Las Vegas, Nevada is known for its extravagance and festivities, so it’s hard to stand out when you throw a party. Still, the Mint 400 holds a celebration every year that raises the bar, even in Vegas.
Back in the 1960s, Fremont played host to the biggest off-road spectacle in the country. Hundreds of off-road racers and thousands of fans crammed in to take part in the Mint 400 contingency. The streets were shut down for blocks to accommodate the hordes that descended on Las Vegas for the race. The same is true today. The Mint 400 continues to draw huge crowds to Las Vegas, all of whom end up on Fremont Street.
The Mint 400 has a rich history with Fremont Street, the nucleus of old school Vegas. Las Vegas’ first hotel was the Hotel Nevada (currently the Golden Gate), which went up on Fremont Street in 1906. As several more casinos sprang up along Fremont after gambling was legalized in 1931, it became known as “Glitter Gulch.”
Each casino did its best to attract customers to the gaming tables and slot machines. That’s how the Mint 400 was born. The brainchild of Mint hotel owner Del Webb and PR man Norm Johnson, the race was dreamed up to create publicity for the hotel, but it almost ended in disaster.
In that first Mint 400, not a single finisher managed to reach the finish line. Lying between the start in Las Vegas, and the finish line 600 miles away, hundreds of cars and trucks were strewn across the desert in various states of disrepair. One of them was Parnelli Jones, who was a major draw for the event.
As hotel executives questioned how they could ever recover from such a disaster, the president of the Sahara hotel, Earl Thompson, came in battered by the desert and covered in dust. Thompson says to Norm Johnson, “This is the greatest damn thing I’ve ever seen!” That one line from Thompson helped to change thoughts about the race. It was indeed an incredible spectacle that would become known as The Great American Desert Race.
The race was created as a marketing scheme, and over the years it used every ploy in the book, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Beautiful women have long been a part of promoting the race. Both Vanna White and Lynda Carter were Mint girls early in their careers. Whenever beautiful women are involved, you know the celebrities and the TV cameras are soon to follow.
Famous racers, rock stars, and actors have all given the Mint 400 a shot. James Garner and Steve McQueen were both avid off-road racers, but others, like Lee Majors, Ted Nugent, and Chuck Norris have tried their hand. More recently, Jay Leno, Dax Shepard, and Patrick Dempsey have all entered the race. Dempsey, an accomplished pavement racer, loves off-road and has completed several Baja 1000 races.
This year, Formula One racer Jensen Button drove a 6100 truck in the race. Two-time UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez competed in the 5500 class. Button and Velasquez were just two of the 541 total entries that all pushed their vehicles down Fremont Street this year.
Motorcycles were included for the first time since 1976, which added to the huge mob of people. Two full days of contingency were needed to get everyone through in a reasonable amount of time. Once in line, competitors are surrounded by fans, and a line of booths on both sides of the street that stretched for blocks. Two loops that veered – one to the left and one to the right – were also used to fit everything in.
All of the restaurants on Fremont were open for business if you got hungry, and energy drink companies were also on hand to give you the strength needed to walk the entire distance. Lovers of fine coffee also had their fix, with Gearhead Coffee manning two booths along the way. I have to admit that I stopped for a cup at one booth, and liked it so much that I had another cup at their second location during the day.
In order to cover as much as possible, I made several trips from one end to the other. I couldn’t go 50 feet without running into a friend, or seeing something that piqued my interest. Along with all the vendor’s booths, racers, and fans, you also get some interesting characters that found their way into the mix.
Many who have never been to the race know of the Mint 400 after reading Rolling Stone reporter Hunter S Thompson’s novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson’s blending of fact with fiction created the concept of gonzo journalism. He was definitely out there, but a gifted writer.
His book was made into the cult classic movie in 1998 starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. Thompson’s account took place in a much different time, but the race will always remain the same challenge due to the desert terrain outside Vegas.
Ask anyone who competes in the Mint 400 – the “fear” and “loathing” takes place around lap three of the race. The rocks and ruts are downright punishing.
After they cross the finish line, it all goes away. The pride and sense of accomplishment takes over. From the vehicle parade down the strip to the final racers staggering across the line, the Mint 400 is an amazing event that continues to be the Great American Desert Race.