In honor of the greatest spectacle in racing this Sunday and the real-deal Gumball Rally this week I’d like to share with you one of my favorite car movies. Sure there’s Gone in 60 Seconds, Vanishing Point, and that one the kids watch where the cars spin around corners with the wheels on fire…something with an “F” or two, but when it comes to quirky classic fun with beautiful cars nothing beats The Gumball Rally. You can have your Burt Reynolds and I’ll keep my Gary Busey thank you. Cannon Ball Run may have more stars but Gumball has reality. It has style. And it keeps the real race’s moniker. Of course the current iteration is no longer a race, it’s more of a European cultural event for the new money crowd, but there’s still plenty of great cars.
I was first introduced to this movie at the perfect age of 16, or maybe 17, by a great friend. We got into a lot of trouble bouncing around in his step-dad’s Wrangler and sat around talking cars for hours on end. He’s a Beamer boy through and through and I’m a Porsche man myself so we always had plenty to discuss. We met in the middle with the Mustang. There’s nothing better than fastback. There’s no better car in the world. But while Bullitt may have a great chase scene at the end, The Gumball Rally is just one long car chase.
The movie has a simple premise. A New York business tycoon and an L.A. big shot square off in a cross-country race from Manhattan to Long Beach. It’s not exactly an official race. As Mr. Bannon said, “Some of you won’t make it, but for those of you that do there will be no glory, no headlines. Just a few magic hours flat-out against the red line with no catalytic converter and no 55 mile per hour speed limit.”
That’s what I love about this movie. It’s all about the cars. There are long sequences, especially in the urban canyons of New York, where the movie is nothing but loud shots of fast-moving beautiful steel scooting past the Big Apple’s finest landmarks. And what fine cars they are. Busey is his usual nutty self in an early 70’s Camaro Z-28, an early mid-70’s Corvette that doesn’t last too long, three nuts in an A Team style van with a 200 gallon gas tank, a Jaguar E type that lives up to its heritage very nicely, a couple of quaint gentleman in a very early Mercedes 300SL, a down on his luck mechanic and his soon to be ex-girlfriend hired to drive a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, two L.A. patrolman in a cruiser whose markings keep changing as they run state to state, a couple of unplugged Stepford wives in a 911 Targa, a mad Hungarian on a Kawasaki, and the two stars of the show, a Ferrari Daytona, and a beautiful AC Cobra. Sure it’s not Shelby with a 427, but it’s still quicker than that Daytona in several shots. They may not be quite as flashy as a Lamborghini Countach or as sleek and beautiful as an Aston Martin DB5, but they sound great and run great and they’re in a fantastic race through the Los Angeles River to the end. Just beautiful.
That river race is a lot of fun but what is it about the cross-country drive that makes people sit down for two hours or so and watch a movie featuring nothing more than people sitting down driving for two hours or so? Why did my friend and I sit in his bedroom while he fiddled with a program in Linux that let him into the Department of Defense mainframe talking non-stop about why if I could only ride in one supercar in my entire life I’d pick a ho-hum late 70’s Ferrari over a BMW M Coupe any day of the week? It’s the thrill of the open road. That sense of freedom when you know you can see what lies over the horizon and no one can stop you. That surge of adrenaline when that finely tuned machine revs up and you know everything is working perfectly. It’s pure romance.
I’ve been on several road trips in my short driving career. I drove from Ohio to Texas twice in college. The first leg was an all nighter to Chicago after getting off work at 11. When I was a kid we spent three weeks driving out west to see Colorado, sure it was in a minivan, but we were still on the road. Nothing but old route 66 stretching out as far as the eye could see. That allure, that sense of ever impending adventure is impossible to resist. And we all wish we could take that trip in a car worthy of the journey.
Now, the Gumball Rally cars are great, and I mean really great, and the story is a pretty straight forward run-from-the-cops line, so what props all this up and keeps the energy flowing is the comedy. Between a very young Busey’s antics as a batty southern mechanic and Lapchick the Mad, mute, Hungarian who couldn’t catch a break if the Kit-Kat factory blew up in his face, there’s plenty of slapstick. But the for the smart comedy we have non other than Mr. Gomez Adams of the 1991 Adams Family movie as loverboy and Le Mans winner Franco Bertollini. He plays a straight up Italian stereotype but he knows it and he knows you know it so he plays it up to everyone around him. Raul Julia is perfectly funny. Oh did I mention somebody carrying a large quantity of highly flammable liquid has an unfortunate meeting with a fireworks factory?
What really pushes Gumball Rally above Cannonball Run is the lack of stars. With no egos to stroke we can focus on the cars. Cannonball Run is nothing but stars, and some pretty big ones at that. There are few stunts. The actors are driving the cars throughout the movie, even in the river race which is done with the actual cars. It’s just pure unadulterated fun.
So before you go and sit down for the Indy 500 I’d like to propose a toast from the mouth of Hollywood big shot Steve “Smitty.”
“To internal combustion and wind in the face.”