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TACH Goes Gumball

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Filling Up

Gumball by Nicholas Frankl. Photos by writer and Bruce Korman.

– 160 cars, 6 days, 2800 miles = 700 speeding tickets and $100k in fines!

Shotguns have a funny ability to make an English gentleman, even one with the stiffest-of-upper-lips, do unspeakable things. You won’t, therefore, be surprised to learn that when “Big Timmy” (yes, that was his real name), a 6ft 4ins, 300lb Officer (although ‘of what’ I never did discover), dressed in black jeans, black boots and a #3 NASCAR T-shirt pointed his 12- gauge shotgun through the window of my shiny, red Corvette Z06 and bellowed for me to exit, hit the asphalt face down and put my hands behind my back, on an otherwise beautiful, clear, blue sky, 85 degree day on the 70 West outside Waurika, Oklahoma, I duly obeyed.

The previous 1500 miles had been colorful, but not like this. We departed New York on Thursday evening with 150 other “Gumballers”; a collection of wealthy Americans and Europeans paying $8,000 per entrant, to compete in a coast-to-coast rally in aid of the Twin Towers Foundation, driving an assortment of Ferraris (about 65 of them, including a 250 California Spider, 1971 Daytona and an F50), Porsche’s (about 30), BMWs, AMG Mercedes, an AC Cobra, two Diablos, a white stretch limo, two new Minis with the Playboy Xtreme team bunnies inside, and a fully-equipped, 60-foot motor home. As we headed for our first checkpoint, in Washington DC, I knew from experience, this being my third Gumball event, that some trouble lay ahead. Organized by an eccentric 30 year old petrol head English man – Maximillion Cooper – known as Max, just like Bernard Ecclestone is known as Bernie, created the events to have fun with friends and rediscover the joys of high speed European motoring through great countryside with some cool parties thrown in the fix. The previous rallies, running over various routes around Northern, Southern and Eastern Europe, had earnt a reputation for fast driving, hard partying and making big contributions to all the respective law enforcement communities, even in Germany, where not even unrestricted autobahns were fast enough for the mighty Gumballers. But that was Europe, where even after chasing two Ferrari 355s at over 165mph with helicopters, the Italian Caribinere settled for a quick spin around the block and a few lira in their back pockets. The Germans may have impounded a Maserati and a 550, and issued the largest speeding fines since Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz decided to see what steam could really do ($50,000 and $65,000 respectively), but that was for passing cars at 195mph – on the hard shoulder! All very Gumball. However, that was the friendly, open-minded Europeans. This was America, land of the free, unless you happen to run into Oklahoma’s finest. “This ‘ere’s the big US of A boy, and yous European sons-of-bitches ain’t welcome here”. Meet State Trooper Winton.

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Ok So Where Is 42nd Street Again?

The previous Troopers, one from Virginia and the other Tennessee, had been polite, courteous and professional: no guns, no glory, just going about their revenue-collecting business. Other Gumballers hadn’t faired so well. A Ferrari convoy, including two 550’s a 550 Barchetta and a 360, were pulled over on the New Jersey turnpike. Stopped for doing 75, they got out of the cars to get their documents, (as you do in the UK) and were duly threatened with a handgun, imprisonment and the cars being impounding. “Your car’s got flames cumin’ out the back – we don’t need that shit on my highway”, said the officer. He let them off with a ticket, as did many cops that night, as the Gumballers blazed a trail of speeding tickets through seven states, filling the assorted officers’ pockets along the way. DC’s train station was grand enough, and after a chicken sandwich and some good stories we set off in convoy, with a new AMG SL55, Diablo, Viper and a glorious-sounding black Daytona. Running at 2am, at a very respectable and highly reserved 83mph, I was zapped by the Virginia radar and pulled over, the others allowed to go on, since I was the lead car. Having witnessed countless Gumball radar casualties, I opted to leave the highway at that point and take the road less traveled. Route 11 was, of course, deserted, just my co-pilot Bruce and I in the Z06, an AMG E55, some truckers and no cops; they were all on the verges off I81, radar guns at the ready. This allowed us the chance to let the 405 horses run a little. The old Chevy V8 engine has now seen so many reiterations that one feels it could power a submarine. In any gear, at almost any revs, there is instant power. 90mph in 6th gear has the engine running at only 2500 revs, but if you want the horses to work for you, forget 6th; it’s really an overdrive and isn’t suitable for high speed acceleration. Out in the darkness of the Appalachian mountains, we saw 130, 140 and 150mph, the car stable apart from slight bonnet shake, initially unnerving but harmless, the V8 roaring upfront, the four titanium exhausts leaving vapor trails in our wake. After twelve hours at the wheel, Bruce took over at 6am, with 400 miles to go ‘til Nashville. By this stage, Virginia had notified it’s brothers-in-arms in Tennessee that these “Cannonballers” where heading their way and the whole state scrambled to do some piggybank filling. Bruce was doing well until he ran up the backside of an undercover car. “Well, it sure ain’t everyday I have some gun coming up behind me at EIGHTY FIVE MILES AN HOUR!” I nearly dropped the video camera I was laughing so much. Bruce explained the charitable objectives of the rally as countless Gumballers flew by – horns blaring in rebellion - as valiant excuses fell on deaf ears. Bruce duly paid up, and we took some pictures.

