Published: 06:00, 29 November 2020
The bridges over the M20 are packed with people and some of the world’s finest supercars are heading down the motorway.
This can only mean one thing: the Gumball Rally is coming through Kent.
First held in 1999, the 3,000-mile drive that takes place on public roads has included the county in its route on multiple occasions.
Using the M20 as a link between London and the Eurotunnel, those taking part in the celebrity-laden run have passed through Maidstone and Ashford numerous times, drawing crowds to the crossings over the carriageway.
It last made its way through Kent in August 2018 but, with Gumball founder Maximillion Cooper living in London, the lavish event is expected to return to the county sooner rather than later.
Described as a non-competitive rally and not a race, the 2019 entry fee was priced at a huge £50,000 per car.
When it last visited Kent, Baywatch actor David Hasselhoff and US Grammy-winning rapper Eve were among the celebrities enjoying the noisy concrete surface between Junctions 8 and 9.
But back in the mid-2000s, before its popularity rose sharply, Tenterden’s Emma Scott was one of many ‘non-famous’ people on the entry list.
Working as a snowboard guide in the winter and casino dealer in Mayfair during the summer, Mrs Scott’s circle of friends included the Gumball founder, meaning she could take part in the event without paying the eye-watering entry fee.
“I did the Gumball before a lot of famous people got involved - it was a lot more goofy when I did it,” Mrs Scott remembers.
“I feel it almost got ruined a little bit when people with unlimited money got involved.
“When I did it, there was a Citroen 2CV and an ice cream van with a Porsche turbo engine alongside the supercars.”
Aboard a Bentley Continental GT, Mrs Scott took part in 2004, 2005 and 2010, taking in a trip to the Monaco Grand Prix and a drive around the Atlas Mountains.
“Going down the M20 and seeing everyone on the bridges was amazing,” she said.
“I’ve taken part in the New York Marathon and it’s a similar feeling.
“It’s really good to watch on the outside but, on the inside, the dynamics of the rally are quite interesting.
“One time we were going to go through a country and there was a risk they weren’t going to allow us in.
“One of the sheiks said ‘well, let’s just buy the country’ - and he was probably quite serious.
“So you had some people who had unlimited money and then you had other people like a Porsche executive who was on the Gumball but pretending not to be there.”
During her time on the event, Mrs Scott visited Monaco in 2005, where she watched the Grand Prix from EasyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s apartment.
Despite being described as a non-competitive drive, Mrs Scott says she saw participants trying to ‘win’ the event, which took its name from 1976 film The Gumball Rally.
She likened it to the unsanctioned Cannonball Run - a 2,816-mile drive from New York City to Los Angeles.
“Even though it’s said to be a rally and not a race, for those who have done it a few times, it did become a real-life Cannonball Run,” she said.
“People didn’t follow the rules at all - it was a real strategy game with the secret Cannonball race that was happening.
“It wasn’t just who had the fastest car, who had the most money, it was about forward-thinking and a real plan was put in place.
“You would see people talking strategy in the evenings; Max (the organiser) would do a little speech every evening reminding everyone that it’s just a rally, not a race.”
Mrs Scott says competitors used “all sorts of equipment” during the six-day journey - including laser jammers and scanners.
“We once got pulled over by the police and we had a jammer in the car and my co-driver said you have to got hide it really quickly otherwise they will confiscate the car,” she said.
“Scanners would find where the speed cameras were and the jammer would stop any signal getting to you.”
When the event came through the county in 2005, Kent Police said the majority of drivers had “kept in the spirit of the event while respecting the roads”.
However, the force said there were some “notable exceptions”, with officers dealing with “a number of speeding offences”.
During its visit in 2006, police said no one was caught speeding, but Mrs Scott says she did come face-to-face with officers in other countries.
“One time, when we were in Italy, the police gave two of us an escort to get to the autostrada before the others,” she said.
“Sat-nav was really new then - we had these little hand-held devices - and we weren’t sure how to get to the motorway.
“They had their blue lights on, were drifting around the corners and pushing traffic out the way - it was amazing.
“But other police were not so fun... drivers ended up in jail or had huge fines.
“At one checkpoint, I was a passenger in a BMW M5. But I did not realise until I got to the border that I left my passport in the Bentley - so we had to sneak over the border!”
For her first Gumball in 2004, Mrs Scott started in Paris, but left from London in 2005 and 2010.
“My mum and dad came along to the launch in London and they were amazed,” she said.
“They only thought it was going to be a little car rally and wondered how on earth I managed to get involved with it.
“Leaving London, with the sound of the engines starting line by line, was just awesome.”
The event - which was cancelled in 2007 following a fatal crash in Macedonia - was yet to become filled with celebrities when Mrs Scott took part, but a number of famous faces were still involved.
They included Hollywood actor Adrien Brody and ace American driver Ken Block, as well as model Jodie Kidd and former boxer Chris Eubank.
Mrs Scott said: “The entry fee has completely changed the culture now - when I did it it was still very goofy; it was just a group of people having fun.
“I think the odd cars were the best, those people who came up with really original ideas, rather than the drivers in really expensive cars who would floor it for the sake of it.
“The rally’s got a bit of a reputation that it’s just rich people with expensive cars.
“Yes, you do get some of that, but I don’t really see the appeal in that side of it - I like the characters like people in the 2CV or on a motorbike.”
Mrs Scott, who watched the rally from Ashford when it passed through Kent in 2018, says the parties during the event were “awesome and didn’t stop”.
“People went from the party and then straight back in the car,” she said.
“By the end of the week, we were shattered, but they were fun times and I met some amazing people.
"I would love to see it go through Kent again.”