mint 400: full report
a taste of americas's greatest off-road race
A generous assortment of babes and freaks line the neon-lit street and
the new Miss Mint poses in a clinging mini-dress, showing off her new sash. Las Vegas is garish and brash and full of people who seem to think that throwing their money away into flashing machines is a fun thing to do. But in mid-March something special comes to town. Something I understand!
Established in 1967, way back in the distant beginnings of desert racing, the Mint 400 has always been an iconic race, right up there with the Baja 1000 and there were golden years when over 550 entrants blasted through the desert. In 2008, brought back to life from decades of dormancy, the Mint’s iconic status has remained unchanged, although the heydays when a bright yellow Datsun 1600 converted to 4x4 was the height of innovation are no more. The Fremont Street contingency parade was full of million-dollar Trophy Trucks and buggies with spectacular amounts of power and suspension travel. They exist for only one reason… to go fast in the desert. And they are very special machines. “There’s only like 78 of them that have ever existed,” says event resurrector Matt Martelli. “That means that there have been more people in space than have raced a Trophy Truck!”
Qualifying was a hectic affair. The 3.4 mile square loop seemed pretty straight forward at first glance, just some straights and corners, but the soft surface quickly got deeply rutted and the 167 cars ploughing through, blasting rooster tails of dust high into the air began to kick and struggle at every turn. A couple didn’t even make it 200m before rolling over the first hollow. But foot to the floor is the only way to go as start position is all important. Only the pole man gets a clean drive, the rest of the field have to drive through a blinding screen of dust. That’s why Robby Gordon was absolutely ballistic through the corner I was standing at. The sound of an 800bhp V8 topping out and chattering over the bumps is awesome but the sight of the bright orange Speed Energy truck with all four wheels off the ground while heading straight for me was enough to set my heart racing. It was the matt black, the unsponsored car of Dale Dondel who was fastest of all though. He also got the top starting spot in the recent Parker 425 but was out by mile 30. “He's not the wealthiest racer,” Matt says. “He builds his own trucks, they are well thought-out and also light, 1000lbs less than other trucks, but he has to save money, so his problem right now is that they don't last.” So I think it’s fair to say that there weren't too many people expecting to see him at the end…
Trophy Trucks are unlimited, but that word is used a bit too freely. It means that there are no rules. If you can conceive it and put it on your car, you can run it. Twin turbos? Go for it. A new suspension system of your own design? Sure! If they seem to look much the same it's because they've evolved over time by natural selection to be the ultimate vehicles for the terrain they race on. Power, suspension travel, tyres are all important… but endurance is the key is to get to the finish of the Mint 400 the car has to take a lot of punishment… which is what Dondel is working on.
Prickly bushes and hardy flowers dotted the wind-swept desert but there was no time to contemplate the serenity. Dondel’s reward for being fastest by ½ a second was to have a minute’s head start while the rest of the huge field went in pairs at 30 second intervals. The big news battle was with the two last winners starting side-by-side, reigning champion Bryce Menzies in his Red Bull truck and the one and only Robby Gordon, the 2012 winner. It was an elbow fight into the first corner as they tried to nudge each other over before the track narrowed into a single lane. “Nerfing is fine here,” Matt smiles. “I said no rules, right… And you think those bumpers at the front are for pushing cows out of the way?” It was a touch too much for Gordon though, as his all-for-nothing attack into the very first corner cost him the race as his transmission failed a mile later.
Later that evening I was sitting next to a man who in these parts can rightly claim the honourific of Living Legend; 70’s and 80’s event organiser KJ Lowe. “Back in the day,” he said, pausing to push his signature pilot sunglasses a bit further up his nose. “Guys ran with big spikes sticking out of the back of their cars. Someone came up to nurf them, bam, they’d have a great big hole in the radiator. Those were the days, I'll tell you!”
Beyond expectations Dondel tore away into an 8 minute lead by the time he came passed near the start of the second lap. A high bank of sand on the outside of a long left-hander allowed drivers to lean the rear wheel against it and carry more speed into the next straight. It also had the advantage of providing very nice photos as the dirt was kicked a high into the air. As Dondel’s dust settled, second placed Menzies was just a tiny black dot in front of a thin plume on the other side of the valley… but unfortunately it wasn't to last, the engine went just a few miles further.
