Riding Along with the Gumball 3000 for 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. 2014’s rally has carved out 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 skateboarder, entrepreneur and Gumball founder Maximillion Cooper famously karaoke’d with the late Kim Jong-il.)

Securing a place amongst the curious cast of Gumballers is no mean feat. It’s a particular mélange that makes up a participant: maybe he’s rich, maybe he’s famous, maybe he’s a little reckless. The one common strand? A pursuit for adventures unusual.

Naturally, with such mighty exoticism and thrill comes a mighty price tag. First things first: entry fee. This year, that was the better part of $100,000 USD. Blushing yet? You still need a ride.

Though you can drive whatever vehicle you darn well please, most entrants opt for tricked-out beasts: think 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. Make no mistake: this ain’t your average garage and these aren’t your average drivers.

(Even discarding the celebrity presence – of which there was plenty – I met no fewer than 8 multi-millionaires 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,” grins 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 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’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 States, and, just the night earlier, hopped on a charter plane from New York to Edinburgh.

When I drop into Regent Street, it’s clear what the event has grown into: London – 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 11pm, I meet a young family camped out in a Soho side street.

“We came here at 8 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!”

In reality, from the moment they departed Miami, the Gumballers have had eyes on them – by spectators waiting out the routes, by mammoth crowds in arrival cities, by GoPro’d livestreams, by the media crews that tail the rally (CNN included).   

Even those who came into the race with no fame have been transformed into instant, intercontinental celebrities. Every day on the rally is punctuated, regularly, by boys, girls and damn-grown men begging the drivers to let their engines roar: in gas stations, passport control, ferry docks and fast-food car parks. The riders soak it up, dishing out high-fives and posing for selfies en masse.

Though the bevy of cars are soon parked in a square in the middle of Soho for the night, Gumball 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. At exclusive clubs, bars and lounges, Gumballers cap-off a hard day’s work with oodles of premium alcohol, elite company, and elite entertainment: Cuban cigars lit with hundred-dollar-notes sort of vibe.

Nobody slept a wink overnight as the private jet loaded with dozens of supercars crossed the Atlantic – an all-night rager at 35,000 feet.

The rally isn’t wanting for characters: 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 indeed, glitz and commerciality has always been at the heart of the rally.

It’s 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 their rally team. 

The company has tricked out a Lamorghini into an electric violet chariot, and thrown two gorgeous women – who they claim are real-life users of the website – into the drivers seat. 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 today, 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 civilians. 

Cars are regularly stopped and fined for speeding, with drivers often paying on-the-spot fines, losing licences 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.”

As we hit the outskirts of Paris, law enforcement becomes a major factor. Drivers load up on Euros, ready to fork over ‘tips’. One underprepared 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+mph, I can start to appreciate the (costly) romanticism of Gumballing: all rolling plains and sunkissed tarmac, a symphony of roaring engines offsetting the Pyrénées in the distance. The freedom and the adventure – peppered with screaming fans atop highway bridges – combine to a heady cocktail. (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 euro fine, even though one of the officers gives Rita his number.

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 it not for the overdose of joie de vivre, you’d have been seriously concerned for pedestrian safety.

The crowds stalk the supercar armada for miles, all the way into the hotel carpark, where they’ve already lined four stories of ramps. It’s a mind-boggling spectacle of quasi-celebrity and revhead passion.

The next day, on a cruise ship to our final destination, Ibiza, I meet Christopher Jensen, a bleary-eyed Swede on waiting in line for the bar. It’s his second Gumball, 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. 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.’”