||The neutrality of this article is disputed. (July 2014)|
The Mint 400 is the oldest active desert off-road race in America, and is held annually near Las Vegas, Nevada. It began in 1967, and is considered to be one of the most challenging and prestigious automobile races in the world. The race features an average of 350 competitors spread across 20 classes of vehicles, from million dollar unlimited “Trophy” or “Trick” trucks – to virtually stock VW Bugs often referred to as “Class 11” cars. The Mint 400 race course is made up of 100 miles of the most challenging desert terrain in North America. It features jagged rock; deep silt, cactus, highs-speed dry lakebeds, tight Joshua tree forests, and a custom built short-course style off-road park allowing spectators a bird’s eye view of the race. Because the course is so difficult, some classes are only required to complete two or three laps, while the unlimited classes including the overall champion must complete all four laps or 400 miles total. Typically, less than half of those who start the race ever finish.
Hunter S. Thompson enshrined the Mint 400 in the American mainstream consciousness when he wrote about it for his article “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, for Rolling Stone magazine in 1972. For nearly five decades the “Great American Off Road Race”, has attracted top racers, movie stars and celebrities from around the world.
The early years
In 1967 Norm Johnson organized the first “Mint 400 Off-Road Rally” to promote the Mint Hotel's deer hunting season contest. Johnson sent two matching Meyers Manx dune buggies driven by LeRoy Wickham and John Sexton across 600 miles of scorching desert, from The Mint Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, to the Sahara Tahoe Hotel in Lake Tahoe, California. They were accompanied by a photographer with the Las Vegas News Bureau. The trip took six days and cost $560. National media coverage caught the attention of race teams and off-road enthusiasts everywhere - and the endurance race became famous overnight.
For 1968, the race was rebranded the "Del Webb Mint 400 Desert Rally" and the date changed to April from August. Organizers increased the budget to $25,000 and offered a guaranteed purse of $15,000. Contingency sponsors, which included Gates Tires, Champion Spark Plugs and Gabriel Shocks, increased the total purse to more than $30,000. This was unique in that races typically offered prize money as a percentage of the entry fee - which varied from race to race.
Mapping the 400 mile course, which would run from Las Vegas to Beatty, Nevada, and back, required permission from 60 landowners and the Bureau of Land Management, which eventually agreed to permit it at the cost of $5 per race vehicle.
Technical inspection, staffed largely by casino employees, took place in the Mint parking lot. To pass inspection, vehicles were required to have a roll bar and seat belts with harnesses. 109 vehicles entered the race, 101 started and 32 finished. Notable entrants included Parnelli Jones and NASCAR driver Mel Larson. Neither finished.
Mint Hotel VP and General Manager Bill Bennett, along with the hotel’s director of publicity and promotion, Bob Plummer, hired Larson to be race director. One of the first changes Larson and race publicist Bill Bray implemented was a switch from a single 400 mile loop to eight 50-mile laps run over two days, allowing teams to repair their vehicles overnight. The change made it easier for press to cover the race and gave spectators more chances to catch their favorite teams.
For 1969, the race budget was increased to $98,000 with a guaranteed purse of $30,000. The Mint Hotel owners signed a contract with the newly formed International Desert Racing Association to promote the second annual race and the course was changed again to a 50-mile loop with four laps run on a Monday and four on a Tuesday, with the start/finish line at a gun club and gambling facility at Tule Springs on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
The race drew national media coverage including Life Magazine, sports writers from around the country as well as international coverage from Japan and Germany - a total of 256 registered members of the press. 188 teams entered the race, including Parnelli Jones, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, off-road racer Mickey Thompson, actor Lee Majors and comedian Shecky Green, who campaigned a VW Beetle painted like Herbie from the film The Love Bug - which he starred in. Only 39 percent of the starters completed all the laps.
For 1970, the budget was increased to more than $130,000 with a guaranteed purse of $50,000. The race transitioned to an independent event with no sanctioning body and the decision was made, for safety reasons, to run the motorcycles on a Monday and the cars and trucks on a Tuesday.
287 teams - the largest field ever assembled for an off road event - entered the race. Mike Patrick and Phil Bowers, riding a Yamaha, took overall in motorcycles, repeating their 1969 win and becoming the first back-to-back champions. Drino Miller and Vic Wilson, campaigning a new Hy-Bred single seat vehicle, took the overall win in the car class.
1970 also saw the creation of the first Mint 400 Commemorative Jim Beam bottles, which became an annual gift to racers as part of their entry fee.
