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Driven to destruction at the Mongol Rally

In the Mongol Rally, foolhardy teams race against common sense to drive subpar cars from London to Mongolia.
A Mini takes on Mongolian water hazards during the 2005 race.
A Mini takes on Mongolian water hazards during the 2005 race.
/ Source: contributor

New York City is well-known for its cramped apartments. So it's surprising that, this summer, David Toal and his wife, Illiana Ivanova, are abandoning their downtown Manhattan dwelling to spend three weeks confined in a rusty red, Eastern European car barely bigger than a bathtub, cruising across Europe and central Asia.

“I just knew that I wouldn't be able to quiet the nagging voice in my head and move on with my life until I had changed a tire during a sandstorm in Uzbekistan,” says Toal, 30, a hotel revenue manager.

He and Ivanova, 29, an architect, are Windmill Giants, one of 200 fancifully named teams (such as Starsky and Clutch and Feersum Endjinn) that convened Saturday in London's lush, green Hyde Park, to drive dented, barely functioning cars across one-quarter of the earth. The cause is the four-year-old Mongol Rally, an odyssey that defies common sense.

“You're only having fun when everything's going wrong,” explains curly-headed, 27-year-old Brit Tom Morgan, who runs the League of Adventurists and masterminded the Mongol Rally. Its premise: teams pilot one-liter-engine autos (think Yugos or Fiats) from London to Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator. Entrants choose their own route and acquire visas before slogging through desolate deserts, chugging up steep mountain ranges and ferrying across deep lakes. To make the undertaking even more formidable, teams are barred from bringing support teams and GPS gizmos, and shouldn't understand the Cyrillic alphabet.

“What's the fun of setting out completely prepared?” asks Morgan, who has seen teams launch with little more than screwdrivers. “Of course, you'll only think that in hindsight.”

The Mongol Rally shares little common ground with other road races, such as the high-speed Gumball Rally (which was canceled this year after several racers were involved in a fatal car accident). There's no official winner in the Mongol Rally, with teams receiving the same reward no matter when they finish: “We'll celebrate with a cold beer at a bar in Ulanbattar,” explains Morgan with a laugh.

For a good cause
The Rally is not all flat tires and foreign terrain: Before racing, teams must raise about $2,000 for charity (the Send a Cow fund, in particular, which assists farmers in sub-Saharan Africa).

Though it's “great to go to a country and experience all this adventure,” Morgan says, “it adds something to the experience to change people's lives.”

A life-changing experience led Morgan to launch the Rally. Its origins stem from 2001, when he and a friend tried driving a broken Fiat from Prague to Mongolia. They failed, but Morgan had such a blast that, in 2004, he launched the inaugural, six-team Mongol Rally. The following year 43 teams entered, with 14 finishing — a 33 percent success rate. (Participants were thwarted by cars snapping in half, engines falling out, arrests, being held up at gunpoint and, oddly, beatings by dwarves.) Last year, about half of the 200 teams finished the Rally. Daunting odds, however, have not dampened Rally demand.

This spring, 200 slots were to be released on the Mongol Rally Web site, in batches of 50. Interest was so intense that zero teams entered when enrollment opened.

“Our computer servers melted down,” says Morgan. “I was jumping up and down, slapping my computer and shouting obscenities. We were completely overwhelmed. Selling out in about three seconds was about a week faster than I was thinking.” When registration reopened, the now-available slots were snatched in minutes.

“I guess there are more people out there than I thought who find the 21st century a little bit too safe and boring,” Morgan says of the race's popularity.

Most of these adventure-seekers hail from Ireland, U.K., Scotland and Europe. Defying logistics, about a dozen American teams have entered. Among these are Bellingham, Wash.'s Some Kind of Derelict Adventure.

It's an acronym created from the name of the bright-orange, Czechoslovakia-built Škoda that pals Brian Anderson, 30, a machinist, and Ben Selting, 28, a manufacturing engineer, will take on the Rally. The four-seat car tops out at about 60 miles per hour and provides “high” comedic value, Selting says. “We bought it sight unseen for $600.” Thankfully, friends in Czechoslovakia helped tune up the car, preparing Team Skoda to journey across Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Ukraine — and about a half-dozen more countries on the way to Mongolia.

While Team Skoda had plenty of time to prepare — and pals overseas to assist — New York City's Mongolia Transit Authority didn't enter the Rally until early June (due to spots opening up when teams dropped out).

“We definitely had to cut some corners, like getting inoculations,” says lighting technician Seán Linehan, 25. Despite the time crunch, he and waiter Nick Watson, 25, and executive assistant Amy Clevenger, 35, managed to acquire an appropriate auto: a 17-year-old, red Volksawgen Polo (odometer: 99,000 miles), bought on eBay for $600.

Fathers support them, moms call them idiots
“We have visions of our engine falling out while being robbed by bandits — bandits with bears,” Linehan says. Unsurprisingly, their parents aren't pleased with their summer vacation selection. “Fathers seem to be behind us all the way, while mothers call us idiots,” Linehan adds.

And there's already been inter-team strife. “Our planning sessions led to some very near-fatal wars,” Linehan says. To prevent Team MTA from warring, the trio has laid down ground rules: Every day, the team will pull over and park for an hour. Each team member gets alone time to sightsee, nap or simply wander off to go to bar.

Despite those precautions, “it's going to be a roller coaster,” he says.

“Both of us are going to flip out, more than once likely,” says Windmill Giants' Toal. “It won't be the first or last time for either of us, but we'll have better pictures than if we were just bickering in the supermarket like other married couples.”

Nonetheless, few entrants are going to such ludicrous lengths as Wayne Barrett. Last year, he tackled the route on a Honda C90 motorcycle, without tent, tools or a change of clothes. “He still made it to the other end,” Morgan says, incredulously. “Just.” He adds that Barrett's returning to the Rally this year to drive a 50cc “monkey bike,” a low-powered Honda moped from the '70s. While wearing a one-piece Mr. Incredibles suit.

As entrants continually push the Mongol Rally to nonsensical heights, so does Morgan. He and the League of Adventurists are conceiving new, even-more-ludicrous adventures. Last year, he launched the Rickshaw Run, featuring teams driving motorized rickshaws across India. Morgan's also scheming a race from London to Cameroon, “which goes through pretty much every country where you're likely to get kidnapped, as well as rough parts of the Sahara Desert.”

In the end, Morgan's journeys are less about putting yourself in dangerous situations and more about recapturing the unpredictable magic of travel.

"Not long ago, heading to somewhere like India could be a real challenge. No planes, no guidebooks, no mobile phones, no Internet, no maps; brilliant fun, but now everyday life is sterile," Morgan says. "The Rally is, most definitely, not sterile."

Brooklyn resident Joshua M. Bernstein is a freelance writer for Time Out New York, the New York Daily News and the New York Press. He will also be participating in the Mongol Rally with his team, Mr. Dinosaur, a name as silly as the the Rally itself.