A go-kart track loops through a baked and flattened strip of earth at the foot of Albuquerque's 9 Mile Hill. From a distance, the karts' tubular bumpers make the eight racers look like bobblehead dolls riding atop hockey pucks.
Matt Ruybal—whose surname is spelled out across the shoulders of his red, white and blue leather jacket—rocks himself forward at the last millisecond to win fifth place by a nose hair. John Paul Gonzales—who looks like a space ninja in his sweat-absorbing balaclava under a loaner helmet—rolls in last, less than 10 seconds later.
It's T-minus 19 days until the Aug. 13-16 Dustball 1500. Ruybal and Gonzales, both of Santa Fe, will buckle themselves into a 1995 Mustang Cobra and compete against more than 30 teams in the 1,500-mile road rally across the American Southwest. Today they are using kart racing to practice passing cars in narrow lanes.
The Dustball will launch from El Paso, Texas and travel who knows where. As they leave the starting line, an organizer will hand them a manila envelope filled with instructions, directions, visual clues, riddles and math problems teams must solve for points and, in some instances, use to find their way. All any of the teams know for sure is that they will have one day of rest in a mystery city.
The scavenger hunt aspect makes the Dustball a legal "gimmick rally" rather than an illegal street race.
Ruybal thrives on precision and thoroughness (which is comforting since he'll be driving and his government job involves handling federal stimulus money). Gonzales, who coordinates post-doctoral "summer camp" programs at the Santa Fe Institute, is Ruybal's more philosophical copilot and navigator. He's in it for the poetry of the road.
That's why they make a strong team. The rally is not just about who can best drive the American roadway, but who can best understand it. The Southwest will throw curves, dust devils and rogue state troopers at you. It will also hide its wonders—forgotten train cars, roadside memorials, carved-out mountains, exactly the type of minutiae to turn up in a rally clue.
Each team, like each car, runs on a unique fuel combination. Some are chasing the smell of burnt rubber, while others just want to party. Ruybal and Gonzales want to leave all of them, literally and metaphorically, in the dust.
But in the end there's one thing driving them all: the drive.
I'm just along for the ride.
“If Smokey and the Bandit was during the time of twitter, what would they tweet? #Dustball”—Twitter User Lead_Solo
Thursday, Aug. 13
6:43 pm, El Paso, Texas
Drivers' safety meeting
Waxed, polished and decaled hot rods take up a third of the strip mall parking lot. Inside the hot-wings joint, every seat is filled with a finger-sucking rally runner.
Team by team, the members of the 60-person ensemble stand and introduce themselves. There's Team Shake N Bake, which cribbed its name and signature handshake from the racing comedy Talladega Nights. The six members of Team Michael Jackson Neck Dead Hearts promise cocktails to any visitors to their minivan. Team Haul & Nass demonstrates what a Texas drawl sounds like on no sleep and Corvette-induced adrenaline.
Andrew Medley, the Dustball Rally organizer, reads the four-page safety guide aloud, verbatim. The Dustball, he emphasizes, is not a race: There is no prize for coming in first. Road etiquette impacts the rally's reputation; he urges the teams to slow down in small towns, to conserve their cell phone juice when outside of signal range and to remember that "a happy driver is a safe driver."
"This safety briefing is based on four years of rally experience," Medley says. "If it smells like blood, sweat and tears, it's because that's exactly what's in it."
"What about afterbirth?" Dede Rogers, the leader of the two-car Team DSTP Motorsports, calls out. All four teammates wear matching purple golf shirts.
The room moans. Medley continues.
"This year, the route is the most dangerous in the history of the Dustball…"
Friday, Aug. 14, day one
5:50 am, La Quinta Airport East, El Paso
Team New Mex Express, final pre-rally self-inspection
Inside the Cobra: analog and digital police scanners, front and rear radar detectors, two GPS devices, police-style safety lights, a siren with four different sounds, a power inverter, a classic 1970s CB radio, two smart phones and a hands-free ear piece pre-programmed for voice recognition to dial up "support staff," ie, Ruybal's dad and Gonzales' cousin. Ruybal has taped to the dashboard laminated index cards labeled with the optimal RPM for different conditions.
With all their tech, plus spare parts and fluids, there isn't room to take me any further than the starting line.
Instead, I will catch lifts and jump from car to car when I can.
