THE sabotage began well before the midnight start of the Rental Car Rally, in which teams of costume-clad motorists were to compete in a freewheeling trip from New York City to Montreal -- a cross between a scavenger hunt and an international food fight.
Team Standard Deviants, one member of which was done up as a clown with a gas mask, had drawn the ire of another team, which retaliated by hiding a rotten fish in the trunk of the Deviants' Mustang. "They won't find that for a while," the saboteur said, opening a bucket of spaghetti to fling at other cars. Needless to say, everyone with a rental opts for the full insurance package.
As more than 20 vehicles gathered on a dead-end Queens street on a Friday night last month, teams waited to collect briefcase-size boxes containing information on checkpoints they were to find and photograph along the way, as well as a collection of mischief-making materials: a half-dozen eggs, smoke bombs, maple syrup, a bottle of ketchup, glitter and a jar of Vaseline.
This was the ninth Rental Car Rally: previous events had taken place over four years on both coasts, including runs from San Francisco to Yuma, Ariz.; New York to Detroit; and Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe. Participants have been directed to offbeat and often creepy sites like airplane graveyards and abandoned hospitals. (Needless to say, trespassing is involved, not to mention highway hijinks frowned upon by officers of the law.)
The winners, who are determined by the lowest odometer readings and by "looking awesome," drive away with cash prizes (usually delivered in coins) and a gold-painted gas-pump handle.
Admission starts at $179 a vehicle, briefcase included. The top-tier ticket, at $2,999, comes with amenities including a hotel suite in the destination city, a steak dinner and a shot of pure human adrenaline in "an attractive but durable carrying case." As yet, the adrenaline has gone unclaimed.
Franz Aliquo, 37, and Steve Bryant, 35, created the Rental Car Rally series after they met in 2008 at a video tennis tournament called "Wiimbledon" that Mr. Bryant had organized. Mr. Aliquo, a corporate securities lawyer at the time, had been producing his own event called StreetWars, a three-week water-gun "assassination" tournament held in cities around the country. He approached Mr. Bryant about working together on his idea for an absurd road rally.
Despite the name, privately owned vehicles are allowed; a limousine and a British double-decker bus have competed. Last year, members of a team with an "Arrested Development" theme tried to rent the actual airport stair car from the television show. Rejected, they found and bought a car nearly identical to another from the show, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class from the 1980s.
At 12:10 a.m., Mr. Bryant and Mr. Aliquo announced the start of the rally, sending teams scrambling to their vehicles to open boxes and see what lay ahead on their circuitous back-road trip though four states and across one international border. The Chinese-restaurant-theme team responsible for the rotten fish punctuated the start with a small fusillade of fireworks. Horns and hollering followed, and minutes later they pulled over to begin navigating their route.
"Oh, man, my laptop won't work," said Tommy Federico, a 35-year-old information technology specialist. "We're not navigating nothing." He suggested a detour to a local strip club.
His teammate, Joey Kociolek, a 43-year-old architect, declined. "No, it says here we have to go to the next checkpoint and get a picture of 'a trollop in white under the bridge.' "
It turned out that the trollop -- found at a dead end in Bushwick -- was a trap: the team was ambushed by egg-throwing accomplices of the organizers. But Mr. Federico and Mr. Kociolek got their trollop photo and sped away in their sun-yellow Jeep Wrangler, festooned with paper lanterns and Chinese kitsch, toward the next checkpoint.
About an hour later in northern New Jersey, the Ford Torahs, a faux-Hasidic family, were waiting for two team members who had gone into the woods to find the next checkpoint: a disused horizontal mineshaft. The team leader, Alix Piorun, had taken part in other participatory events, including a shopping-cart race called the Idiotarod, and wanted to share the realm of participatory culture with her friends. It had taken three years to get their commitment, and she didn't want them to be disappointed. The other members returned after an hour, but without a photo, and by then some of the curl was out of the men's sidelocks.
Mr. Aliquo, who now works for a boutique advertising agency, suggested that passively consuming entertainment wasn't enough anymore, citing 3-D movies, augmented reality apps and realistic video games. "What's a more powerful experience than one you can actually physically participate in?" he asked. "I try to create a framework of fun that people then fill in themselves."
Added Mr. Bryant, who is executive editor of InsideHook, a men's lifestyle newsletter: "The entire ethos of the Net nowadays is to do more stuff in real life. And a big thing now is challenge races, or races where there are stories involved. And this rally definitely has stories."
Stories often begin as problems. A team with a hip-hop theme, UB Illin', was pulled over west of Schenectady, N.Y., for tossing an egg at another rally car. "I didn't want us to be the whistle-blowers on the rally," said Pete Edelson, the egg thrower, explaining why he didn't tell the officers what they were up to, "even though all we were doing was basically a photo scavenger hunt."
His teammate, Rick Bosch, said the officer had grown irritated by their vague responses to questions, "but all I knew was that I was coming from a gravity hill and then looking for a place that made pancake sandwiches." After asking to search the car, as Mr. Bosch told it, one officer examined a pair of Mr. Edelson's pants only to pull an egg-covered hand out of the pocket. Mr. Edelson was arrested. After two hours in custody, UB Illin' rejoined the rally with a court date for littering.
"You just don't get so many opportunities to have that much fun in life, or to do something that when you get to work on Monday is unexplainable," Mr. Edelson said, adding that he was already planning for next year.
UB Illin' had kept in touch with the Lone Rangers, John Seida and Abby Devers of Philadelphia. It was dusk when the Rangers arrived at an abandoned resort north of the Catskills, which could provide inspiration for a Borscht Belt version of "The Shining."
The Lone Rangers discovered on the trip that they were earnest urban explorers. They set out to investigate the huge five-story complex of rooms that were either completely wrecked or eerily kempt. As a consequence of their explorations they fell several hours behind the other teams. "I think some folks skipped stuff and blew through it," Ms. Devers said about some of the competitors. "That's kind of missing the point, I think. We're not in this to win."
Winning was moot, however. They reached the destination hotel in Montreal at 3:15 a.m., well after the awards ceremony. A Scottish-theme team (with an unprintable name that included haggis) had taken the grand prize of $500 in assorted coins; the Ford Torahs got the people's choice award. Both teams got golden gas pump handles.
"It's not winning -- it's just the journey," said Cesar Kuriyama of Ludicrous Speed, a Spaceballs-theme team. The rally had become his friend's bachelor party, though he'd had difficulty getting the other groomsmen to try something more exciting than the "strip club thing" in which the groom had expressed no interest. "There were definitely some bumps along the way, which will happen when you spend 24 hours straight in a car with people," Mr. Kuriyama said. "But some of those experiences we'll be talking about forever."
The next morning, Mr. Aliquo and Mr. Bryant awoke bleary-eyed to find their van wrapped with caution tape and plastic, the whole thing splattered with foodstuffs that had attracted a swarm of bees.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.