Fun Times On Fremont Street: 2019 Mint 400 Contingency Recap

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.

Crowds flock from all over downtown, and the world, to check out the race cars and their drivers during contingency.

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.

Justin Peck makes his way through the throngs of people 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.”

If you want to capture some of the old-school Vegas, check out the El Cortez Hotel. It’s been updated, but still has much of its original charm.

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.

KJ Howe was race director for years and created “The Girls of the Mint” in 1972. The Mint 400 racing committee would go through hundreds of submissions from all over the world before selecting the final five girls that would have the honor of being “Mint Girls.” KJ was also a racer, and competed this year in a vintage race car at the age of 81.

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.

Some of the lovely ladies from Pirate Cove Resort.

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.

Jay Leno at contingency in 2017

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.

Human powered!

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.

In celebration of the bikes returning after 43 years, some brave riders dusted off their vintage bikes and gave it a go. Number V77 is Steve Yarborough from Reno, NV.

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.

Blake Wilkey is always stoked and brings excitement to every event.

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.

Custom Biltwell vintage-style helmets were awarded to the overall winners of the two-wheel four-wheel races.

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.

Arnie Wells was one of the Harley Davidson riders to take on the Mint in the Vintage Premodern class.

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.

Bring a hat and a cold beer, and you’re set for an afternoon of fun at the Mint 400 contingency.

The front bumper on Cody Parkhouse’s unlimited car looked menacing. The unlimited classes raced on Sunday, while the bikes ran on Saturday. It might make for a longer weekend, but the safety factor was much improved.

Jeepspeed 2700 class winner Skyler Gambrell was all smiles as he drove his just-completed Jeep Wrangler through contingency.

This young fan knows how to pick the winners. Justin Lofton took the overall win on Sunday. He is the only solo driver to win the race 3 times.

All types of clothing and souvenirs could be purchased from the Mint 400 merchandising trailers.

Monster Energy’s freestyle motocross show was going down right in front of the Vision-X trailer.

Some of the limited cars actually shave the tread to get less traction, as seen here on a General Grabber X3. If they hook up too well, they can break their driveline parts.

Fans could stock up on these cool Mint 400 posters, decals, and clothes from the Mint 400.

Photo bomb in 3..2..1.

The bedside on Brad Lovell’s Amsoil 6100 truck got autographed by the fans.

A fan inquires about this vintage Jeepster race truck.

Currie Enterprises was just one of the many vendors on hand. They supply heavy-duty axle assemblies for racing and general off-roading.

This was a custom, billet four-wheel-drive transmission. When asked how many hours it took to machine it, the reply was “Weeks.”

The exhaust on Rob MacCachren’s Unlimited truck exits right behind the cab.

Is this a Raptor or UTV? Hmm…

If you are going to go off-road, why not do it in a Lamborghini LM002?

Manufacturers like Vision-X lighting are on hand to support the racers and interact with the public.

New Ford Rangers were on display. Which do you prefer – the green or the bronze?

That’s a funny-looking dog.

Fans come in all shapes and sizes.

This bike competitor already had the eye of the tiger going on. He looked serious.

About the author

Mike Ingalsbee

For more than two decades, Mike Ingalsbee has worked as an automotive writer and photographer and covered just about everything that burns fuel or throws dirt. His writing and photography has been published in over 20 magazine titles and websites in North America, Europe and Australia. He has worked as a design engineer for several manufacturers in the automotive aftermarket and is a founding member of the Association of Motorsports Media Professionals, (AMMP), an organization that consults with racing sanctioning bodies on safety and media issues.
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