For 1971, the budget was increased to $145,000 with a guaranteed purse of $60,000. Safety requirements were increased to include a full roll cage, which resulted in the 1971 race-winning Hy-Bred to be illegal and it did not race. The race entry fee increased to $300, which included the commemorative bottle of whiskey, two race jackets, patches, t-shirts, tickets to the awards dinner and a race program.
Fritz Kroyer, driving a new single seat vehicle dubbed the Hi-Jumper, won overall with a time of 13 hours, 30 minutes. Vegas-based motorcycle rider Max Switzer, teamed with 1968 bike winner J.N. Roberts, took the motorcycle category on a Husqvarna.
For 1972, the guaranteed purse increased to $70,000 and the entry fee increased to $385. 390 teams entered, including 84 motorcycles. It was also the last year for the start/finish at Tule Springs, which drivers complained was tremendously silty. Only 32 percent of the vehicles completed the race. Fritz Kroyer won in the car class, becoming the first back-to-back winner in a car. Rolf Tibblin and Bob Gross, sharing time on a Husqvarna, were first on the motorcycles.
Also in 1972, Mel Larson was promoted to Director of Publicity and Advertising, entering the race as co-driver for astronaut Gordon Cooper in a two-seat car.
The 1973 race was remembered as the first to include rain, snow and sleet. The budget climbed to $160,000, entry fees increased to $400. The entry list topped at 406, including 101 motorcycles, however only 28 percent of the field finished.
The actual race start and main pits were relocated to Jean, Nevada, and several drivers got a late start when a group of them took a wrong turn during the parade and headed out toward Tule Springs. In a section of the race passing through Sandy Valley, snow, sleet and winds gusting to 50 miles per hour forced vehicles to stop due to low visibility and several drivers reported frozen carburetors. Five-time entrant and Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones (with co-driver Bill Stroppe) took his first win in the purpose-built Ford Bronco “Big Oly”. Several car drivers, wearing summer racing clothes, were treated for frostbite.
Motorcycle riders, who raced the day before, enjoyed warm weather. Rolf Tibblin took his second win, teamed with Mitch Mayes on a Husqvarna.
Mel Larson, who had led development of the race since 1969, retired after the 1973 race.
Organizers cancelled the 1974 running of the Mint 400 due to the oil crisis.
The race returned in 1975 with a new four-lap, 100 mile course that included a speedrome for the start/finish area, main pits and bleachers for spectators. The budget increased to $190,000 which included a $100,000 purse, funding for the first environmental impact study and monitors on the course.
Race car and truck entries climbed to 354, but motorcycle entries dropped to 51, believed to be a result of reduced factory support for independent racers. Tech inspection took place over two days on Fremont Street. Las Vegas teenager Jack Johnson, teamed with Mark Mason rode a Yamaha to victory in the motorcycle class. Gene Hirst, who won the first Mint 400 in 1968, teamed with Rick Mears in a Sandmaster Hustler.
For 1976, the race moved to April from March, to bring more people to the Fremont Street area during a seasonally slow month. 347 car teams and 97 motorcycle teams left the start line but only 62 cars and 19 motorcycles completed the race. Gene Hirst, teamed with Bobby Ferro took overall in the cars with a Sandmaster Hustler and became the first to win three Mint 400 championships. Jack Johnson, teamed with Rolf Tibblin, took top honors in the motorcycle class.
1988 to 1989
The future of the Mint 400 race came into question in 1988 following the sale of Del Webbs Mint Hotel and Casino to next door neighbor Jack Binion owner of the Horseshoe Club. However as a testament to the race itself, the prestige and importance of the event created by veteran race director K J Howe and the Mint management team and the financial benefit this promotion brought to the City of Las Vegas, under new ownership the annual Mint 400 Off Road Race continued to be run in 1988 and 1989.
Unfortunately, two years removed from previous ownership and upper management that were themselves race competitors and motorsport enthusiasts, who understood and appreciated the importance of this event to the sport of off road racing and the local community and; now owned by an individual that once remarked the race, its competitors, tech inspection on Fremont Street and surrounding ancillary activities, was a negative impact on gambling and his Bingo players, the rougest and toughest racing event on U. S. soil was gone following the 1989 Mint 400 event. Considered a motor racing icon, on the level of the SCORE Baja 1000, a legendary event was dead and a historic era in off road racing had come to an untimely end.
Resurrected in 2008
The Mint went dormant for nearly twenty years – but was resurrected by longtime sponsor General Tire with help from Southern Nevada Off Road Enthusiasts (SNORE). General Tire has been the title sponsor of the race ever since. SNORE eventually sold the franchise to film and television producers Matt and Joshua Martelli – marking the next significant chapter in the Mints evolution. The race resumed on March 29, 2008. The race was preceded by inspections of the vehicles on Fremont Street in the Fremont East district.
