The Mint 400: Fear and Loathing Part II

The Mint 400: Fear and Loathing Part II

The following is from the February 2019 issue of Dealernews

As a native Las Vegan, a child of the ’70s and an avid off-road motorcyclist Hunter S. Thompson’s cult classic “Fear and Loathing” spoke to me in a very direct and highly personal way. In many ways, it embodied my life up to that point because it touched on three topics near and dear to my heart. Las Vegas, the Mint 400 and ….uh…er....uh…. well nevermind about the third. It was after all the ’70s. In any case, the book was highly inspirational and for me, validation that I lived in a world of endless possibilities and all I had to do was conjure the appropriate dream. Deeply connected to that dream for me was The Mint 400. Growing up in Las Vegas the race was well known to practically everyone, even the average Joe on the street which is why in 1972 at 16 years of age, my riding buddies and I rode our dirt bikes out to the old Mint Gun Club to watch our heroes compete. The site of JN Roberts mauling his Husky at speed through silt beds 3-4 feet deep was one of the most awe-inspiring images I have ever seen. Mix in the random hidden rock or rain rut and it was amazing any of the riders remained upright for a hundred yards let alone 400 miles.  We spent the day absorbing the sights and sounds, sneaking into the pits, marveling at the factory riders and their race machines. By the end of the day, I was hooked. I knew what I wanted more than anything else in life; to have the same experience myself. 

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I missed the ’73 event due to injuries and the ’74 Mint 400 was canceled due to the Energy Crisis but I was fortunate enough to compete in the last two Mint 400s (before the motorcycle side of the race was dropped in ’77) finishing as high as 3rdoverall in 1975. Later I managed to win the Las Vegas 400, the Mint 400 replacement race that ran from 1977 to the mid-1990s, overall on 4 different occasions. In the end, I got everything out of the Mint 400 experience I so desperately wanted in 1972, and more. I share all this to demonstrate the power of imagination. The ability of a single event to inspire an entire generation of motorcyclists and how its legacy and rebirth might just be the catalyst to inspire the next generation of off-road desert racing enthusiasts.  

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You see back when Thompson and Dr. Gonzo were tripping their way to Vegas the Mint 400, the Baja 1000 and Barstow to Vegas were desert racing’s Holy Trinity of long-distance races and drove what was absolutely staggering participation in western desert off-road racing and correspondingly motorcycle sales. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the halcyon days of off-road desert racing (the late ’60s and early 70’s) corresponded to some of the largest years for motorcycle sales the U.S. have ever seen. Back then names like Malcolm Smith, JN Roberts, Whitey Martino, Max Switzer, Casey Folks, Mike Patrick, Phil Bowers, Bud Ekins, Rich Thorwaldson, Rolf Tibblin, Jack Johnson and Larry Berquist led the charge becoming heroes to a generation of young racers. The Mint 400, Baja 1000 and B to V set in motion the momentum that has carried the sport, through good times and bad, to where it is today. And just where are we today? Well while things could always be better, and it could be argued the sport of long-distance off-road desert racing has seen brighter days, the sport on a whole is holding its own.  Despite the best efforts of radical environmentalists, restrictive public land use policy, private property owners and the mainstream media off-road desert racing still manages to draw a significant group of loyal racing enthusiasts. All drawn by the allure of racing a motorcycle across the most challenging terrain in the world, the Mojave Desert, just to see how one measures up. 

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As “On Any Sunday” so appropriately points out, desert racers are a unique breed. They race for hours on end over some of the most desolate terrains on earth with virtually no spectators and only a random friend or family member there to greet them at the finish line. Yes, desert racing is a highly personal experience but also highly rewarding. The challenge alone of riding a motorcycle at high speed across terrain you’ve never seen before battling rocks, dust, heat, cold, whoops, washouts and the occasional mine shaft for hours on end is one of the purest tests of riding skill, stamina and, make no mistake, courage the sport of motorcycle racing has to offer. And in my book the Mint 400, as a single-day event, stands at the top of almost every other off-road race in terms of pure toughness. Unfortunately though for the motorcycle community since 1976 it has been but a distant memory. But that’s all about to change thanks to Mad Media and Best In The Desert. 

 

Mad Media brought the Mint 400 back to reality as a car/truck/UTV event in 2011. Over the years and in partnership with Best In The Desert the event regained its stature as one of the premier off-road races in the U.S., In fact, the car/truck/UTV portion of the race has been so successful there is a waiting list for entries as each year the event quickly fills the 450-vehicle limit imposed by the BLM. This is in large part due to the tremendous marketing and promotion conducted by Mad Media in support of the event. Mad Media is the gold standard in terms of off-road race promotion. They do an amazing job recognizing the historic nature of the event and ensuring key elements from the original Mint 400 such as the downtown Las Vegas pre-race registration, technical inspection and contingency held each year on Fremont St. remains a focal point of the event. Imagine shutting down Main Street in the world’s largest tourist attraction for a weeklong celebration of off-road racing and all things high octane and high horsepower. The pre-race downtown festival alone attracts literally tens of thousands of fans and spectators and adds a lot to the spectacle of the event. Combined with a ceremonial parade of race vehicles down the Las Vegas Strip anticipation for the event is brought to a fever pitch over the course of the week leading up to the race itself. Not wanting to stop there Mad Media has pushed hard for the expansion of the event to include motorcycles as well. Fortunately for Mad Media, their partner Best In The Desert is owned by a family whose lives have been dedicated to off-road motorcycle racing.  When presented with the possibility BITD eagerly jumped at the opportunity to bring motorcycles back. Led by BITD co-owner Daryl Folks a special motorcycle-only course was laid out and approved by the BLM to ensure the race itself would meet the needs of the motorcycle racing community. 

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What does all this mean for the sport of off-road desert racing? Hopefully just like it did in the late 60‘s and early 70’s events like the Mint 400 will draw the attention of the racing public, the motorcycle industry as a whole and media and along with other classic off-road races like Vegas to Reno, the Parker 250 and Baja 500/1000 set the stage for a renaissance of long-distance desert racing.  With any luck, this renaissance will lead to an uptick in motorcycle sales and inspire a whole new generation of desert racing enthusiasts. If any lesson can be learned from what took place back in “the good old days” is that our sport is aspirational. Just like me, some other 16-year-old kid needs to be inspired to pursue his/her own off-road dream, embark on his/her own quest to conquer legendary events such as the Mint. Judging from pre-entries for the 2019 Mint 400 it looks like this just might be happening. In addition to top pro teams, the Mint 400 is attracting all-female teams, father/son teams, vintage race teams, a whole host of ironman riders, regular Joes and everyone in between. It certainly seems like it is inspiring a new generation of riders to give long-distance off-road racing a try.  So far it is shaping up to be the biggest off-road desert race for motorcycles in quite some time with an estimated 150 teams and approx. 400 riders competing in the event. 

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For this reason alone all true fans of desert racing should be in Primm, Nevada (just south of Las Vegas) on Saturday, March 8th, 2019 as Best In The Desert and Mad Media bring back the Mint 400 for motorcycles. And if you’re driving to the event from Southern California be sure to keep your eyes open for a red convertible with two pie-eyed drivers on your way. If you do see them you know the Mint 400 is back for sure and with it may be a bright new day for off-road desert racing!