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Home / Articles / News / Features /  RIDE
08.26.09-cover-l

RIDE

Dustball drivers search for the true Wild West on a one-of-a-kind 1,500-mile scavenger hunt

August 26, 2009, 12:00 am

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.

Dustball Dave's Twitter Rally

“If Smokey and the Bandit was during the time of twitter, what would they tweet? #Dustball”—Twitter User Lead_Solo

With a closed-course race or marathon, such as the Indy 500 or the Tour de France, it’s easy for press and fans to set up their tripods and folding chairs in advance to glimpse the racers as they whiz toward the finish line. With the Dustball, where the route is a mystery, following the rally is next to impossible.

Or at least it used to be.

SFR wasn’t just an observer in the 2009 Dustball, but a technological advisor of sorts, teaching the teams how to use the social networking and micro-blogging service Twitter to post live updates and photos using their cell phones. In the end, it became much more than just a way for teams to communicate with fans: It became a tool for them to alert each other—in real time—about speed traps and road conditions or to just rub it in when they pulled ahead.

Several websites, including dustballrally.com and teamnewmexexpress.com, ran live tickers of the tweets (all using the keyword/hashtag #dustball) leading up to and throughout the rally. A master archive of the tweets is available both at this link and at the end of page two of this article.



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