In 2012 The Martelli Brothers partnered with off-road industry veteran Casey Folks, owner of the largest off-road desert racing organization in the world, the Best In The Desert Racing Association. The Mint was added to the Best in the Desert championship schedule, and a new one hundred mile race loop was carved out for the epic 400-mile contest. The number of entries swelled to an astounding three hundred and twenty three race teams, making the Mint 400 one of the largest off-road races in the world.
In 2013 The Martelli Brothers featured a brand new event called the KMC Wheels Pit Crew Challenge! Sixteen pit crews from the top unlimited truck teams competed in a head-to-head battle to decide who had the best crew. Each of the three-man teams were given one jack, one impact gun, and one spare tire. The team who completed two tire changes the fastest, advanced to the next round. Over 10,000 spectators on Fremont Street, showed up to cheer on the teams. After several close and heated rounds the General Tire/THR team, which included drivers Mikey Childress, Rick Johnson, and crew member James Walker - out pitted the field to win the inaugural KMC Wheels Pit Crew Challenge.
Unlimited Trick Truck. Also known as Trophy Truck. No restrictions on horsepower or suspension. Must retain the appearance of a truck.
Same as SCORE Class 1. Unlimited open wheel buggies. No restrictions on horsepower or suspension. One or two seat configuration.
Must use one of two crate motor options and must resemble a truck. Must use tires 37 inches or less in height and must use a turbo 400 transmission.
An open class, any mini or mid-size truck may be used. Engine options are open to any production V6; turbochargers are allowed. Must resemble a truck or SUV and can not exceed 85 inches track width.
Open-wheel four cylinder buggy. Can run stock sealed Chevy Ecotec motor, stock sealed Ford 2.0 liter EcoBoost motor, water-cooled Honda/Toyota motor or an air-cooled VW engine. One or two seat configuration.
Open full-size production truck class. Must resemble a truck or SUV and must retain original suspension concept (A-arm, I-beam etc.) Must retain stock frame rails.
Also known as Class 10 light, it is the same as SCORE Class 12. Open wheel buggy with unlimited VW type front suspension (beam front end). Class can utilize stock sealed Ford 2.0 EcoBoost four cylinder motor, or air-cooled VW Type 1 motor (1776cc for single seat or 1835cc for two seat configuration.)
1600cc VW engine with 55 3⁄4-inch track width restriction. One or two seat configuration. Must run carburetor restrictor plate depending on number of seats. (Single seat = 21.5mm. Two seat = 24.0mm)
Also known as Pro Truck. Limited to older spec full size trucks. V8 Ford or Chevy. Must run spec shocks, wheels, engine and chassis.
Also known as a short wheelbase Class 10 cars or Desert Lites. Must retain a 103-inch wheelbase for transaxle vehicles or 111-inch wheelbase for live axle vehicles. Two seat configuration only. Must be powered by stock sealed Ecotec motor.
Open class unlimited VW bug. Also known as Trophy Bug. Any four cylinder air or water-cooled VW concept engine or any manufacturer's four cylinder water-cooled engine of 2.5 liters or less is permitted.
Stock production full size truck. Must retain stock suspension components, including stock frame rails, stock cab, etc.
1600cc Type 1 VW motor is mandatory. Must use VW bug body and must retain stock 105-inch wheelbase.
Also known as Ultra 4. Four-wheel drive vehicles that are typically used for rock racing, often described as a “run what you brung” class.
Two or four-wheel drive mini or mid-size pickups. Vehicles must have been series produced in quantities of at least 5,000 units within a 12-month period. Vehicle must be marketed as a mini or mid-sized pickup and be readily available to the general public in the USA.
Also known as Sportsman class. Any vehicle passing tech inspection can enter this class. Entry fee and prize money is lower than other classes. Vehicles typically start at the rear of all other classes.
Same as Jeepspeed 1 but with fewer restrictions.
Also known as Jeepspeed 1. Based on a stock Jeep XJ (Cherokee). Must use off-the-shelf suspension.
Based on production UTVs. Can be any manufacturer. Must utilize stock suspension mounting points and stock chassis.
First Overall 83 & 84 Jim & Billy Wright
- 1970 Mike Patrick, Phil Bowers - Yamaha
- 1971 Max Switzer, J.N. Roberts 9:54:5 
- 1972 Rolf Tibblin, Bob Gross - Husqvarna
- 1973 Rolf Tibblin, Mitch Mayes - Husqvarna.
