It’s a pilgrimage that every Southern Californian completes at least once a year: a new raise, a payday bonus, or a generous birthday present of cash burn a hole in the wallets of men and women, and the only way to find relief is across state lines in lovely Las Vegas.
But, there are those of us who head to Sin City for a different reason. We head to Las Vegas because once a year Best in the Desert and Mad Media team up to deliver the show-stopping shindig that we all know and love — the Mint 400.
This year, more than 300 teams in both limited and unlimited classes made their way to the event, with thousands of spectators scattered throughout the area watching for their favorite racer to come out on top. No matter their strategy, preparation, or even the amount of heart and determination, the Mojave Desert would let only a select few even finish the race, much less come out on top. So, here in all its glory, grandeur, and harshness, is what happened at the Mint 400.
The Unlimited Race
The race began on Saturday afternoon, hot on the heels of the Limited race that had begun at 6 a.m. Some of those racers were still out on the course, desperate to make it to the finish line, as organizer Casey Folks was walking up to the start line in the backyard of Buffalo Bill’s Hotel and Casino in Primm, Nevada.
A living legend in his own right, and inspiration to countless racers, the venerable Rod Hall was designated Grand Marshal for 2016. Along with the lovely Miss Mint, he waved the green flag to start off the first few vehicles of the race.
Leading the drivers off was Justin Lofton, winner of the previous Mint 400, and a force to be reckoned with in the off-road racing world. Having captured first place during qualifying just a few days earlier, all eyes were on him to see if he could keep his momentum up, and his rivals at bay for the next six hours.
The beginning went off without a hitch – Lofton took off, then Andy McMillin and Bryce Menzies, then the rest of the trucks and buggies. After fighting out of the starting section, drivers were on their way over and around the mountain, and from there, only luck and skill could dictate what would happen next.
One interesting aspect about the Mint 400 this year was the decision to have racers run the reverse route, heading east instead of north, which is the norm. As significant as this may seem to outsiders, racers like Larry Ragland (who was participating with his son, Chad, in the UTV class) felt that the alteration would have little effect. “Changing direction doesn’t matter. The desert is still the desert and it will be tough no matter where we go,” he said.
We headed up north to catch the trucks as they came through the quarry (Spectator Area 3). This is one of the more fun sections to watch as a spectator, as it feels very much like a short-course track. Small hills and tabletops make the trucks slow down a bit, allowing the audience to see and hear the vehicles for a little while longer before they’re out and off again in the straightaways.
In the time we were there, we saw some of the crowd favorites make their way through, including Lofton, Brett Sourapas, BJ Baldwin, Steve Olliges, and others all had the fire behind them to stay in the race and keep the hammer down. Even Greg Adler, who was out in the same vehicle he had taken to the Ultra4 King of the Hammers, was forging ahead through the up-and-down quarry.
From the quarry, we headed to Spectator Area 1, a straightaway section that ran parallel to South Las Vegas Boulevard. We had missed many of the trucks and buggies, but managed to catch a Class 6100 truck, 6181 being driven by Brett Maurer out of Henderson, Nevada. Spectators confirmed that he had stopped to swap out a busted tire, and he was gone before we knew it.
Minutes went by and we realized that the gaggle of racers had passed Area 1, so we headed south again. One perk of being a credentialed member of the media are those sweet, sweet placards that get you into just about anywhere you want to go. Case in point is Pit B, situated between race miles 70 and 75. Measuring about one mile long, various teams have their crews standing by with an assortment of tools, water, replacement parts, and other essentials that will get the vehicle back on track quickly.
The thing you have to understand about off-road racing pits is that they are nowhere near as simple as the ones you’ll see on road racing. NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One, and so on have anywhere from six to 20 crew members on hand to deal with the car as it pulls in to handle typical issues such as refueling and changing tires.
With off-road racing, the crews are smaller and have to manage anything from a broken axle shaft to a ruptured oil line. These are serious issues and can’t be solved in split-second times like road racers, and often require several minutes, or possibly hours, to repair.
Even the racers themselves will have to deal with stuff on the spot; hence why they carry either built-in hydraulic jacks or heavy-duty floor jacks, along with various parts that are known to fail like the driveshaft, alternator, pumps, and more.
While we were there, we had the opportunity to watch the team for Smiley Motor Sports 6158 truck get its bugs worked out. Driver Tony Smiley reported some feedback from his steering, and upon further investigation it was determined the power steering pump had broken. We didn’t stick around to see it get totally fixed and back on track, but race results showed that Smiley managed to finish, placing 36th overall and fifth in his class.
We got back on the road and drove out to Spectator Area 4, another straightaway running past race mile 75. Race officials designate this area “Thumpers,” likely owing to the series of whoops and washboards that run along the section of the track. It would have left our stock SUV in a ditch, but these racers were going all out along this patch of dirt, with dust flying up behind as they tore across to try and catch up to whomever was in front of them.
Hail The Conquering Hero
We could hardly believe our eyes as Lofton rolled up onto the stage, taking the first place trophy once again for a back-to-back victory here at the Mint 400. As it had done in 2015, the Jimco-built rig carried its young winner through the worst the desert could come up with, and beaten out so many other well-trained, well-experienced, and well-prepared drivers.
Jim Graham of Mad Media provided an after-battle assessment, saying that Lofton had the physical lead going into the second lap, with Jason Voss in the actual lead for time. It was a fierce fight between some of the greatest in off-road racing – names like MacCachren, Laguna, Jones, McMillin, and others – all in the running to overtake one another and come out ahead. But it was the third lap that separated the winners from the also-rans.
Menzies took a DNF, MacCachren fell behind, and in came Lofton with McMillin gaining on him during the last 50 miles of the last lap. McMillin said, “We needed to make up quite a bit of time, so I put the pedal down and let it all hang out.” He was able to drop two minutes from his time split, but alas, it was no good. Lofton had 42 seconds on McMillin, and that was all he needed to secure the victory.
Races like the Mint 400 stick with us — from the spectators to the racers to vendors and everyone else — the journey to Nevada is one that no matter how much we gamble, we always walk away with a good feeling.
We got to see the “last great American race,” and we hope to see many more in the future. Lofton, McMillin, Voss, Sourapas, and Baldwin made valiant efforts to get into the top five, and we congratulate them heartily.
Now, place your bets, folks: who is going to win the 2017 Mint 400?