6 am, I-10 frontage road, El Paso
Built around the I-10 and a dormant copper smelter, and bordering Juárez, Mexico and its guns-and-decapitations cartel war, sweltering El Paso is one of the seediest cities in the country. But usually it's a dry seediness. This morning, dark clouds shower the city with septic-smelling rain as the cars line up outside one of the Dustball's sponsor's shops.
The 32 teams debut their costumes. Ruybal and Gonzales wear orange vests and hard hats. All six members of the minivan team hide their identities with Mexican wrestler masks. Driver Albert Aceves and navigator Naomi Oliver of Team Turboninjas have donned pointy-eared tiger hats.
I hop in the back of Team Turboninja's 2004 Volkswagen R32—a 3.2 liter, six cylinder packed into the body of a Golf compact. As Oliver opens the manila envelope, Aceves hits the gas and the dashboard ornament, a pink rubber penis in a grass skirt, flies off and strikes me in the knees.
7:44 am, I-10 to Las Cruces, NM
Directions: Enter IH-10 West, exit at 144.
Team Turboninjas' speedometer is showing 90 mph when, suddenly, a fuzzy, squirrel-shaped blur flies over the windshield and disappears in the rearview.
"We're not even 100 miles out and our mustache has flown away," Aceves says. Earlier, he affixed a handlebar-shaped length of felt to his car's grill to match his own Salvador Dalí-style 'stache. "That's a Dustball low."
Actually, he can recall a lower point: During the 2008 Dustball, police in Miami, Ariz. impounded his car.
Oliver wipes droplets of Red Bull from Aceves' cheek. He's downed four cans so far this morning.
The high point of Aceves' rally life was meeting his copilot and girlfriend. When they encountered one another on the 2007 rally, she was dating and navigating for another Dustball driver.
"Most cars have 55 mph at the center of the speedometer," Aceves says and points at his own. "When you've got 90 mph in the middle, you know your car's built for fun."
The road passes through silo country, with flatland farms between the Sierra de las Uvas and the Potrillo Mountains. We pass through Akela, a run-down highway town that feels two dimensional, like each storefront is just that, with only ghosts behind it.
8:56 am, I-10 to Deming
Gimmick clue: Where is this symbol (an image of a discus thrower engraved in rock)?
In Deming, Oliver directs Aceves to pull into St. Clair Winery; she has a feeling it holds the answer to the clue. Three other rally cars follow through the narrow, shrub-walled driveway.
Another car pulls in behind the convoy, lights flashing and blocking the exit. A Luna County sheriff's deputy's SUV pulls in behind the state trooper.
Someone called 911 to report a Porsche travelling 120 mph, the trooper says. Everyone receives official cautions and a warning that every law enforcement vehicle between here and the Arizona border will be on the lookout.
"Don't think you can outrun us," the deputy says, motioning with a lit cigarette to a third, super-charged sedan that has just rolled up. "We've got a car that can catch you."
A car, just one.
10 am, Gold Street, Deming
Gimmick clue: How many windows are there behind the bear?
Turboninjas gives up on the discus-thrower clue and speeds off, but I stick around to catch a lift with a black 2008 Mustang GT driven by Team Hazmatt, another New Mexican duo.
Driver Matt Cover, navigator Becky Robertson and I run row by row through the Deming cemetery. Most of the tombstones are engraved with hobby images from the deceased's past: soccer players, hot rods, electric guitars—but no discus thrower. Cover concludes that the organizers wouldn't have the nerve to send 32 teams running around a graveyard.
On the way out of town, we pass Team Underkode enjoying a bikini car wash in the McDonald's parking lot. Then we spy a life-size bear sculpture.
There are three windows behind it.
12:23 pm, I-70, NM-Ariz. border
Gimmick clue: Who is Michael Breshears?
When we stop at Arby's for "Jamocha" milk shakes, the cashier tells us a stickered-up Lexus sped through 15 minutes earlier and the rally minivan a half-hour ago.
We pass through Duncan, a town populated almost entirely by manufactured homes and rusty vehicles—golf carts, school buses, big rigs—that look as if they've been thrashed around by a Tyrannosaurus rex. A sign identifies Breshears as the local Church of Christ preacher.
Cover doesn't want his milk shake anymore and hands it back to me.
"He doesn't eat; he doesn't drink," Robertson, a single mom from Alamogordo, whose "happy driver/safe driver" strategy is to have snacks and energy beverages always at the ready, says. "I don't know what he runs on."
