a rolling start at the Discover Klamath building in Klamath Falls, where they received their waypoints.

It was clear there was no one right route. At Foster Lake, for instance, some rolled across the dam, often in packs of three or four, while others headed east on the highway, toward Chemult.

Jeremiah and Julie Fisher and Robert and Sarah Shamek made their way west to the Gambler 500 party at Conversion Brewing in Lebanon and the Oregon Jamboree’s final summer concert series with Corvallis country artists Adam Larson & Co before heading to Chemult. (Robert Shamek is the Jamboree festival director.)

They weren’t the only locals who participated. Dave Bauer, manager of Steelhead Gym, and his buddy Mike Carpenter made the run to Chemult as well, in Dave’s old Ford pickup.

Several Gambler 500 cars were parked along Main Street in Lebanon as Larson played, including a 1970-something Dodge Aspen station wagon marked with Radiator Supply House Icebox and Oregon Jamboree logos.

The Shameks and Fishers think it’s a big improvement on their first Rambler 500 rig, a 1992-ish Ford Taurus.

The Taurus made the trip just fine, Robert Shamek said, but they figured the rear-wheel-drive V8 Aspen would be more reliable. Julie Fisher said she was a lot more confident in the Aspen.

If it turned out not to be reliable, they had insurance. The group brought along a late-model Toyota Land Cruiser and took turns swapping between the vehicles.

The team made the trip for the first time last year. Fisher said she learned about the Gambler event from Matt Cowart, owner of Conversion Brewing.

“He had done it and was telling me all about it,” Fisher said. “It sounded fun.”

Cowart’s role in the event has grown since his involvement, and drivers now stop at Conversion Brewing to pick up waypoints leading across the mountains through Bend into the Gamblertown camp in Chemult.

Cowart said he did it the first year the event drew hundreds of cars, and U.S. Forest Service officials were unhappy with all of the traffic following waypoints along forest roads.

The Forest Service was prohibiting the event organizers from posting waypoints, Cowart said. He talked with founder Tate Morgan, and noting that Cowart and Conversion Brewing were not prohibited from posting waypoints, they talked to city officials about bringing the Gambler 500 to Lebanon.

When Cowart found out that Morgan was also a brewer, the two collaborated on a brew for the event, and Cowart posted waypoints for the event this year.

This year, the Forest Service has been more open to the event and provided 10 waypoints of its own that officials thought needed cleanup, Cowart said.

The Gambler 500 lasts two nights, from Friday to Sunday, Cowart said. “This event brings more tourists to Chemult than the entire year.”

It’s gone from a small off-road challenge “with cars that probably shouldn’t be out there” to 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles, Cowart said.

“We loved it,” Shamek said about last year’s trip. “I think we were the 1,300th car through the gate.”

There were so many people last year that “by the time we made it, there was no garbage to pick up,” Shamek said. “It’s a great time, a bunch of good ol’ boys having a good time.”

Sarah Shamek said she’s on the trip “because I’m a good friend and wife. I just enjoy it with my friends.”

“I definitely liked seeing all the other cars,” Fisher said. “I liked the off road. They really make it a huge trash cleanup, which was really cool. It’s just a good time with friends. I’m really excited about our car this year. I’m hoping we can use it from here on out.”

Jeremiah Fisher said he enjoyed seeing roads they don’t normally see and meeting people along the way.

“I did it because I thought it was going to be a good time,” Fisher said. They had fun last year, but their Taurus was a lousy car. “We got what we think is a better car. If it’s not, so what? We have a tow strap.”

After returning to Sweet Home, Julie Fisher told The New Era, “We did break down. We broke down a lot.”

The group ended up stopped about 10 times before reaching Sisters, Fisher said.

Radiator Supply House had supplied a cooling fan for the car, and they put RSH’s Icebox logo on the car. But the group never checked into the radiator itself.

The moral of the story, Fisher said: “Should’ve brought an Icebox.”

Reaching Sisters, they stopped at a parts store, but it wasn’t able to help.

“Some random guy overheard us and offered a free parts car to us,” Fisher said. It turned out to be a Suburu. “Jeremiah made it work, and off we went.”

They had the 2,550th vehicle two reach Gamblertown.

“The car is amazing, once we got this one issue taken care of,” Fisher said.

They found a little trash along the way, Fisher said, but Will Garrett of Sweet Home found and hauled away a boat from the forest roads.

He entered his rig, with the boat, into a La Pine car show along the way.

Fisher said she also saw Dave Bauer of Sweet Home on the Gambler 500 as well.