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F50 Good To Go

By 10 am we were pooped and the Opreyland Hotel in Nashville awaited us. Unfortunately, this particular hotel has something of a poor reputation in terms of customer satisfaction and exudes an air of general incompetence, something they evidently try hard to nurture. So, after camping out in the lobby for about three hours we were finally allowed into our rooms, which took many another ½ hour to find, thanks to the Disneyland-dimensions of this hotel and its illegible signposts.

9am Saturday, it was time pay our respects to Elvis. Ten of us traveled in convoy, Diablo, Porsche Turbo, four Ferrari 550’s, two 360’s and an M3. Straight away there were cops everywhere, on all sides of the road, with the radars pointing in only one direction - ours. Fortunately we had some spotters. Keith and James, in a Ferrari 512TR, were a ½ hour ahead and called in to tell us the mile markers the cops were hiding at. We were saved three times in 232 miles. And it felt great to get one back on the law! A couple of thousand spectators were on hand to welcome us to “The Kings” motor museum, all waiting for celebrity Gumballers Nicolas Cage, Mathew McConnaughey and Donna Karen to show. Only problem was they weren’t joining in till Dallas – if at all.

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Southern Hospitality

After Memphis and five radar stakeouts in 3 miles, we decided to forget the I40 and I 30 to Dallas and head off to the 61 South and 84 West. What a glorious route. With a silver Diablo in chase we ran for 600 miles through deserted plains, twisty two-lane sweepers and flat-out countryside. It took 20 minutes for Jay to wipe the smile off his face having cruised at over 150 in Sant’ Agata’s finest for over an hour. We continued for another 250 miles into Dallas, with regular phone updates on the various punishments being handed out along the highway route. At one stage the Texas troopers pulled a yellow Diablo over at over 130mph. But, when the trooper discovered the Hooters gal on the passenger side he duly handcuffed her, and made her lie on the bonnet and pose as he videoed!

Other Gumball tales were emerging. We discovered the F50 had been purchased just three weeks prior to the event, especially for the competition, and the owner had duly spun and smashed the front end on day one of ownership but had it repaired in time to be shipped from the UK. Because the car was open-top, the two of them wore rally-style headphones to communicate and were noted for traveling at maximum speed wherever possible, throwing wads of ten-dollar bills out the roof so that the vehicles behind would stop and cause a roadblock to hold up the pursuing cops. The Playmates had been stopped on numerous occasions and surprise, surprise been let off with warnings, with the help of some bunny tears for good effect. And the four Ducati 998R’s (talk about dedication) had been chased for 30 miles without realizing due to their lack of rearward visibility (and, possibly, also high speed). Some cars were getting up to eight tickets a day, whilst others, just a few miles behind or in front, weren’t getting any at all. The two actresses in the Black 911, from the original Gumball movie, were stopped, arrested and ordered to pay an $8,000 fine. They managed $4,000 plus a Rolex to keep from going to jail.

Dallas, Saturday night and half the 2800 miles behind us. There were eight entrants from Dallas and Bo French, an oil magnet, and his girlfriend Meg threw a huge black-tie party in the Gumball’s honor that lasted till about 5am the following morning, everyone trying to find out which suite the Playmates were in.

Day four and the Dallas police were out in style to send us off, all smiles and pictures. “These guys are going to get stopped, but it won’t be by me,” cautioned one officer. Next stop was Amarillo and the Cadillac ranch. Bruce was driving and went off at a great lick of speed, in time for us to lead the convoy and disappear into the distance as we missed the turning to join the 256. Slightly miffed to ruin our good run and find ourselves 40 miles in the wrong direction, I headed back and discovered a short cut on route 60. Little did we know that we were in Oklahoma, because the word was out that Texas was playing its charitable part of greeting Gumballers with smiles not tickets. Down this glorious, open and empty road we went, cruising above the indicated 65mph limit but not driving dangerously in anyway. We passed a Porsche Turbo and soon we had a good little convoy, making time and enjoying the green countryside. The Vette at this time began indicating that the transmission was hot, as it had done in Virginia when we cruised at any sustained high speed, so I kicked it out of gear and rolled for about ½ a mile. Then “Big Timmy” appeared on the horizon and the day’s Gumballing was over.

