- Hundreds of thousands of spectators wait for a glimpse of fine-tuned monsters and famed drivers
- There's nothing official about the rally -- drivers are subject to the same road laws as any civilian
- Gumballers have motored from Marrakech to Bangkok to Dubrovnik to, most remarkably, North Korea
Once a year, a motley crew of superstars in supercars carve out an impossible, hedonistic adventure.
The Gumball 3000 -- now in its 16th iteration -- is an intercontinental car rally built on unabashed excess, unbridled thrills and kaleidoscopic changes of scenery.
Exactly where the cars and characters venture changes from year to year.
The 2014 rally -- which took place June 4-12 -- blitzed a path from Miami to Ibiza -- with flights and ferries to conquer seas, as required.
In rallies past, Gumballers have motored everywhere from Marrakech to Bangkok to Dubrovnik to, most remarkably, an incursion into North Korea in 2008.
It was there that British entrepreneur and Gumball 3000 founder Maximillion Cooper famously karaoked with the late Kim Jong-il.
Securing a place among the curious cast of Gumballers is no mean feat. It's a particular melange that makes up a participant: maybe he's rich, maybe he's famous, maybe he's a little reckless.
The one common strand?
A hunger for unusual adventures.
Naturally, such mighty exoticism and thrills come with a mighty price tag.
First things first: entry fee. This year, that was the better part of $100,000.
Broke yet? You still need a ride.
Though you can drive whatever vehicle you please, most entrants opt for tricked-out beasts: Porsche, Jaguar, Rolls Royce.
Saudi entrants, Team Galag, built an epic, street-legal replica of Batman's tumbler.
An insanely rare McLaren P1 graced the route this year.
These ain't your average garage projects and these aren't your average drivers.
Even discarding the celebrity presence -- of which there was plenty this year -- I met no fewer than eight multimillionaires in my week with the rally.
But with no shortage of ways to blow cash in exotic and unorthodox ways, the question is why -- why this?
"There's no purpose to it," grinned rapper Xzibit one foggy morning in France. "It's the camaraderie -- the brotherhood."
As participants remind me evangelically: this isn't a race -- this is a matter of pride and joy and adventure, not milliseconds.
"It isn't about racing," says Gumball 3000 founder Cooper. "It never has been."
What they mightn't tell you is that it's about status, too.
"It's like going to dinner and pulling out a black card, a gold card and a debit card. This is the one you want to be carrying around," says entrepreneur and multi-time participant Caleb Garrett, who has Gumball 3000's logo tattooed to his forearm.
By the time I join the rally -- on a lazy, warm Sunday in London -- the participants have braved a brutal drive up the east coast of the United States, and, just the night earlier, hopped on a charter plane from New York to Edinburgh.
When I drop into Regent Street in London, it's clear what the event has grown into.
Central London has been closed off.
Regent Street, home to heritage buildings and colossal brands, has been gated-off into a mini-festival.
The number of spectators is astonishing.
Hundreds of thousands, easy.
They're here, on the streets, climbing poles and leaning over barriers, waiting for a glimpse of the fine-tuned monsters and their famed drivers.
Around 11 p.m., I meet a young family camped out in a Soho side street.
"We came here eight hours ago," says Alice, a well-spoken, ostensibly responsible mother of five. "We wanted to make a day of it. We want to see the McLarens. It's school night -- they should be home in bed!"
From the moment they departed Miami, the Gumballers have had eyes on them -- spectators waiting out the routes, mammoth crowds in arrival cities, GoPro'd livestreams, the media crews that tail the rally (CNN included).
Even those who came into the race with no fame have been transformed into instant (if temporary), intercontinental celebrities.
As much for fans
Every day on the rally is punctuated, regularly, by boys, girls and grown men begging the drivers to let their engines roar: in gas stations, passport control, ferry docks and fast food parking lots.
The riders soak it up, dishing out high fives and posing for pictures.
Though the bevy of cars are soon parked in a square in the middle of Soho for the night, Gumball 3000 continues its adventure until the early hours.
You'd hardly think that after a full day's driving, there'd be more left to give.
But as the sun sets, in each city, each night, a party whose decadence borders on fable takes place.
At exclusive clubs, bars and lounges, Gumballers cap off the day's work with premium alcohol, elite company and elite entertainment: Cuban cigars lit with hundred-dollar-notes sort of vibe.
Few sleep as the private jet loaded with dozens of supercars crosses the Atlantic -- an all-night rager at 35,000 feet.
The rally isn't wanting for characters, which include royalty both Saudi and Hollywood, regular Hasselhoff sightings, rappers from Xzibit to Tinie Tempah and properly old European money.
