The Mint 400: the great American off-road race
Bryan spent the better part of the last decade covering the world of cars and motorcycles for the likes of Forbes, Maxim, Robb Report, and Gear Patrol, among others. He's also one of the few American alumni of Coventry University with a Master's Degree in Automotive Journalism.
The average race weekend is a fairly tame affair, regardless of the discipline. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love spending as much time as I can poking my head into garages and poring over the race cars.
But as far as fanfare goes, there’s not much to draw in and keep the fair-weather fans and non-enthusiasts (read: significant others and disinterested family members) entertained. Only high-caliber races like the Indy 500, F1 Monaco GP, and Nascar at Charlotte Motor Speedway can garner greater audiences, and those three happen all on the same weekend, year after year.
You can also add the Mint 400 in Las Vegas to the list. Having run since 1967 – albeit with a 20-year gap between 1989 and 2008 – it's billed as “the great American off-road race,” and the way things are shaping up with the current coronavirus pandemic, it might be the last great race of the year. Luckily, not only was I able to attend, I also took part and drove the #5501 car in the 5500 buggy class.
The Mint 400 organizers know events like this are just as much about the fans as it is the racers. For starters, the Mint 400 isn’t really a “race weekend.” Yes, the actual racing takes place on Friday and Saturday, with the awards ceremony on Sunday, but the festivities officially kick off on Wednesday. The police escorted driver’s parade takes over Las Vegas Blvd for the afternoon with cars from almost every class taking part, revving engines and chirping tires all the way down the strip. As Matt Martelli, the owner and operator of the Mint put it, “it lets all of Vegas know we’re here, what we’re up to, and that they’re invited".
Being in the parade as a driver is actually quite conflicting though. Fans and people who just happen to be walking down the strip all have their phones out, recording, with smiles plastered across their faces wanting to see burnouts and hear engines bang of the rev limiters. But I have a 400-mile off-road race to run and want everything running smoothly come race day. I still gave the throttle a few healthy stabs, though. You have to give the people what they want.
On Thursday, the street festival starts, which doubles as contingency and tech inspection. Winding through downtown Vegas, industry vendors, restaurants, and bars set up shop on the sidewalks as the teams walk their cars and motorcycles between them to get looked over and approved by the race officials. It’s yet another chance for fans to be absurdly close to the drivers and machines getting ready to do battle on Friday and Saturday. There’s no ticket purchase needed either. There were probably more than a few Vegas tourists who drunkenly stumble out of a casino and accidentally joined the fun. It’s an immersive environment and level of fan access that doesn’t exist in any other form of motorsport.
The course itself is out in Primm, Nevada, near the California state line and a stone's throw away from Death Valley. The race is a loop course, each lap being 100 miles. It’s still 400 miles and still covers some of the harshest terrain the country has to offer.
Friday, the first of the two race days, starts with the motorcycle classes in the morning and then the first of the trucks, buggies, and vintage cars in the afternoon. Going class by class, the vehicles set off two-by-two, racing through the infield before heading out into the desert.
Staging for the start, my co-driver and I had to line up behind all of the UTV classes and given how popular UTVs are these days, we had to wait. For quite a while. We lined up for staging just after 11 am but didn’t leave the starting line until 2:50 pm. It was a lot of inching forward, switching off the engine to keep it cool, turning it back on, inching forward some more and turning the engine off again. But this being the Mint, spectators were only a few feet away on the other side of the fence to keep us company and other veterans racers walking up and down the line, killing time, offering sage (and much-welcomed) advice to greenhorns like myself.
Oddly enough, as we pulled up to the starting line, I was more calm and focused than I had been all week. Once we set off, my co-driver expertly called out turns, cautions, and kept an eye out for hazards like track-side boulders eagerly awaiting wheels and A-arms. We held a decent, respectable pace without over-working the engine, transmission or suspension. The most common piece of advice from other racers is “patience”. The old motorsport adage “to finish first, first, you must finish” might as well be the official slogan of Mint 400. Within the first couple of miles, trucks and buggies already littered the side of the course, either because of driver error or mechanical failure. The track is that rough, right out of the gate.
Photo Credit: Mad Media
We made it to race mile 60-70 before getting bumped from behind by another car letting us know they want to pass. “Nerfing,” as it’s called, is totally legal and accepted. However, there’s a gentlemen’s agreement that it should be a light tap to get a driver’s attention, so they can pull over in a safe spot and let the faster car by. The bump we got was not light, by any means. I pulled over as soon as I could, let the other car pass, but just as I pulled back on the course, I felt the car completely change. The steering was impossibly heavy, the suspension seemed useless, and the exhaust note was singing a noticeably different tune.
With a herculean amount of effort, I muscled the car the last 30-40 miles to the main pits, just as the sun was setting. My team manager walked behind the car, then to my window and told me to cut the engine, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your race is over.” If I had ever felt absolute heartbreak in my life, that moment definitely qualifies. A few four-letter words later, I unbuckled my harness, took off my helmet and inspected the damage. The spare tire mounted over the engine was gone, as was the rear section of the roll cage protecting the engine, along with the muffler. The alternator was smashed in and our serpentine belt was missing, explaining the lack of power steering the last part of the lap.
From the pits, my co-driver and I walked back to the spectator area to have a drink or six. Thankfully there’s a full bar under a big top tent right next to start-finish. Obviously, it’s not the way I wanted to end the race, but it only being the first day of racing, the main event on Saturday acted as a good distraction. While the hours-long races are going on, the trackside festivities never stop. It’s certainly a plus for drivers that finish the race earlier than expected but for the spectators its a non-stop festival.
Whether you’re racing or just spectating, the Mint 400 is wildly unique in the world of motorsport. There’s palpable energy the entire week and inclusivity is the main theme. If you’ve never been to an off-road race, or any race weekend for that matter, consider booking a trip to Vegas for the Mint 400, it’s an experience that will spoil you.