Michael Bannon (Michael Sarrazin) is the head of a powerful confectionary company, but as he sits in yet another board meeting, bored out of his mind, he feels the need for speed once more. As an executive drones on, Bannon calls up Samuel Graves (Nicholas Pryor), a university professor he knows and says one word: "Gumball". Graves protests, fully aware of what he means, but "Gumball" is the whole message, and that message is spread to other pertinent folks around the United States so that soon a collection of drivers has been assembled in New York City, all raring to go in a highly illegal road race across the country. And one cop, Roscoe (Norman Burton) is determined to stop them.
There were a bundle of driving movies with ensemble casts released in the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, many apparently inspired by the stunt-filled, comic antics of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. This example was one of the first, and some would say, the best of them, written by Leon Capetanos from the story by him and director Chuck Bail, a stuntman himself in his other job. The cast might not be quite as star-filled as the others, but what they lack in fame they make up for in amusement as every one of the two-person teams gets to shine - and the actors did much of their own driving as well.
Initially, they all meet in a restaurant to hear the plan. The rules? There are no rules, they just have to travel from New York to Long Beach, California in the fastest possible time. The record to beat is Bannon's, and they're all determined to better him, but really the race is between two teams, the Bannon and Graves one and their friendly rivals Smith (Tim McIntire) and Franco (Raul Julia). Julia is absolutely great in this, as a Italian Lothario whose appetite for cars is only overtaken by his love of the ladies, and many of the biggest laughs are thanks to his antics as he pursues his two great passions throughout the film.
That's not to say that the other characters are overshadowed, far from it. Gary Busey is funny as the intentionally annoying mechanic of a professional stunt driver known as "Mr Guts" (John Durren), who is wound up by his crude behaviour. There are two housewives in the race (Susan Flannery and Joanne Nail) who make the mistake of telling a couple of rednecks, "If you can catch me, you can have me!". There are also a pair of cops (Steven Keats and Wally Taylor) who use the trick of turning on the siren to beat the traffic. But one of the funniest is the "Mad Hungarian" (Harvey Jason), an accident-prone motorcyclist who never speaks a word in the movie.
The stunts and driving are superb, with plentiful crashes and narrow escapes, meaning you never get a chance to catch your breath while watching. Roscoe's efforts to stop the race predictably come to naught as Bannon, Smith and company are too clever for him by half (or so they think). If there's a drawback it's the episodic nature of the plotting, which was probably unavoidable, but it means you never get a sense of the teams really racing against each other; in fact, they barely see each other until the end and the contest is won. However, the brash humour and general spectacle should be sufficient as the film's air of fun is infectious, and The Gumball Rally, based on a real race, is indeed one of the best of its type proving you don't need Burt Reynolds to do this sort of thing right. Music by Dominic Frontiere.