With the four of us handcuffed, face down in the middle of the road, surrounded by 10 police cars and eighteen policemen, all behaving in a very threatening and intimidating manner, I had the chance to reflect upon previous altercations around the world and wished, just for a moment, that we were back in Blighty, where justice is firm, fair and they don’t carry shotguns. Plead as we might, the Corvette was impounded…”now why would anyone at GM lend you foreigners a car to break the law in?” was the response from the police captain. Waurika is not a small town. It’s not really a town in any real sense. I know strip malls in LA that would beat the hell out of it in a war. But it does have one, three story building, and yes, that’s the Jefferson county jail. Being a Sunday meant that Porsche driver Nick Connor and I weren’t going nowhere ‘til morning, when the judge could see us – if we lived that long. Luckily, the Gumball suite was available, all 6foot by 8foot of it, with one stone slab “bed” and a stainless steel dunny. Nick and I settled into a long night, having already posed for the “Hugh Grant” photo and done the finger printing business too. Actually, we were very fortunate. The “big” cell was full, slept six, with one toilet and wasn’t a place you’d even venture with a Secret Service detail in tow. Meantime, as we tried to sleep, after chowing down some fine Oklahoma slop, Bruce and Marcelo were frantically trying to reach Mr James Ivy, a born-and-bred Waurikan, and the only lawyer in town, and a sprightly 84 years of age. Being a bright, sunny Sunday, James was out fishing. But he tracked them down at the A-OK motel, where they were the solitary guests.

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Penthouse Jail

Next morning it was wide-awake time at 6.30am. Monday, of course, being mop-out day meant that your trusty AUTO CHANNEL writer and Nick, an Eton graduate, had to scrub and bleach the floors. By 12 we’d had enough of our “experience” and were ready for the judge. Trooper Winton was in court with all his buddies to see the nasty foreigners get smoked. Luckily his recommendation of 5-30 days jail time and making an example of us (to whom I still don’t know) was plea-bargained down to the maximum fine of $500 plus court costs. We were out. The car arrived on the low loader, Pierre Kanter at GM New York having pulled a few favors to get faxes from Detroit to the local wrecker who refused to release the car. Finally, at 2pm, we headed, very gingerly, out of small-ville America and back into Texas en route to Wichita Falls to catch a plane to Las Vegas. As the Corvette had already been having transmission problems the thought of driving over 1100 miles to Vegas, non-stop over night and through the desert, didn’t appeal. It was time to catch up and have the cars towed overnight, by the same guy who we had spent 14 hours persuading to release them in the first place.

By 9.30 we were in Las Vegas and the toast of RA nightclub at the Luxor, dressed in our official Jefferson County inmate uniforms. The media took a generous interest in our story and the night ended with various Gumballers doing donuts down the famous strip.

Day 6 and the final run to LA. Leaving at 12pm, and reckoning on five hours, this was just a skip, and no one, apart from the F50 of course, seemed very interested in high speeds. The CHP evidently weren’t going to miss out on payday, SO up went the spotter plane and sure enough at the checkpoint we were all pulled for doing 80 in a 75. Pathetic. Much more amusing was the request from the CHP commander to get us to inform the “Gumball Chopper” that he wasn’t allowed to run 50 feet off the deck and act as a decoy for the police plane. But we never did find our chopper friend. After 2800 miles (actually 1900 driving miles for us) we arrived at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood (new home of the Oscars), with fireworks and crackers, smiles and champagne. And everyone was completely knackered.

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LA La Home Again

But, the finish party at the Playboy mansion, was calling, and the Mansion, with its infamous Grotto, is a must-see place at least once in everyone’s life. It is the Mecca of bad boys, and all that we aspire to achieve, legally! Hefner put in a brief appearance, and awards were handed out. There was no official winner, but the highly regarded “Spirit of Gumball” award went to the Ferrari 250 California spider which had broken down in New York, but still made it to Washington, where it broke again. Unfazed, the owners found a mechanic at midnight able to fix it and keep it running ‘til Nashville, where it finally gave up the ghost entirely. From Nashville to Dallas they hitched a lift with the Gumball bus and then went out and bought a new AC Cobra, which lasted as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico. Stranded, they took a taxi and coughed up $2500 to get to Las Vegas! There they rented a Ferrari 355 and finally made it to the finish line in LA.

The Auto Channel Team received the Playboy award, for getting into the most trouble with the best style, and even five days after the finish I was still hearing reports of Gumball cars racing down Rodeo Drive.

Next year the plan is San Francisco to Miami. Would I do it again? Only in a luxury coach, with someone else driving.