If you’ve never seen a million dollars worth of off-road equipment fly over your head at triple-digit speeds, take my word for it here: It’s something everyone should experience at least once before they die. Tragically, your average person goes their entire lives without seeing this spectacle firsthand, but at the annual Mint 400 off-road race, you’ll find no average people.
Indeed, a great man once said that desert racing attracts a “very special breed” of individual. After spending race week bouncing around the 2022 Mint 400 myself, I’m inclined to agree.
Out here horsepower figures come with a comma, suspension travel is measured in feet rather than inches, and regulations are as sparse as the landscape itself. 400 miles of brutal terrain, rocky wash-outs, and towering whoops await anyone brave enough to throw their hat in the ring for a shot at the crown.
The desert will break most who enter long before they reach the final lap, and every driver here knows that fact long before they pull up to the starting line. It’s dangerous and dusty and even for the top performers who manage to cross the finish line in one piece, there’s only about $10,000 in prize money on the line. So what could possibly drive anyone to drag a million-dollar trophy truck into the middle of the Las Vegas desert to run the Mint 400?
Ask any driver or race fan out here and they’ll all tell you the same thing: It’s a damn good time.
Picture this: A caravan of police vehicles swarm the Las Vegas strip, blocking off every side street and intersection stretching from the Mandalay Bay casino clear down to the rowdy heart of “Old Vegas” that is Fremont Street. The air is still for a moment as tourists crane their necks expecting a motorcade or funeral procession. Perhaps some foreign dignitary made an unannounced stop in Sin City? Could the president be in town?
Suddenly, a terrible rumble swells and pours out into the streets. Then, without warning, a parade of 1,000+ horsepower trophy trucks, banshee two-stroke motocrossers, and wide-open desert buggies materialize, flooding the strip and stretching back as far as the eye can see.
For a brief and beautiful moment, the pummeling bass of dance club music, the screams of rowdy bachelorette parties, and the cries of street hustlers are completely drowned in a sweet symphony of internal combustion. Motorcycles ride wheelies in front of policemen without fear or consequence … 40-inch tires howl across open pavement … The intoxicating aroma of race fuel hangs in the air…
The faint of heart may gasp, cover their ears, and even run for cover, but look closely and you’ll see a select few who hold their ground: Make no mistake, these are race fans, and they’re screaming and raising their drinks to these champions of the desert because they know what comes next.
Wednesday’s parade fades into Thursday’s block party on Fremont Street, and shortly thereafter the streets of Old Vegas are flooded with enthusiasts, racers, and vendors of every description. This is the Mint 400 off-road festival, and nowhere else on the planet can you buy a 30-ounce beer and then only a few short steps away, a $10,000 set of remote bypass shocks. After a full day of festivities, the desert sun sets one last time, and then the pros come out to play Friday morning.
Saturday’s unlimited class trucks may be the headlining event at the Mint, but if you want the authentic experience, Friday’s racing can’t be missed. Friday’s limited class is the wild card of the weekend: Factory backed (and turbo-boosted) UTVs share the circuit with Jeep Wranglers, vintage Volkswagen Bugs, military spec trucks, and this year there was even a lifted stretch limo out on the course.
Friday is also the day you’ll see the year’s latest crop of celebrity drivers test their mettle on the brutal Mint 400 proving grounds, and this year’s lineup included motocross legend Jeremy McGrath, 24 hours of Le Mans champ Davy Jones, and even professional MMA fighter Dan Henderson. Only in Las Vegas, folks.
A trophy truck is a wild thing to conceptualize, and even wilder to see in person. Teams spend anywhere from $500,000 to well over $1,000,000 building these rigs from the ground up with a singular purpose in mind: Go fast over anything and everything.
Outside of sharp turns and the pit lane, these trucks rarely see less than 100 mph, and out on the wide-open stretch of dry lake bed, they outrun even the fastest chase helicopters at speeds over 150 mph. To an outside observer, a trophy truck may sound like a novel idea or even an inconceivable waste of money, but for anyone that’s ever stood next to one as it tears off the starting line, you immediately understand the obsession.
A 1,000+ horsepower V8 is something you feel in your chest as it passes by. It rattles your bones and raises the hair on the back of your neck in all the right ways. The only thing more exciting than getting up close to one of these desert monsters is riding inside of one, but as Mint 400 CEO Matt Martelli reminded me, more people have flown into outer space than have ever driven a trophy truck. A rare breed, indeed.
And that’s OK. Of all the off-road races you can go see in person, the Mint 400 is by far the best place to be a spectator. That’s because where most major desert challenges are point-to-point races like the epic Baja 1000 and legendary Dakar Rally (where vehicles never cross the same spot twice), the Mint 400 hits its 400-mile goal by stringing together multiple laps around a giant course. The biggest and fastest vehicles complete four laps around a roughly 100-mile loop, while smaller and more agile vehicles like the motorcycle class complete six slightly shorter laps on a parallel course.
Every class and group of racers take off in staggered pairs, which means by the time all of the vehicles have finally left the starting line, fans can look forward to a steady stream of action passing by wherever they’re situated along the track. Spectators have the option of (a) sitting in the stands beside the start/finish line and watching vehicles fly off the jumps, (b) driving out to one of several designated parking areas in the open desert for some high speed whoops action, or (c) opting for a VIP pass for access to a shaded seating area, livestreams of the race on multiple TV screens, private restrooms, a private bar, and even meals prepared by professional chefs.
However you choose to watch it, race day at the Mint 400 is not to be missed. If you didn’t get to catch this year’s races, both Friday and Saturday’s livestreams are still available on The Mint’s website. This race is getting bigger, better, and crazier every year, so if you’re ready to join that “very special breed” of Mint 400 fans yourself, you can bet I’ll be seeing you out there for 2023.
A big part of what makes the Mint 400 such a legendary race is its storied history. Believe it or not, what became widely regarded as the world’s “toughest off-road race” started out in 1968 as little more than a public relations event to promote the Mint Hotel’s annual deer hunt. Yes, you read that correctly.
The original route started at the Mint Hotel in Las Vegas and ran all the way to the Sahara Tahoe Hotel in Stateline, Nevada. The reputation and popularity of the Mint 400 grew rapidly from there, and by 1972 the race had adopted its now-famous “giant loop” layout.
The Mint 400 ran steadily through the late 1980s, but when the Mint Hotel was sold to its new owner Jack Binion in 1988, the unthinkable happened: Binion decided he didn’t want the “fast and wild” spectacle of the race associated with his swanky casinos, and chose to shut it down completely.
The Great Desert Race went into hiatus for nearly two decades, surviving only through legend and word of mouth by those who had seen it firsthand so long before. The future seemed uncertain, but the off-road racing community always finds a way. In 2008, the Mint 400 reemerged from the dust thanks to the backing of industry sponsors and the support of the Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts organization (ironically abbreviated SNORE).
Now in 2022, it’s safe to say that the Mint 400 has returned to (if not surpassed) its glory years, and all while remaining true to its roots. Where else can you find a major off-road race where anyone with a truck, motorcycle, or buggy is free to go racing (so long as they pass a safety inspection)? Where else can you find a 100cc Coleman mini-bike with a pull-start engine racing on the same course as a 6,000-pound desert runner? Only at the Mint 400, baby, and the Mint 400 is here to stay.
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