CAN THE MINT 400 REALLY BE THE GREATEST DAMN THING EVER SEEN?
That’s what Sahara Hotel President Earl Thompson proclaimed from the finish line back in 1968. It was the second running of the race, and it was a brutal one. Most of the cars and trucks entered were strewn across the desert in various states of disrepair. What kind of race would it be if nobody finished?
Just as it began to look dim for the future of the event, Thompson’s bold proclamation swayed the race promoters to stay the course. Thompson was not alone in his exuberance for the challenge. The Mint 400 exploded in popularity over the next several years, and came to be known as “The Great American Offroad Race.”
The Mint 400 was popular for 2 reasons. The first was a contingency, which is held before the race to inspect the vehicles. The contingency was an epic party, even for Las Vegas.
Held on Fremont Street, known as “Glitter Gulch” at the time, the festivities included all the trappings of Vegas: booze, women, gambling, and revelry. Packed with cars, and fans from all over the world, they all came to “the Mint” to celebrate desert racing.
The contingency was an epic party, even for Las Vegas.
One of those revelers was writer Hunter S. Thompson. He was hired by Sports Illustrated in 1971 to write photo captions for the Mint 400 race. His original 2,500-word manuscript submitted to Sports Illustrated was “aggressively rejected,” but Rolling Stone Magazine liked it enough to publish it.
His notes later became a novel that chronicled his personal debauchery. Anyone who has read the book wonders what he turned into Sports Illustrated. His novel; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was made into a movie in 1998 starring Johnny Depp, and Benicio Del Toro.
After the partying at contingency is over, competitors have 400 miles of rugged terrain outside the city to contend with. The silty, and rocky terrain offered the ultimate challenge for offroaders. It is always said that just finishing offroad races is an accomplishment. At the Mint 400, it was never truer.
Egged on by thousands of spectators who crowded around the known spots for action, racers went huge in extremely primitive vehicles. The race vehicles of the time might have had stronger parts, or multiple shocks, but in comparison to the sophisticated vehicles of today, were insanely unsuited for that type of punishment. The brutal terrain and aggressive driving forged heroes, and created legends.
The race was conceived by The Mint hotel owner Del Webb, and hotel executive Norm Johnson to draw people to Las Vegas. In its prime, the race was huge, but after Del Webb sold The Mint in 1988, the race began to wane.
The brutal terrain and aggressive driving forged heroes, and created legends.
The new owners were just not as enamored with offroad racing. The name was changed to the Nissan 400 before it ceased to exist altogether in 1989.
The race was dormant for nearly 20 years until the Southern Nevada Offroad Enthusiasts group brought it back in 2008. In 2012, the naming rights were purchased by the Martelli Brothers who teamed with the Best in the Desert racing organization to put on the race. The Martelli’s have an appreciation for what the race once was. They labored diligently to restore the Mint 400's place in the offroad world.
Contingency returned to Fremont Street, and the crowds returned. The party was back, and better than ever. The race now occupies nearly an entire week with a parade down the strip, pit crew competition, time trials, 2 days of contingency, and 2 more days of racing. This year they brought the bikes back; the first time they raced at the Mint since 1977.
For those of us who attended the original, the race was still missing one element. It was moved to an existing course south of town instead of the traditional north course that was so brutal. The unlimited classes get a taste of the north course during time trials, but the races are held south of town on a course that has dry lake beds, and river washes. It’s just not the same as the pile of rocks to the north. It is still rough in the south, but not nearly as bad.
This year’s race got a boost by Mother Nature. Heavy rains changed the game. Typically they bulldoze the course before the race, making much of it flat and featureless. The rains did what they typically do in the desert, they modified the landscape.
They crushed wheels, broke suspension parts, and had racers deviating from the favored line to avoid them.
The water washed the top layer of soil away, exposing the rocks. There were still deep sandy sections filled with whoops, and the dry lake beds that had racers bumping off the rev limiter, but the rocks were ruthless.
They crushed wheels, broke suspension parts, and had racers deviating from the favored line to avoid them. It became a driver’s race that required skill, as well as brute strength. The race finally had everything that the original delivered. Some might not have liked it, but in order to be “The Great American Race”, it needs to be the most challenging, and likewise, the most rewarding.
No racer was rewarded more than overall winner Justin Lofton. His win was his third at the Mint; the only driver to ever reach that milestone. If you ask Lofton, the many spectators, or the other racers who merely made it to the finish about what they think, they might just say that the 2019 Mint 400 was the greatest damn thing ever.