The Gumball Rally (1976) – A Review


A review of the 1976 comedy The Gumball Rally, a group of drivers compete in an illegal cross country car race, starring Michael Sarrazin, Tricia O’Neil, Raul Julia and Gary Busey

Gumball Rally 1976 car race comedy Michael Sarrazin

A group of determined drivers are engaged in a coast-to-coast race. Starting in New York City, they compete to see who can make it to Long Beach California first and will be crowned the winner.

The rules are – there are no rules! With souped up cars and traveling at extreme speeds the contestants push their vehicles to the limit with only one goal in mind – to get to Long Beach in the shortest amount of time and be the winner of the super secret, illegal race known as The Gumball Rally.

This all sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it? 

Well, if you’re picturing Burt Reynolds and his all-star cast in Cannonball Run it shouldn’t be surprising. Like Cannonball Run, The Gumball Rally was inspired by the real life ‘Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash’. Or at least according to Wikipedia it was.

Gumball Rally 1976 Michael Sarazzin cross country car raceThe Gumball Rally beat Cannonball Run to movie screens by several years. It seems fitting in the era of Smokey and the Bandit, The Dukes of Hazard, Evel Knievel and a whole lot of car racing themed films, that a movie about this pedal to the metal race would be made.

I hadn’t seen this before and wasn’t sure what to expect. My hopes were certainly not very high with it, and it ended up surprising me a bit. The Gumball Rally turned out to be more entertaining than I thought it would be. It’s not a great comedy, in fact the comedy is the weakest part of the movie.

The focus lies more in the actual race, and it has some very nice driving scenes in some striking locations. That was enough to keep me tuned in to see the ending.

It starts out with a mysterious phone call made by Michael Sarrazin. He picks up the phone and says the word “Gumball”. That signals to get the word out to all the drivers that a race is about to commence.

Gumball Rally 1976 cross country race comedy motorcycleThere’s an eclectic group, among which includes, two beautiful women, two older Englishmen, a pair of rednecks (one being Gary Busey) a wacky, silent motorcycle rider, two guys dressed as cops driving a police car and Sarazzin’s pal and friendly competitor Tim McIntire, who’s wants to beat his pal so bad he hires Italian driver and ladies man Raúl Juliá to help him behind the wheel.

Of course there comes a problem with zipping down American highways at extreme speeds – and LAPD cop Norman Burton is looking to arrest the whole lot of these speed devils.

Gary Busey Gumball Rally 1976
Gary Busey in The Gumball Rally

Watching The Gumball Rally it’s really hard not draw comparisons to Cannonball Run. This doesn’t have the charismatic star-power, wild comedy and polish that Hal Neeham’s 1981 comedy had, but what it does provide is some fantastic car driving which makes up for it.

There are some excellent scenes with the racers blazing through New York City at the start. Not only was it old glorious NY, but seeing the streets so empty with only the sounds of Ferrari’s, Porsche’s and Camaro’s tearing down the streets was really impressive.

I imagine they filmed those scenes in the very early hours on a Sunday morning. It was worth it, it looks great.

There are plenty of nice scenes of cars in the Lincoln Tunnel, the open highways of Arizona and a final dash through the Los Angeles River. If you’re hoping to see cars racing and traveling at high speeds, this will deliver on it. The film focuses on the driving and racing much more than Cannonball. 

Raul Julia Gumball Rally 1976There are actually some bits in this race that it does better than Cannonball Run. Mcintyre and Juliá avoid a speed trap by getting onto a truckbed, covering up and sneaking past the cops – very similar to what Reynolds did in Cannonball.

In The Gumball Rally it’s a more exciting subterfuge with the pair driving onto a truck still moving and then hiding from the police. They don’t slow down or anything! As a bonus, there’s a pit crew awaiting inside the back of the trailer to service their Ferrari.

The characters and comedy are the weak parts. After watching this I’m having trouble remembering any of the gags and the characters. Both are forgettable. Aside from Julia who’s the most colorful driver and Busey, who later go onto fame and watching him in this is more of curiosity, the rest of the actors gets lost in the dust.  

Basically most of them are there to sit in their cars while we admire them zipping down the highways. There isn’t much of the way to speak of with funny repartee between them. Busey trying to pee in a bottle in his speeding car I suppose I could call a weak comedic highlight. Other than some car crashes, the humor falls flat for the most part. 

Tricia O'Neil Gumball Rally 1976 MacGyver Star TrekTricia O’Neil plays a pretty brunette model (who I thought had a Adrienne Barbeau vibe to her. She’s in a Rolls Royce with her boyfriend. I got curious and looked up her screen credits since I felt I saw her somewhere before – and I was right!

She appeared as the main villainess in the MacGyver episode ‘Phoenix Under Siege’. In that one MacGyver gets locked in the Phoenix Foundation and has a Die Hard-type of battle with a group of terrorists. That was one of the most memorable episodes from the show.

She also appeared in Star Trek The Next Generation, but her villainous appearance on MacGyver was the one that really stuck in my head all these years.

The movie doesn’t do a very good job of keeping the other racers a presence while they’re offscreen. I kept forgetting about some of them while we went to another pair. It has also has some pretty bad editing in points.

Gumball Rally 1976 girls Porsche cross country race
Susan Flannery & Joanne Nail as the Porsche Team

In one instance the girls Porshe breaks down and it looks like they’ll have to deal with some cowboys who have taken a liking to them. But that scene abruptly ends and next we just see the girls back on the road. How did they manage that?

There was one scene that really annoyed me. The ongoing joke with the motorcycle rider is that he keeps crashing. He does it throughout the race in a variety of ways. There’s one point he’s riding down the road and stuff starts flying into his face.

Gumball Rally 1976 racing movie motorcycle stuntI wasn’t sure if it was feathers or flowers or what. He loses control and goes through a billboard.

I have no idea what it was that caused him to crash. Maybe I was supposed to know, but that gag really frustrated me and left me saying, “What just happened???”

The Gumball Rally clearly had an impact on car enthusiasts. It inspired the real life Gumball Rally race that has been held yearly since 1999. It’s an old school innocent fun frolic of a movie we don’t see much anymore. It has a simple goal, a large cast, comes up with some fun scenes, strings them together to create a racing movie. It’s all harmless.

Gumball Rally 1976 cross country illegal car race comedyIt’s kind of a shame lightweight movies like this has become so rare. Rather than seeing these Fast & Furious sequels and spinoffs I can so easily ignore, my ears would perk up if they announced a cross country racing comedy with the cast. Now that I would watch!

They’d probably make it much more gritty, dangerous and death defying today though.

Still, The Gumball Rally is a surprisingly effective racing yarn. Some of the racing shots are impressive, the cars look great and it delivers on some exciting driving sequences for fans – all done old school, no CGI assistance at all!

It’s not required viewing, but if you’re a car lover and stumble onto it it should put a smile on your face.




Here’s the start of the race with the cars tearing through mid-town Manhattan. It’s pretty impressive and an exciting start to the race

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