Driving aside, Gumballers are paying for a chance to rub shoulders and join a unique family.
"I couldn't give a s---," one European Gumballer tells me at a checkpoint in the British countryside. "Not about the parties, not about the celebrities. I'm here to drive."
But glitz and commercialism have always been at the heart of the rally.
The event has never had an issue securing a smorgasbord of sponsorship cash.
This year's sponsors run the gamut, from YouTube and Betsafe, to smaller brands chasing a piece of the rally's spirit.
One first-time sponsor is AnastasiaDate -- a dating website that brings a lovesick tinge to its rally team.
The company has tricked out a Lamborghini into an electric violet chariot and thrown two gorgeous women -- who they claim are real-life users of the website -- into the seats.
The pair of Russians have caused a sensation everywhere they've driven. Mission accomplished.
"She's looking for love, and not sure where she'll find it!" a company rep tells me of one of the drivers, Rita. "Her true love might be waiting on the rally!"
So far, Rita's mingled with Xzibit and a few members of Saudi royalty.
Mercilessly fatigued from the marathon driving, she naps in a support van as the rally leaves London.
Today, the drivers are psyched: they're hitting up the iconic Top Gear test track before lunch -- a legendary stretch of tarmac and a chance to flatten the pedal and throttle up to max speeds.
But the drivers are anxious, too.
They're crossing the English Channel en route to Paris and French authorities, I'm told, are reliably difficult and anti-Gumball.
Indeed, each country receives Gumball differently.
There's nothing official or especially legitimate about the rally -- most crucially, drivers are subject to the same road laws as any civilian.
Cars are regularly stopped and fined for speeding, with drivers often paying on-the-spot fines, losing licenses or, in some cases, having cars confiscated.
In 2008, the rally was thrown into disrepute when an accident in Macedonia led to the death of an elderly local couple.
"It was absolutely horrendous. The worst thing I could ever have foreseen. It made me reevaluate everything," Cooper tells me. "But in 16 rallies, we've [only] had one accident with a fatality, as devastating as it is."
Legal blind spots
As we hit the outskirts of Paris, law enforcement becomes a major factor.
Drivers load up on Euros, ready to fork over "tips."
One under-prepared rider is detained by regional police while his teammates search stone-cobbled streets, aimlessly, for an ATM.
"Safety is the priority -- this is my sixth Gumball," says Xzibit, warming up his car by the Seine. "We haven't had any incidents -- I think we had one accident so far, out of 120 cars that started the race."
When I hop in a Lamborghini Gallardo, taking in the French countryside at 100-plus mph, I can start to appreciate the romanticism of Gumballing: all rolling plains and sun-kissed pavement, a symphony of roaring engines offsetting the Pyrenees in the distance.
The freedom and the adventure -- peppered with screaming fans atop highway bridges -- combine into a heady cocktail.
Though it may just be mild dehydration and carsickness.
That same afternoon, word filters around Gumballers to be extra alert.
Xzibit has had his license confiscated, right near the Spanish boarder, by French authorities. (He'll end up driving again once we hit Barcelona.)
Meanwhile the two Russian girls, ever drawing eyes to their lilac Lamborghini, are pulled over by Spanish police. They pay a €50 ($68) fine, and one of the officers gives Rita his number.
'Begging for revs'
When we crawl through Barcelona at her peak hour, sunset traffic, the crowds are chaotic.
There are no security barriers, no police presence, no order.
We experience a first-person view of the Gumball's triumphant arrival -- and it's surreal: Spaniards young and old mob the cars, posing for photos, begging for revs, marveling in giddy astonishment.
If not for the overdose of joie de vivre, you'd be seriously concerned for pedestrian safety.
The crowds stalk the supercar armada for miles, all the way into the hotel car lot, where they've already lined four stories of ramps.
It's a mind-boggling spectacle of quasi-celebrity and rev-head passion.
The next day, on a cruise ship to our final destination, Ibiza, I meet Christopher Jensen, a bleary-eyed Swede waiting in line at the bar.
It's his second Gumball 3000, and he's about to meet up with his wife and son.
He looks exhausted -- many of the Gumballers on the cruise do.
"Everyone keeps asking me why I do this," he says. "It's a brotherhood. I'd sell everything just to do this once: it's the crazy parties, the driving -- all of it."
His eyes are red and tired and devious. For a moment, he looks like a bratty Scandinavian teen.
"I heard of it. I dreamed of it. Then I closed my eyes -- and now I'm here."
He turns around. He grins.
"I thought, 'That's just something that someone else does.'"
The 2015 Gumball 3000 rally will travel through Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. For details visit the Gumball 3000 website.