That left the No. 70 Red Bull truck in the lead, but Menzies’ time at the front was short lived. A puncture can be changed in a couple of minutes and it's not inconceivable that a few minutes can be pulled back… But four flats… And if that wasn't enough, an argument with a Joshua tree damaged a driveshaft so that he was almost a lap down. Gary Weyhrich in the TSCO car had the lead at the end of Lap 2 but slid off the course with the truck ending up on its side, where all the oil drained from the engine.
331 cars, spread out over 20 classes took the start, the smaller ones in a separate race in the morning, but over a four lap course with so much action, it's easy to see why the Mint has such a reputation for toughness. The track was utterly destroyed. Sharp rocks were constantly exposed and moved, deep ruts ground into every corner and huge holes and ridges were carved out, the infamous ‘whoops’. The top Trophy Trucks chose a line and powered through with the incredible suspension soaking it all up so that the body stayed stable. Watching them up close was amazing to see, but get the angle wrong so that a wheel digs in and it will be a big accident…
In the small class race in the morning world4x4's friend JT Taylor was with Matt Magliacano in his new Class 10 car. They finished 4th in class in the Parker 425 so came here with high hopes. But the Mint 400 feeds people’s hopes for breakfast though and tyres and transmission issues meant that they had to crawl around much of the last lap with the engine in safe mode. This is no place to come and learn about a car as the only lesson you’ll learn is a hard one! They managed to get home in 21st.
Some people just like making things hard for themselves and on the course designed for Trophy Trucks the Desert Dingo team did it in a VW Beetle. Not buggy that looks like a Bug, a real one with original 1970s engine and transmission. They did the first lap in what the team described as a reasonably fast time, only having to stop once to fix a broken throttle cable with a few zip ties but Lap 2 it all went wrong. Stopped to look at why a wheel was binding they got hit by another car. Then stuck in deep silt they blew the transmission trying to get out.
As the sun began to set over the rocky mountains to the west I found myself on the dry lake bed watching the cars slew onto the silt at full speed, kicking up vast clouds of thick dust. Silhouetted against the sun it was a beautiful sight. And the speed… everyone knows that a Trophy Truck is fast, but 146 mph off-road… that is eye-widening, jaw-slacking fastness!
With so many having problems it was a clean run that was going to secure a good result and that was exactly what Andy McMillan did. In his first race for over a year the Coroner beer sponsored driver drove consistently, quickly and most importantly didn't get a single puncture. On the podium one of his pit crew explained his surprise that the mechanics hadn't touched the car with a spanner all day. It was close all the way though and the gap to the top was just 30 seconds for a lot of the race and the team are no strangers to small margins… they lost the race by two minutes last year.
2nd went to the popular Mexican team of Tavo Vildosola who struggled with lots of little issues all day, one of them being the bodywork coming loose and obscuring the view… Quite an issue at 140 miles an hour across the lakebed!
After the awards ceremony I asked Matt who he was most impressed with and his immediate answer was X-Games champion, ex-works Subaru rally driver and NASCAR racer Travis Pastrana. “There was a lot of hype around him coming up to this race, but as it was his first ever time a Trophy Truck we agreed that just to finish would be a really major achievement. And by first time, I mean he literally just stepped into the truck. In the end he pulled off a near podium which for me is just incredible. Unheard of. Most of these guys have grown-up racing in the desert for him to get 4th is totally amazing.”
One thing worthy of a mention is that every single person who got up on stage to collect hardware turned over to Matt and his brother Josh to offer words of appreciation for the race they put on. The level of respect that the racers have for the organisers is second only to that for Igor at the Croatia Trophy!
I would like to say thanks to Emily Sturges-Miller for inviting me, Michelle Ng for looking after me, the volunteer chefs in the Freemont car park for the amazing food, Vincent Knakel for the taxi service, KJ Lowe for the stories and Matt and Josh Martelli for running such an amazing race!
And to those driving by on the highway wondering what all the dust was without stopping, with a bit of luck, their lives are ruined forever. Always thinking that just behind some rock in their favorite desert, men in red racing suits are getting incredible kicks from things they'll never know. (If you’ve seen the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you’ll understand!)