The Mint 400 is known as The Great American Desert Race; a name that was earned way back in the 1960s when, let’s face it, the cars were rather unsophisticated. Nevertheless, the lack of good tires and the primitive shocks of the day did nothing to discourage the throngs of off-road racers who set out to challenge the desert outside Las Vegas, Nevada.
The race attracted icons like Parnelli Jones, Mickey Thompson, Al Unser, the Mears gang, Bobby Ferro, Walker Evans, Ivan Stewart, etc., etc. Soon to follow were the beautiful women, celebrities, Hollywood actors, and rock stars. Despite the appeal and enormous prize money, once its namesake (The Mint Hotel) was sold to non-racers in 1988, the race began to wane. The name was changed to the Nissan 400 for a couple years before it ceased to exist at all.
Fast forward to 2008 – the Southern Nevada Off Road Enthusiasts club reinstated the race. They even ran it on the north course. In 2012, it changed hands again; purchased by the Martelli Brothers, who have worked hard over the years to restore its original luster. In the early days, the course was always run on the north side of town.
The terrain there is downright brutal. The soil is very silty and loaded with rocks. Over the years, available land on the north side of town has shrunk. Therefore, they only run time trials there, on a shortened four-mile-long course.
Accelerating or braking race cars can create the undulating bumps known as whoops. The type of dirt dictates their shape. Typical desert soil will form whoops differently than sand or silt does. They will be more like holes than bumps. The silt, mixed with rocks found on the north course, makes a whoop that is very choppy. It pounds the occupants, puts huge impact loads on suspension and driveline parts, and cooks the fluid in the shocks.
During time trials, it creates an intense situation where everyone is trying to set the fastest time while enduring the worst terrain possible. A single wrong bounce can cost precious time, or even worse, a starting position during the race. The farther back in the field you are placed, the more vehicles you need to pass to get to the front. Because these races are timed events, the fastest time wins, regardless of track position. Running out front, free from dust, is a huge advantage. More cars ahead means more dust, and more chances to get held up by a slower competitor.
The fastest unlimited cars and trucks would be qualifying – the 1500 buggies, Trick Trucks, and the 6100 trucks, some 90 vehicles in all. The starting order is determined by a random draw. Competitors complete a slow-speed parade lap to learn the course, and then line up again for their timed lap. Every year, the time trials course takes a toll on a few unlucky hopefuls. They all know it can happen, but the sense of urgency tends to get the best of some drivers.
There is a particular jump that is very temperamental. If you hit it right, you can get huge air and attain hero status on the internet. Get it wrong, and the same will be true, but at the cost of your vehicle. The two top qualifiers in their respective categories, Bryce Menzies and Brock Heger, both took a conservative approach to the jump.
The jump changes all the time. In addition to race traffic and weekend travel by off-road enthusiasts, the wind and rain constantly move the dirt around. This year, it was dished out at the bottom, with a gradual slope as you went up the face. If you hit the bottom hard enough, it would launch you up, and over the top. If you hit it slow, it was not a factor. If you went half way, it was a disaster. The bottom would launch you into the air, but the rear wheels would clip the top, sending your vehicle end over end. Many had incredible close calls, but three trucks suffered a worse-case scenario.
Cole Potts had plenty of speed, but drifted to the left side just before take-off. Not only did it kick the back end of his Trick Truck high into the air, but it made a half-twist before landing straight up and down on the front bumper. He bounced off the dirt, did a flip in the air, and landed on the rear bumper. He duplicated it once more before coming to a rest on the driver’s side. Both ends of the truck were damaged. His co-driver Caleb Derby climbed out unhurt, but Potts remained in the truck for several minutes. He was slightly injured.
Jeff Terzo had the biggest near-crash. He went huge and came down a little twisted. He landed hard on the nose, breaking his steering, but managed to limp away. It’s hard to believe, but Jayson Strachan managed to outdo Potts. Strachan went end over end, landed back on his wheels and seamlessly got back on the throttle to finish his run. It was amazing!
With the qualifying order determined, racers still had three laps of the full course south of town to run on Sunday. Despite all the improvements in the design and materials used today, the desert is as abusive as ever. No amount of technology can withstand the worst that Mother Nature can dish out. In fact, the weather played a huge role on race day.
The terrain in the Jean area is different than the north course. It has more sand and dry washes, as well as two lake beds. It has been bladed by Best In The Desert for years, so most of the whoops, and other natural features have been removed. In fact, the section of the course known as the Fox Shocks proving grounds has been transformed into a road, instead of the punishing whoop section it used to be. It typically does not afford the same challenge that the north course delivers, much to the dismay of old-school purists.
However, this year, Mother Nature had a few surprises in store. Heavy rains fell only days before the race. It made the sand heavy, filled the lake beds with water, and washed much of the dirt off the rocky sections, leaving piles of boulders that added much of the brutal nature found during time trials. The lake beds dried up, but the rocks remained. They would be responsible for much of the carnage during the race.
The racing would be split into two days. Saturday morning, the bikes would race, for the first time since 1976. Saturday afternoon, several limited classes would run. On Sunday morning, the fast and furious Class 10 cars, UTVs, and several other classes would hit the course. Sunday afternoon, the big boys got their chance.
This format is popular with many for several reasons. By putting fewer cars on the course at the same time, they can spread out and run a faster pace. It also lessens conflicts between the fastest unlimited cars and the other slower classes that have just as much a right to settle their own battles without interference.
It also makes the big trucks race under the roughest conditions. Normally, they would start up front, and have a virgin course ahead of them. The cars with the most power, the biggest shocks, the greatest suspension travel, and huge tires, get the easiest conditions. The slower cars behind get deeper silt, worse ruts and more rocks. This way, the fast guys get a course that’s been chewed up for two days. It just makes more sense.
The Martelli Brothers have been working diligently for years to return the huge crowds, and party atmosphere from days gone by to the festivities before the race, and they have. Now they had a race course that also lived up to the archetype, thanks to a little help from Mother Nature.
The conditions hammered even the unlimited trucks, which afforded exceptional pride to anyone who made it to the finish. Just like the early days, the best of the best were here, all vying for the overall win. BJ Baldwin ripped his rear axle apart on a huge boulder. Rob MacCachren, who many say is the greatest of all time, seemed to have second place locked up, but “the Mint 400 gremlin bit us only three miles out from the finish. We can’t say we didn’t give it 100%,” he lamented.
Bryce Menzies, the number one qualifier, got a flat coming into the finish, causing him to limp in on a shredded carcass to a 19th place finish in his high-tech four-wheel-drive Red Bull truck. Andy McMillin was fifth. Multi-time Trick Truck champion Jason Voss finished third, and Brett Sourapas, who finished the Parker 425 in second, was second again. That left the top spot to two-time Mint 400 winner Justin Lofton. His third win at the Mint elevated him to elite status. No other driver has accomplished the feat.
“Our strategy was to push the pace with no mistakes,” says Lofton, “My co-driver Derek and I were in the zone, which allowed us to pick up the pace on Lap 3. There was a section after Pit B that was really chopped up. It was filled with 2.5-foot-tall, squared-off bumps that pounded us. Our Fox shocks soaked them up and allowed me to stay in control. Despite how rough it was, we averaged 62 miles per hour.”
Cody Parkhouse won class 1500. James Dean was second, and the always fast CJ Hutchins was third. In a dominant performance, Brock Heger won the 6100 class (he was the pole sitter). Travis Chase, in a brand new truck, came second, and Taylor Mills finished third. The 2019 Mint 400 lived up to the moniker of “The Great American Desert Race” in every way.