Freshly minted desert race

Organizers hope to restore luster to a classic of yesteryear, the Mint 400 off-road race

The Mint 400, which is being revived this week after a 20-year hiatus, started at the old Fremont Street casino of the same name in 1968. Billed as “The Great American Desert Race,” it ran for more than 20 years and served as the backdrop for Hunter S. Thompson’s novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Tuesday, March 25, 2008 | 2 a.m.

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One attraction will not be revived

Not every aspect of the original Mint 400 is being revived by Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts, the volunteer off-road racing group that is putting on this weekend’s event.
The original incarnation of the Mint 400 included the “Mint 400 Girls,” a group of attractive young women employed to promote the race. An annual contest held to select the winners, the brainchild of former Mint Hotel and Casino executive KJ Howe, was among the most popular prerace events and drew entries from around the world.
Among the notable personalities who served as Mint 400 Girls were Vanna White of “Wheel of Fortune” fame, “Wonder Woman” Lynda Carter and former Playboy Playmate and actress Linda Vacarro.
This year’s race will not feature any such contest but SNORE officials said they may have one for future races.
Howe, who also served as the Mint 400 race director in the ’70s and early ’80s and was a regular competitor, said he plans to race a lap in this year’s event.
Click to enlarge photo
Tech inspection for the Mint 400 in 1968 was held on Fremont Street. The prerace event drew thousands each year, but race organizers this year were not granted permission to use the same space, which is now covered by the Fremont Street canopy.
“In some circles, the ‘Mint 400’ is a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one.”
— Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”
With apologies to the Baja 1000, now considered the granddaddy of off-road races, the Mint 400 quite possibly is the most famous desert race in the world. At least it was, during its run from 1968 to 1988.
In addition to serving as the backdrop for Hunter S. Thompson’s groundbreaking novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the Mint 400 was the event for serious racers from all disciplines as well as actors, entertainers and even astronauts. During its heyday, the race attracted Indianapolis 500 winners such as Parnelli Jones, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears, off-road racing pioneers Mickey Thompson, Walker Evans and Ivan Stewart, actors James Garner and Steve McQueen and astronaut Gordon Cooper.
The brainchild of Norm Johnson, the former publicity director of Del Webb’s Mint Hotel and Casino, the Mint 400 annually drew tens of thousands of spectators (estimates ran as high as 100,000 some years) to Fremont Street for tech inspection — much to the delight of local businesses.
Now, 20 years after its demise (the race foundered for several years after 1988 under a different name and sponsor before folding), a local volunteer group of desert racers has copyrighted the “Mint 400” name and this weekend will attempt to recapture the spirit of the original event.
But is that possible? Johnson, who dreamed up the race in 1967 as a publicity stunt for the Mint, thinks it is.
“I think it’s fabulous, I really do,” Johnson, 75, said. Now an artist and an open-road racer, Johnson is serving as a consultant for Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts, which is putting on the race.
Contrary to popular belief, the Mint 400 was a hit even before Thompson’s novel appeared as a two-part series in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. A review of the inaugural race in National Speed Sport News by longtime motor sports journalist Chris Economaki gave the race instant credibility.
“He actually proclaimed it a classic in its own time,” Johnson said, adding that the race ballooned in the second and third years. “I think it was around the fifth year that we had 400-some entries.”
The original Mint 400 started at the end of Fremont Street and ran through the desert from Las Vegas to Beatty and back. Subsequent races were started in the desert north of where Floyd Lamb State Park now sits, at the old Mint Gun Club, and took various routes around the valley. This year’s Mint 400 will be contested on a 96-mile loop in the desert east of Interstate 15 between Jean and Primm, over some of the same terrain used by Mint 400 races in the ’70s and ’80s. And, like the original version of the race, this year’s event has been a hit with off-road racers who no doubt are drawn by the mystique of the Mint 400 name — even though the race has been dormant for two decades.
“The response to this has been beyond what we expected,” said Ken Freeman, a member of SNORE’s board of directors and a competitor in this weekend’s race. “We had expected about 160 to 180 entries and we’re going to end up with about double what we were looking at.”
Freeman’s group must cap the number of race vehicles at 325 in accordance with Bureau of Land Management guidelines and he said he expects to have a full field when the green flag drops at 7 a.m. Saturday.
The only thing that bugs Johnson about the Mint 400 revival is that tech inspection Thursday and Friday won’t be held under the Fremont Street Experience canopy — the original site before there was a canopy — but will be conducted instead on Fremont Street east of Las Vegas Boulevard.
“Downtown wouldn’t allow them to line up where they originally lined up,” Johnson said. “They’re going to make them line up down in the old section. If they wanted to bring the race back, they should be able to do it the right way and the city should allow them to be downtown.”
Freeman said the group’s plan to hold tech inspection on Fremont Street originally was met with resistance from downtown businesses — in part because of last year’s Vegas Grand Prix street race that shut off access to much of downtown during Easter weekend.
“We got it across to them that this was a traveling car show, basically, and that the fans were going to be there and it was not going to block anything off and the race doesn’t take place here,” Freeman said. “I guess they had a bad taste in their mouth from the Las Vegas Grand Prix (but) we’re going to bring people here and it’s not going to hurt the access at all. Once that was figured out, they came onboard.”
And, with that, a legend was reborn. Courtesy Las Vegas Sun

OFF-ROAD LIVE Coverage of the MINT 400 begins Wednesday, March 23, 2011


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