The Three Dukes of the Gumball 3000

Every year, the maddest drivers with the fastest cars race across foreign contintents at highly illegal speeds. It's the Gumball 3000 Rally. This time, three blokes on Ducati 998s joined them for the 3,500 mile trip

The time is Summer 2001. We're out on the piss in London. The conversation turns to the Gumball 3000 Rally, which has been running for three years now. The first one was to Russia, the following two in Europe. The 2002 event is to be run coast-to-coast across the USA. "Let's do next year's Gumball on bikes." Now that is definitely not a sound idea. "What? 3,500 miles across the United States, surrounded by upwards of 150-180mph supercars driven by lunatics from the wealthier pockets of the western world and pursued by probably the entire FBI?" "That's the one. I'll get the Ducatis sorted." Oh well, always wanted to ride across America on a bike. "Make sure you get something comfortable, then. Get the ST4 touring bikes if we're doing it on Ducatis." Obviously, Mark arranges three 998 Bipostos. Wonderful bikes for fast track work, but for crossing one of the largest continents in the world? Hmm...

Wednesday April 24th, 2002, New Jersey
Deep in The Sopranos territory, Ducati hand over three spanking new fire-engine red 998s. These bikes are so beautiful there's one hanging from the wall in the Guggenheim Gallery in New York. "Don't hurt them, please!" pleads Ducati USA's Myrianne Gaeta. First ride confirms that yes, they go like the clappers, but the suspension is very firm and the ride position pure racer.

On the Ducatis are Mark, a television director who runs a bike team and has been in the saddle since he was four, speed freak and pathological biker Karta, (check out for what he does), and Stevan also in TV and owner of a two-year-old motorcycle licence. In our matching jackets and helmets we look like the Three Amigos on Ducatis. As Mark puts it, "We'll be three red blobs on the far horizon. The cars won't touch us. No way."

Back in Manhattan we pay our respects to the victims of September 11th in Battery Park, and narrowly escape becoming red blobs on the sides of yellow cabs. The fear begins to kick in - why are we doing this? There are over 3,500 more miles of this. That night we have drinks with a couple of friends who've flown in from LA. "You have no idea what the cops in this country think of you," we are warned. "They like nothing better than putting away dumbass foreigners like you guys for screwing with their laws." Whoops. The idea of a night or two in a Lousiana jail being 'befriended' by Bubba Gump fills us with horror, and since the very fastest speed limit in the States is 70mph (we aim to be cruising at twice that) things might get interesting.

Our mate Chris, driving a tuned BMW M3, joins us and explains he has spent upwards of $1,700 on radar detectors, laser scanners and CB kit. "This guy is ready," my LA friend advises. "And you guys are fucked." We sleep badly.

Race Day One: Thursday April 25th, Manhattan-Nashville
Not Manhattan's best day. An explosion in an engineering college puts a damper on the 5th Avenue motorcade and the Rally's opening lunch in the Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockefeller is surrounded by white fog. Max Cooper, creator of the Gumball 3000 Rally, lectures the 350 drivers and navigators on the laws of the road. "Excessive speeding is dealt with in a swift manner by law enforcement officers in the US, generally resulting in a custodial term," he explains. Cue hooting and hollering from the assembled petrolheads, who include Playboy bunnies, American internet whizzkids, models, German porn stars, loads of journalists and even two Lords of the Realm! The hardware is unreal. Loads of tuned Ferraris - even an F-50 (bought for £250,000 with a guaranteed buy-back at £230,000. It went back knackered) - Porsches, TVRs, full-spec rally cars, Mercedes - and us three goons on bikes.

After a tortured exit from the Plaza hotel car park, the wagon train of Gumballers rip down 5th Avenue to local bemusement. The Rally is underway! By the time our Ducati squad is 100 miles out of town we have passed at least 20 cars brought down for speeding by the New Jersey cops. Pace yourself - that's the first lesson we learn

That night we get our own first taste of local law enforcement. At the Washington checkpoint we meet Karta's chum, Sean O'Halloran, a senior policy advisor on traffic to the US government. It's handy to have friends in high places. "Get out of Virginia as fast as you can," he warns, darkly. We take him at his word and at 4am are hauled to the side of the road. "Whut on hell do youse thinks you is doin?" demands an ageing Highway Patrolman apparently cast by David Lynch."Er, about 60mph?" we offer. Not a humorous bunch, the average American law enforcement officer. Our first court date is swiftly set but our British driving licences have spared us a night in the County jail.