Cover, an engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, demonstrates what gets him pumped. He hits play on the car stereo and out rips a track from the novelty metal band Austrian Death Machine. An Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator starts screaming, "rubber baby buggy bumpers" over and over and over again.
12:45 pm, Clifton, Ariz.
Directions: Have faith in us, and turn right at the fork toward the mine entrance. Follow 191.
The road cuts right through the 18-square-mile Morenci Copper Mine, the mother of all strip mines. Mountains and valleys are skinned bare in descending rings; it looks less like a landscape and more like a topographical map of the landscape that was once there. It's difficult to behold, gorgeous in its devastation.
We wind through the mine opening and cross the San Francisco River.
1:34 pm, AZ-191, Greenlee County
Organizers' note: Enjoy the scenic views and exhilarating drive, as this is what Dustball is all about!
The average speed on the Coronado Trail is 35 mph, which still seems breakneck given the relentless blind turns. The road shoulder extends barely 3 feet before it drops off into a valley of needle-like trees, at the bottom Apache National Forest, a natural bed of nails. This, we realize, is what Morenci looked like before Phelps Dodge came.
With each curve, my regret deepens—I shouldn't have finished the second Jamocha shake.
As the limit increases to 35 mph, then 45 mph, we catch up with Team Chingon in its white Lexus, which is stuck behind Team Shake N Bake, whose Corvette is clearly having trouble with the turns.
"My 5-year-old drives faster than that," Robertson says, as Cover executes an almost pants-shitting pass.
3 pm, Alpine
Gimmick clue: At what tavern is this sign ("Friends of NRA Parking Only") located?
After 96 miles of near-death, I switch to Team Chingon's 1997 Lexus SC-300 at the gas station next to the Ye Old Tavern in Alpine.
Driver Sal Granillo and navigator Ben Swain are just looking forward to a relaxed ride with their seats pushed back, Arizona punk from Authority Zero on the stereo and nothing faster than 15 miles above the posted speed limit. Team Chingon was nailed for going more than 120 mph in a 55 mph zone back in Deming, though the cop was cool enough to record it at 70 mph.
"He said we were terrorizing the place," Swain says. "But he had a smile on his face."
"He ticketed us anyway," Granillo adds. "After that we haven't been in a gimmick mood."
Team Lextreme's alternator craps out a few miles down the road across from the Nelson Reservoir. Granillo and Swain, both mechanics, stop to help Lextreme jimmy rig an emergency battery to propel the car a jump at a time down the mountain.
Lextreme's three preppy teammates will have to wait overnight in Springerville for parts.
3:48 pm, 191 to Springerville
Gimmick clue: Who is this (black-and-white photo of World War I soldier)?
The town museum caretaker tells Swain he's been asked about the guy in the picture by seven different teams today and he still doesn't know who he is. Back in the car, Chingon decides to just keep going.
The trees and hills are replaced by low mesas, crisscrossed by electrical towers playing live-wire jump rope. We pass through gentle hills that curve into themselves like gray brain matter, then buzz past the Petrified Forest.
The gimmick directions end, appropriately, in Holbrook. The Main Street town, with its quirky wigwam-shaped hotel rooms and dinosaur monuments, served as the inspiration for the Disney cartoon Cars.
Granillo and Swain record a video testimonial and receive a new packet revealing the night's final destination.
11:48 pm, Las Vegas Boulevard,
Las Vegas, Nev.
The first leg of the road rally ends on an island—MGM's Treasure Island Hotel & Casino. We roll onto the Strip just in time to participate in a Vegas honeymoon. Team Turboninjas has gotten hitched.
Saturday, Aug. 15., Las Vegas
Team Chingon spends the day off inspecting cars for sale on Craigslist. Team New Mex Express rents a Corvette and pushes it to its limit at the speedway. Team Turboninjas, Team Skanks and Team Michael Jackson discover "Four" brand energy-enhanced alcoholic beverages and make the most of the city ordinance that allows you to pound them in public. Team Shake N Bake turns $45 into $450 at the craps tables, then gets irritated that the Ferrari store at the Wynn Hotel charges $8 just to walk through the showroom. Team Lextreme finally catches up in the mid-afternoon.
I just revel in my 24 hours outside of a backseat.
In the evening, the junior manager at the trendy Christian Audigier nightclub, who has been following the rally on Twitter, tweets that we can get in for free with our Dustball lanyards.
By 5 am, even the "safety" driver assigned to follow up the pack is puking his guts out in the hotel bathroom.
