May 18 2010 By Diana Pilkington
Diana Pilkington, stood with (l-r) Moe, Mothman and Matt, by the Rolls Royce they travelled in during the Gumball 3000 Rally, in Boston, Massachusetts.
The 12th annual Gumball 3000 rally combined grease and glamour as stars and their super cars travelled from London to New York via a host of exciting cities. Intrepid reporter Diana Pilkington joined the boy racers and give a women's perspective on life in the fast lane.
Squeezed into a Rolls Royce next to a pile of snacks and gadgets, I contemplate the journey ahead with a mixture of excitement and absolute terror.
As someone who wouldn't know a Porsche from a Lamborghini, I've never understood the male fascination with cars, and break into a cold sweat when driving over 50 mph.
But this is the Gumball 3,000 rally, where supercars capable of breakneck speeds are unleashed onto invitingly long roads, and the temptation for drivers to hit the gas pedal is high.
My hosts for the day are three laid-back guys from Dubai - Moe, Matt and Mothman - whose wardrobe of Sheikh costume makes the car stand out a mile, especially when the top is rolled down.
"Just to let you know - we drive really fast, and play our music really loud," says Moe, with the faintest flicker of a smile, before Matt revs the car into action and powers us onto the interstate to take us to Massachusetts.
At the mercy of the Sheikhs, I have no choice but to sit back and try to enjoy the ride. And it's not long before I am feeling a thrill in my stomach as the car gathers speed and catchy Eurotrash blares out of the speakers.
"We may not be the fastest car on the rally," Moe says, as participating Ferraris whizz past and the drivers yell out their greetings.
"But we are definitely the classiest."
We're halfway through the annual 3,000-mile testosterone fest that is Gumball, and in just three days I've been driven through six countries and partied in four different European cities.
Now, having being flown over to the US, along with the cars, we're on the north American leg of the trip, and will zoom through Boston, Quebec and Toronto before finishing in New York's Times Square.
There are 120 cars involved this year, some worth more than $1 million, and Gumballers, who are predominantly male, have typically shelled out a cool £30,000 a pair to take part in the experience.
Big hitters from the finance, film, fashion and sports industries are all featured here, as well as a handful of less well-off entrants who have saved up all year to take part. Star power comes from celebrities such as US rapper Xzibit, The Wire's Idris Elba and skateboard hero Tony Hawk.
And adding some welcome feminine touches to the proceedings are Gumball fan Jodie Kidd, Jade Jagger and singer/actress Eve, who says she loves being part of the boys' club.
Glamorous as it may all sound, this is not exactly a relaxing ride, and I'm scraping by on adrenaline and junk food, barely spending three hours a night in each five-star hotel room.
A lavish bash each night is all part and parcel of the Gumball experience. In Copenhagen, when all I wanted to do was sleep, I selflessly dragged myself to the dinner table and thrust my glass towards a massive champagne bottle.
Although it's been drummed into all participants that this is not a race, speeding is not uncommon, and several times I spot the familiar sight of flashing blue lights next to an expensive car at the roadside.
In the spirit of camaraderie, passengers swap tips over their BlackBerries as to where there's an officer on the prowl, and word has it that some of the Gumballers have equipped their vehicles with sensors to alert them whenever a cop car is nearby.
The Sheikhs and I don't escape a brush with the law ourselves. As Mothman presses down on a handheld horn - which, just like their sat-nav, radio and loudspeaker, is decorated in the same pattern as their head-dress - we are swiftly pulled over.
"You can't be blaring that horn. It will distract other people on the road," says a serious-looking officer, before divesting us of our passports and marching back to his car.
After a nerve-wracking wait, he sidles back over and delivers his verdict - $25 fines for all three passengers for not wearing seatbelts.
"But I was wearing my seatbelt!" I protest, feelings of indignation fast quashing my schoolgirl giggles.
"OK, well, he definitely wasn't," says the officer, pointing at Mothman and passing him a slip of paper. Phew.
Handing back the passports he sends us on our way, but not before casting admiring glances at the car's gleaming interiors, comparing notes on speed and accepting a rubber wristband - the calling card that the Sheikhs hand out to their adoring fans.
And there are a lot of fans. As we pull into our specially-designated display area in the centre of Boston, hundreds of adults and children swarm around the Rolls Royce, clamouring for a wristband and murmuring "nice car" under their breath. One young boy even wants an autograph.
The feeling of being part of it all is intoxicating, and over the remaining few days I try and try grab a lift with as many Gumballers as possible.
There's Jim and Al from Florida, a stockbroker and a doctor respectively, who cram me into the back of their sleek Maserati, and even take me for a spin on a racetrack - a chance for participants to legitimately hit the high speeds.
There's also Andrew from California, who lets me ride in his Buckshot, a powerful dune buggy that he designed himself. With no windows, the ride is pretty chilly, and the engine is so loud we need headsets to talk to each other, but this beast of a vehicle attracts a lot of awe-struck looks on the road.
And, finally, there's Kevin from California, a husky-voiced funnyman who claims to be a gigolo, before admitting he made his money in finance.
Alarm bells should start ringing when he tells me he's already lost one car, a Lamborghini, in Belgium, but by this point I'm too seduced by the excitement of the rally to worry about the risks.
Barely 20 minutes into our journey from Quebec and we pass a police car. Kevin recognises the female officer as one who stopped him early that day and, instead of slowing down, he grins and puts his foot on the accelerator of his muscle car.
Within seconds, we are pulled over, told we were clocked at 170km an hour and, as police have a no-nonsense approach to speeding here, the car will be impounded. Officers arrive to tow away the vehicle as we desperately try and track down a nearby Gumballer to rescue us from the lay-by.
Despite Gumball having something of a reputation for fulfilling the hedonistic desires of rich playboys with no sense of responsibility, it is clear that underlying the fun is an emphasis on safety.
The 2007 Gumball rally was cancelled after a crash which left two pensioners dead. Since then, the organisers have stepped up safety measures, such as scrapping overnight drives and working closely with the police.
Gumball's vice president Julie Brangstrup, whose husband Maximillion Cooper founded the rally, stresses: "From my point of view I'd rather they give them tickets and explain the consequences of what happens when they do speed.
"What happened in 2007 were the worst days of my life and Max's and the families', and I'll do everything in my power to make the rally as safe as possible."
She admits, though, that even the boys in blue aren't immune to the charms of a fast car.
"You mustn't forget that the police in these cities don't get to see these amazing cars or on an average day get to stop Tony Hawk or whoever was in the car.
"They get excited, but in a nice way. They say, 'This is serious' before asking, 'Can I have a picture with you?'"