Race Day Two: Friday April 26th, Virginia-Nashville
We snatch four hours sleep in a motel. It is the best four hours sleep any of us can recall ever having. God, we're all so tired. On the bikes there is such an adrenaline rush all we can think about is reaching the next checkpoint and so far felt no pain. We have to cover around 700 miles a day - that's Southampton to John O'Groats every day! Yet our bodies have just reminded us that we are not immortal, nor possessed of Öhlins shocks. Already we are so far behind the pack of rampaging supercars that we have become sitting ducks. "Truck driver calls me on the CB," says Officer Grubb, after we've been caught in a speed trap. "Smokey!" he hollers, "there's three red motorsickles goin' like hell but you ain't gonna catch 'em." I says, "no, but I got a man down the road as will."

At Nashville we catch up on the Gumball gossip. An American driver has got himself 15 days inside for reckless driving, a truck crash is being blamed on a red Ferrari, the Tennessee cops are packing the interstate with patrolmen and Electra, a movie producer, has picked up a record $5,000 fine. Permanently dressed in diabolical Hollywood outfits she and her co-driver Sharon, an air stewardess, became bored waiting after a patrolman asked them to stay with their car and soon became fugitives from the law. "I didn't have the cash," recalled Electra, "So I had to give them my Rolex watch". Meanwhile, Chris with the $1,700-worth of detection equipment, has been busted three times.

Race Day Three: Saturday April 27th, Nashville-Dallas
Joe Macari -he'll sell you a Ferrari- is driving a very pretty silver 360 Spyder. Collared following a high-speed race he has been clocked at 112 and taken before a judge in Texas. At his arrest he tells the officer he's in a hurry. The officer happily gives Joe a 120mph escort to the courthouse.

The Ducatis are flagged down in Arkansas and given spot fines of $125 each. Lorna, our new friend and the excellent Playboy Extreme Team's "Bunny Mummy" tells me that she and the girls have been stopped four times - yet never ticketed. No surprise there, then.

Race Day Four: Sunday April 28th, Dallas-Santa Fe
Following a terrifying high-speed scramble out of Dallas we settle in behind a black Dodge Viper, owned by some internet success story. He and his co-driver have so much detection equipment on the dashboard it looks like a Stealth bomber. We feel protected. "Dude," he says, "I love having the Ducatis behind me! It's like my own video game in the rearview mirror." We settle into an easy ton-plus cruise on the Interstate.

Karta makes the mistake of peeling off to hang with another Gumballer held up at a diner. In his attempts to catch up he is collared twice and made to appear before the same Judge on both occasions. At the Cadillac Ranch checkpoint we learn that cops have been drafted from across the state to patrol the Interstate 40. The Viper gone, we are now relying on the radar of a Manchester estate agent's Audi RS4, which looks like a family estate car but goes like a Formula One race machine. The driver decides to leave us standing and it doesn't break our hearts to see him nabbed by the Texan police within 10 minutes. We reach the checkpoint and our hotel after midnight. There's a mega Gumballers party on tonight - we're told it's going to be one of the better ones. We drift through it like spectres. The hours on the bike are beginning to tell.

Gumball Breakdown

Best moment
En-route, best moment was 170mph on Route 93 in Arizona after previously being told by a copper to leave the State as he was "sorely pissed" at us avoiding detection by their helicopter that was costing them a fortune to put in the air. We saw it from about 10 miles away. Karta

Worst moment
"In Tennessee I was happily tooling along and a trucker stuck his finger up at me as I sped. Two miles down the road a 10-mile tailback occurred, using their CBs, the truckers had it planned to knock us off. Doors opening, trucks swerving, I even had a shoe thrown at me. They thought a Gumball Ferrari had pushed a fellow trucker off the road." Mark Sloper

The Police...
West Virginia after seven hours on the road. At night, cold, in the damp air, hurtling to oblivion at 140mph we got our first taste of US law enforcement. Officer Wines was screaming his balls off having radared us at 126mph. Sat on the side of the road another two troop cars pulled up who'd been following us for 30 miles. "You'se is going to the Penitentiary, the jail is too good for you!" Our UK licences kept us out of jail but we were so freaked by his anger, and the revelation that a trooper was waiting for us every 5 miles ahead, that we quit for the night and holed up in a motel. We drew straws and I had to share the bed with hippy hairy Karta - great start.

Great Gumball Tale

Some Texas boys from an oil dynasty had RUF Porsches built especially for the Gumball. They hired helicopter scouts and decoy drivers so they could drive through their own country in excess of 215mph, the speed limit being 65. Impressive. They really believed they were on the Cannonball Run.