Sunday, Aug. 16, day two
8 am, Treasure Island, Las Vegas Launch
A documentary crew interviews the teams on the top level of the parking garage. Team Hazmatt shows off its full-body clean room suits. Turboninjas' Oliver blushes beneath her bridal veil.
Uh oh, irony. I can't locate my GPS locator. I sprint for my 33rd floor hotel room.
8:20 am, Treasure Island parking garage, Las Vegas
The only car left on the roof is organizer Medley's 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera 2. We drive around in search of a team of hungover stragglers. Sure enough, four guys who soaked us with puddle water at the beginning of the rally are rushing to their car.
The backs of Team Underkode's hand-markered shirts say: Pilot, Co-Pilot, Co-Co-Pilot and Co-Co-Co-Pilot.
I ask if they can squeeze me in. From out of nowhere, one of the teens pulls out a balloon-patterned cardboard sign: "The Party's Here."
8:32 am, IH-515, Las Vegas
Directions: Exit and turn right onto 95 South.
I'm riding bitch in a Wonderland tea party on wheels. The driver and his shotgun passenger are undeniably mad as hatter and hare. While the car weaves through civilian traffic, they dance to the strobes of a DJ Bad Boy Bill DVD playing on the dashboard monitor and search for the nearest Krispy Kreme on an iPhone.
"I use my directional signals; I turn my lights on," Pilot says. "The only laws we don't get is speed."
"UK style!" Co-Co-pilot cheers.
"Who are you to play with my life?" Co-Co-Co-pilot says. The two promptly fall asleep like Lewis Carroll dormice.
We catch up with the pack on the I-515, where traffic has come to a standstill while highway patrol officers steer a stray dog into the off-ramp.
Three minutes later, we whiz past their friends in Team Underkode 2, a white VW, pulled over by the side of the road.
Pilot gets a text from the other driver: "Come back if I get arrested."
8:50 am, Terrible's Gas and Convenience Store, US 95-S
Gimmick question: What is in the ol' miner's shirt pocket?
As Underkode loads up on doughnuts and McDonald's, I locate the miner, an animatronic geezer in a glass box. I feed a dollar through a slot and he begins to speak.
"When you're on the road of life…watch out for dumb people…unless you're one of them…in that case…ignorance is bliss."
The item in his pocket is a corncob pipe.
10 am, US 95-S
Directions: Turn left onto NV-163, don't go to California!!
All four members of Team Underkode shriek as a "Welcome to California" sign whooshes past.
We flip around and gun it down the NV-163 at 120 mph, leapfrogging every vehicle on the highway, even in the no-passing zones. We cross the palm-tree lined Colorado River in Laughlin, then cruise through a craggy mountain range with one tall formation giving us the middle finger. As we pass over the Arizona border, the shady roadside casinos are replaced by shady roadside strip clubs.
They're all extraordinarily upbeat, even though two prostitutes scammed them out of $400 the night before. They didn't know the unwritten law of Vegas: Never pay a hooker up front.
In Kingman—best known for being one of the cities where Timothy McVeigh reportedly began plotting the Oklahoma City bombing—we catch up with my next ride.
Underkode chants, "Haz! Matt! Haz! Matt!"
11:56 am, US 93-S
Gimmick clue: What is direction No. 7 under "how to call"?
Cover slams on the brakes as his navigator spots a roadside emergency phone. The road is marked with more than six unique skids from the Dustballers who got there first.
Back on the road, we pass the exit to Bagdad.
12:46 pm, US-60 to the AZ-101.
Organizer's note: Beware of stationary speed cameras!
Saguaros are replaced by Joshua trees, which are soon edged out by palm trees. When I see the first tile-roofed, cookie-cut homes of Wickenberg, around 329th Avenue, I realize we've arrived in my hometown, the Greater Metropolitan Phoenix Area. I want nothing to do with this urban sprawl, so I sign on to my laptop to check the Twitter logs.
"Reminder. Maricopa County is policed by sheriff joe arpaio, america's so-called toughest sheriff," I tweet.
On Friday, Twitter was just a novelty. Today, though, Dustball is experiencing its own post-Iranian election-style Twitter resistance.
NewMexExpress: UPDATE! POLICE put an APB for Dustball cars! Be careful guys!
bens03tib: Just saw team lextreme get stopped on 93 around mile marker 130.
hernandezsrt: Sheriff on 60 mile marker 126
NewMexExpress: Watch out 93 mm 186 heat coming down in wickenburg. Lots. Be careful Dustballers!
