“It started,” recalls founder and former Eugenean Tate Morgan, “with 13 cars in a parking lot. No big plans. Sort of a collection of suburban dads who wanted to do something, go somewhere over the weekend. Think cheap cars and automotive adventures.”
Turns out “somewhere” ended up being a sizable plot of public lands outside Portland. And “something” was a rather loose combination of freeform vehicle races, party spirit, and landscape cleanup. Amateur video footage of that first weekend event was viewed 50 million times on social media, fueling growing participation in the annual Gambler events that have followed.
Gamblertown, as some call the Gambler 500’s host site, has relocated from time to time over nine years, from the Bend area to the Gilchrist area — where attendance ultimately overwhelmed the town infrastructure — and most recently, to the Redmond area, where more than 5,000 Gamblertown visitors did their thing in June. There’s even a suggestion that the Gambler 500 might eventually be located at the former Eugene Speedway site and the public lands surrounding it.
Perhaps the most celebrated aspect of the Gambler 500 culture is its promotion of landscape stewardship and cleanup. “The longer we’ve been here,” says Morgan, “the more important it’s become.” This past June marked the unveiling of a free public app (“Sons of Smokey”) that allowed Forest Service workers, BLM employees, hikers, campers, and the like to identify where trash was located within the Gambler event area. “Way point” markers then steered Gambler participants to the trash, which was subsequently removed in Gambler vehicles. The volume of trash removed this year doubled from last year.
“My general attitude is linked to the spirit of Eugene culture and the fact that with Gambler we try to remove barriers for people to do what they want regardless of race, sex, gender, age. . . . Think of the Gambler 500 as kind of a cross between Oregon Country Fair and NASCAR,” says Morgan, laughing. “It’s one of the weirdest combinations you could imagine. But the point is, it’s full of very altruistic people.”