Mark on the Ducati 998s
As a Ducati owner of 15-plus years I couldn't believe the bikes didn't go wrong. When I bought my 996SPS a couple of years ago, within 3,000 miles I'd had two clutch changes, electrical problems and the inevitable oil leaks. The 998s were the bollocks. Perfect for the never-ending desert roads and climbing off the clocks at speed. In the built-up areas in the high gears the temp was often 250° and your bum got sweat-glued to the seat. The riding position is a bit extreme for such a hike but we made it okay. If you can't take the occasional neck and arse ache, forget it. Grab a sportsbike and hold your breath. If it breaks down you've had it. The best attribute of the red 998 is quite simply the way it looks. The Yanks were dumbstruck with its physical beauty, always wanting their picture taken against it. They sit well racing against Ferraris and Lambos. Average speed over the five days between 130-150mph."

The Gumball Girls
Sexy Sue from Alabama was the Gumball groupie. She was a brass paid to accompany 'Lambo Sam'.But when he tried to shag her on the 2nd night in Dallas she promptly hopped out of bed and car-hopped the rest of the trip. The Bikini Bandits & the Playboy Bunnies provided the photo/shag opportunities for the trip, although I haven't met one Gumballer with concrete proof of knocking one off!

Coolest Gumball Car
Griff from Manchester who did it English-style with a blacked-out Bentley Arnache.

Race Day Five: Monday April 29th, Santa Fe-Las Vegas
Karta makes his usual delayed start but decides to over-compensate by racing to the front of the first pack of cars to leave the hotel. He isn't there long. A cleverly-hidden trap nabs him for some seriously stupid speed. The police give chase, Karta makes a run for it. Then he runs out of gas. At 2am he finally makes it to the Mandalay Bay hotel having spent eight hours in jail with three Native Americans, one of whom recommended him a local bail bondsman. As the morning rolls on, stories of more drivers strip-searched and thrown in jail with vagrants and murderers continue to roll in. This is getting messy.

At a diner on Route 66 in Arizona, we chat with a couple of truckers who have kept themselves amused joining in with CB channel 3, the Gumball channel. The event has become weirdly popular with highway people. At every petrol stop since Tennessee, staff and truckers rush out to tell us how Gumball is the best fun they've had in years. We've even had to give autographs. "Give them cops hell!" and "Be careful out there, man" are most people's sentiments. In the land where three motorcycle petrol tanks can be filled for less than 12 quid this rally seems to have become a celebration of the outlaw and of the Gods of gasoline. But our truckers have given us the ultimate 'Next State' warning. The cops in California are waiting: "Those guys are assholes. They'll chase one car with fifty cars. They get choppers to spot ya and when they get ya you'll know about it. Be careful."

Race Day Six: Tuesday April 30th Las Vegas-Los Angeles
After staying up to witness the sunrise over Vegas (sleep, quite honestly, is a long-forgotten luxury at this stage) we hop on the 998s for the last stretch. It's a sad day and a glad day for although we are happy that there is a mere 257 miles to go, the seats are finally getting just a little hard and our knees a little swollen. All the self-pity fades when we witness the squadrons of choppers and CHiPS posed menacingly every 30 miles or so along the Freeway. It's honestly like something out of Apocalypse Now. We're not going down on our last day so we boost our speed up only when the dry Mojave air lets us see at least 10 miles ahead. The intake slurp of a 998 on full chat is as intoxicating after 3,500 miles as it is after three. We even stop at a Mexican diner for lunch. It's Mark's birthday, after all.

Arriving in LA is a hit or miss thing, literally. Mark gets slammed off by a white pick-up and sustains a pretty bruise on his left arm while Stevan ends up performing hi-speed BMX manoeuvres after he is railroaded into a storm drain. Karta, eager to be first, makes a couple of wrong turns and gets totally lost on the nasty snarled up freeways. But we reunite and as we cruise into Hollywood we get the bikes off the clocks. But not the speedos, the temperature gauges. They are reading 250° plus. The flag comes down and of course we are the first to arrive. The first bikes anyway. But then, we're the only bikes in the race. There are about 10 cars kicking in the garage so we pose the bikes on the steps of the Renaissance Hotel. A quick shave and we're in our Tuxes, blasting through the cool Beverly Hills night air to Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion, the venue for the final Gumball party and every biker's dream to end up at. Miss June 2001 gives us a personal tour of the mansion and we try and stay awake as everyone tells us what a blast they've had with their co-drivers and the cops. Try it on a bike, dude. That's all we can think.

Winding Down
For us it's been something else. Dumb nerve and dumb luck ensured that three gorgeous 998s have swept across the whole of the United States of America as though it were a couple of circuits of Brands Hatch. Well, not quite, but you get the picture. All through the event we never traded bikes and oh, how it hurt when a bike licence-holding fellow Gumballer persuaded us to let them have a go around a car park. Physically we were a lot worse off than we probably realized but a lot better off than we could have been. As for next year? Mexico on the new Multistradas sounds good to us. Or will Max really persuade those billionaire Texans to let us race from San Francisco to Miami? We shall see...