- 1974 Race cancelled
- 1975 Jack Johnson, Mark Mason - Yamaha
- 1976 Jack Johnson, Rolf Tibblin
- 1970 Drino Miller, Vic Wilson 9:54:5
- 1971 Fritz Kroyer, Bill Harkey 13:30:42
- 1972 Fritz Kroyer
- 1973 Parnelli Jones, Bill Stroppe
- 1974 Race cancelled
- 1975 Gene Hirst, Rick Mears
- 1976 Gene Hirst, Bobby Ferro
- 2009 Andy McMillin
- 2010 Roger Norman
- 2011 BJ Baldwin
- 2012 Robby Gordon
- 2013 Bryce Menzies
- 2014 Andy McMillin
Entrants have included some of the most well-known names from all racing genres as well as the television and motion picture industry. Indianapolis 500 winners Parnelli Jones, Al Unser, Rick Mears and Rodger Ward; off-road champions Mickey Thompson, Ivan Stewart, Jack Flannery, Walker Evans; international off road competitor Rod Hall; power boat champion Bill Muncey; movie and television stars James Garner, Steve McQueen, Lee Majors and Larry Wilcox; comedians Mort Sahl and Shecky Green; astronaut Gordon Cooper and rock musician Ted Nugent are among the many racing and entertainment luminaries who competed in the Mint 400.
Mint 400 girls
K.J. Howe, Mint Hotel executive and longtime Mint 400 Race Director, conceived "The Girls of the Mint 400" in 1972 to add glamor and PR value to the race. Each year the Mint racing committee chose a contingent of women to reign over the events' activities. Local media representatives would help select the final ten from the hundreds of entries received from contestants from around the US, Canada, Mexico and Europe. The Mint racing committee would select the final five who became known as the Mint 400 girls. This group includes Lynda Carter (who portrayed Wonder Woman in the television series) and Wheel of Fortune's Vanna White. Mint 400 Girls Tracy Vaccaro and Dona Speir were Playboy centerfolds and Vickie Reigle graced Playboy's cover subsequent to their Mint 400 publicity. Lisa Soulé, Anita Merritt, Angela Aames, Lisa Hunter and Suzanne Regard later appeared in various movies and television series as well as Mint Hotel and Casino advertising campaigns.
The Miss Mint contest was revived along with the race with the goal to become the premiere beauty contest in motorsports. In 2012 the prize purses were increased dramatically, driving up the number of entrants to nearly double from previous years. The contingent of beautiful off-road women competed for a combination of online votes and judges’ votes. After a heated online battle and tens of thousands of votes – the competition was narrowed down to three lucky ladies. The talented Vanessa Golub-Ferrara was picked as The 2012 General Tire Miss Mint. She walked away with five thousands dollars and a Dirtsports Magazine cover photo shoot.
In 2014 the coveted Miss Mint was narrowed down to 10 finalist that competed against each other in a series of questions during The Mint 400's KMC Wheels Pit Crew Challenge. On legendary Freemont street in Vegas the new Miss Mint was crowned Dani Mathers. The prize package was more than ever before, Dani walked away with five thousand dollars, a Dirt Sports Magazine cover and a new Honda Civic from Metro Honda Acura Dealership.
Impact on journalism
Hunter S. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas depicts the 1971 race in one of the earliest and best known instances of gonzo journalism. His suggestion that he would ride a Vincent Black Shadow (one of the fastest production road bikes ever made) was most likely tongue-in-cheek, since this bike is too large for off-road riding and the last one produced would have been 16 years old by that time. The Mint is also featured in the film based on Thompson's book.
Television and movies
Hunter S. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was later made into a feature film in 1998 starring Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp. The movie became a cult classic, solidifying The Mint’s place in American pop culture.
- "News at 11PM". KLAS-TV. 2008-03-29.
- "Vegas Rider Finally Wins Mint Jackpot", dated between March 21 and 23, 1971 , Las Vegas Sun, Retrieved January 7, 2007
-  "Champs Aren't Disqualified", dated between March 21 and 23, 1971, Las Vegas Sun, Retrieved January 7, 2007, Warning: PDF file
-  "California Pair Take Mint 400", dated between March 21 and 23, 1971, Las Vegas Sun, Retrieved January 7, 2007, Warning: PDF file
- "Buggies roll at night", dated between March 21 and 23, 1971 , Las Vegas Sun, Retrieved January 7, 2007
-  "Miss Mint", Mint 400, Retrieved January 7, 2013
- www.themint400.com, revival of Mint 400
- www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5NOuEHS7Fc, 2010 Mint 400 Trailer
- www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJSfzkGGz24, 2011 Mint 400 Trailer
- www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZbCehtMR7c, 2012 Mint 400 Trailer