MysaltH2Oworld: Hella cops in surprise az. We n new Mex express being followed.
BerryLowman: Right now we are WAY off course, off the radar & waiting 2 b off the radio. It's up in the air as 2 if we can keep going.
Then Team New Mex Express and Team MysaltH2Oworld get the sirens. The cops threaten to punish Ruybal and Gonzales by giving the other team their answers before escorting them out of town. Team Underkode and Medley's Porsche are also caught and released. Meanwhile, the police scanners are going nuts as various law enforcement vehicles pursue a pack of stickered cars led by Team Hall & Nass' yellow Corvette.
Team Hazmatt sails through Phoenix to Tucson without so much as a radar detector blip.
3:30 pm, I-10 to Benson, Ariz.
Gimmick clue: "Who was Doc Holliday's girlfriend?"
Team Underkode 2 picks me up at a rest stop. The driver, "Taco," tells his sob story.
First, he miscalculated his bank balance and ran out of gas money in Vegas. Then he won $175 off a slot machine with his last quarter. However, he got popped on the way out of Vegas for going 125 mph in a 65 mph zone. The speeding ticket receipt is as long as his star-tattooed arm. Goodbye winnings.
We pass St. David, home of the "Gallery of Dreams" and the Holy Trinity Monastery. Fifteen miles after Tombstone, we flip around. The Doc Holliday clue is blatantly connected to the OK Corral.
6:40 pm, Allen Street, Tombstone, Ariz.
Gimmick clue: What food item is listed in the pane under the 'LM'?
I need some time on stationary ground, so I wave goodbye to Underkode 2 and wait for Turboninjas to catch up. They arrive before I can even knock back a shot of whiskey at Big Nose Kate's, a tavern on the dusty, historically preserved Old West site of the great Wyatt Earp shootout.
Mr. and Mrs. Aceves separated from the chase in Prescott when it became clear the police were only looking for the Corvette. They are dog tired.
I hand Aceves a Red Bull I'd been saving all day. As he pounds it, I motion with my eyes at "The World Famous Duke Burger," the item listed under the LM in the stacked advertisement for "Live Music."
7:08 pm, Bisbee
Gimmick clue: What town is the home of the Bulldogs?
We pull off the highway into Bisbee, which would be beautiful if Turboninjas had the energy to appreciate it. An emaciated man in a tank top tells us we have the wrong town; Bisbee is the home of the Pumas.
The couple has driven 642 miles today. El Paso is still 317 miles away and the sun is setting.
"I wish we had a teleport button," Aceves says.
9 pm, NM-338
Directions: Turn right onto NM-9 and follow it all the way to the finish line!!
A UFO torments us. It's a bright star in the distance that feels like it's coming right at us at high speed. Just as quickly, it pulls back until it's barely a speck. We all clench and brace as it seems to grow, then, just as we relax, the star turns into headlights as a truck whooshes past.
"I hate driving at night," Aceves says.
The day started with a dog on the highway, and ends with a cat in the road—a thin feline watches a county sheriff ticket a rally Porsche.
A half-hour later, we're at the I-10 and shouldn't be. Mrs. Aceves looks up our location on her smart phone. Distracted by cat and cop, we missed the final turn 25 miles back.
1 am: La Quinta Airport East, El Paso
In the end, only nine of the 32 teams make it to the finish line. Turboninjas isn't one of them. Team New Mex Express arrives third and Gonzales is determined to drive back to Santa Fe tonight.
Clarification: He is determined to have me drive back.
He adjusts the passenger seat to lean as far back as it can, but still can't sleep. As he twists and turns, he recounts the day's close calls, vents his frustration, but can't quite articulate how profound the experience was. He says he's considering retirement from the rallies, changes his mind, then suggests that maybe he needs to focus less on winning and more on having fun.
He passes out somewhere near Socorro.
5:58 am: Somewhere in Santa Fe
We pull into my driveway, having survived 22 hours straight on the road. Now, it's time to crash.
Championship Gimmick Rally
Winner: Team Lextreme
Second Place: Team New Mex Express
Third Place (Tie): Team Whatchamacallit, Team Michael Jackson Neck Dead Alive Hearts
Willie Williams Spirit of the Dustball Rally Award
Winner: Team Michael Jackson Neck Dead Alive Hearts
Runners Up: Team Hazmatt, Team Lextreme, Team New Mex Express