Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Riding shotgun in the Gumball 3000

By Adam Baidawi, for CNN
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0426 GMT (1226 HKT)
The Gumball 3000 -- now in its 16th iteration -- is an intercontinental car rally built on unabashed excess, unbridled thrills and kaleidoscopic changes of scenery. The Gumball 3000 -- now in its 16th iteration -- is an intercontinental car rally built on unabashed excess, unbridled thrills and kaleidoscopic changes of scenery.
2014 Gumball 3000 rally
Ride what you like, as long as it turns heads
Fast lane to fame
No thirst for first
Hot opportunity for brands
Entry fee: High
Brotherhood of 'Brrrrmmmmm!'
Motivations differ
Where the road goes ...
... Gumballers follow
Spectator special
Drive hard, party harder
  • 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

(CNN) -- 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.

MORE: Ferrari designer creates super luxurious Japanese train

High costs

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.

One dating site took the chance to show off its assets.
One dating site took the chance to show off its assets.

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.

MORE: Hot wheels: Car hire companies add bling

Participant prestige

"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).

For some, Gumball 3000 is the first item on the calendar.
For some, Gumball 3000 is the first item on the calendar.

Even those who came into the race with no fame have been transformed into instant (if temporary), intercontinental celebrities.

MORE: The $6,800 car that will get 84 mpg

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.

MORE: Futuristic drive: Step inside a 3D printed car

'Ghini girls

One first-time sponsor is AnastasiaDate -- a dating website that brings a lovesick tinge to its rally team.

Not famous? You are now.
Not famous? You are now.

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."

MORE: Most outrageous business deductions ever filed

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."

This is what 5,000 calls of \
This is what 5,000 calls of "Shotgun!" look like.

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.

Where Gumballers go, thousands follow.
Where Gumballers go, thousands follow.

"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.

Adam Baidawi is an Australian writer and photographer. His work has been published by GQ, Esquire and Rolling Stone. He followed the 2014 Gumball 3000 from London to Ibiza.

Part of complete coverage on
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1719 GMT (0119 HKT)
Scrap all those other bucket lists you've been compiling and start saving -- these memorable-for-a-lifetime trips don't come cheap, or easy.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0426 GMT (1226 HKT)
Once a year, a motley crew of superstars in supercars carve out an impossible, hedonistic adventure.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0433 GMT (1233 HKT)
Forget space. Our very own planet is ripe for investigation.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1559 GMT (2359 HKT)
Although I know my downward dog from my one-legged king pigeon pose, I'm relatively new to yoga.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0436 GMT (1236 HKT)
At these "clubs" ear-shattering music, dense smoke and multiple charges of FUI (Flirting Under the Influence) are banished.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0438 GMT (1238 HKT)
The world's first man-made surfing lake has been given an opening date of summer 2015.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0439 GMT (1239 HKT)
It's largely devoid of human life, dark and viciously cold yet it's a popular destination for an arts festival.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
In the backwaters of India's southern state of Kerala, traditional village life goes on much as it has for the last 50 years.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
One good thing about humanity's obsession with building enormous numbers of buildings?
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
From boxed sandwiches and salads in plastic tubs to fine dining.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0449 GMT (1249 HKT)
The first couple weeks of each new year start with grandiose visions.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0451 GMT (1251 HKT)
From hot air balloon to hang-gliding operators, plenty of airborne adventure outfits promise to let you "soar with the birds."
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0453 GMT (1253 HKT)
The weekend of the 2014 Masters -- the first major golf tournament of the year -- invariably acts as a siren call to anyone who owns a set of clubs.