Jeff Zurschmeide
Mint 400 – Getting Dusty with Off-Road Racing

Mint 400 – Getting Dusty with Off-Road Racing

There are so many different types of racing these days such as Track Racing (F1), Auto Cross, Driving and Off-Road Racing such as Mint 400

And running into Jay Leno in the most unlikely place imaginable

You may love it or you may hate it, but no one does Over-the-Top like Las Vegas. Whether it’s golfing from the roof of your hotel or spending a small fortune on dinner, this city doesn’t do subtle. So it’s fitting that one of the most intense auto racing events in the world is based here, and every year pulls the top desert racing teams from around the world to the southern Nevada desert for a punishing two-day trial of human and mechanical endurance. They call it the Mint 400 – the Great American Off-Road Race.

Desert racing is unlike any other motor sport you’ve seen on TV. There’s no smooth racing surface or caution flags at this kind of event. There are pit crews, of course, but they’re miles away when the driver needs them. In the end, it’s up to the driver and navigator to keep their vehicle going and make it to the end.

We wanted to get a closer look at Mint 400 and the people who compete here, so we journeyed to Las Vegas to see for ourselves what this race is all about.

Off Road Truck Race - Mint 400

Classic Las Vegas

The roots of the Mint 400 go all the way back to 1967 when Frank Sinatra was still a regular on the Vegas marquee and Celine Dion hadn’t even been born. A good old-fashioned Las Vegas casino tycoon named Del Webb was the owner of the Mint Hotel and Casino on Fremont Street. Webb decided to sponsor a big off-road race to promote his hotel.

The event quickly gained stature, with celebrities from the worlds of racing and entertainment showing up to try their hands. Racing drivers like Al Unser, Mickey Thompson, and Parnelli Jones all participated. Movie stars with a racing background like Steve McQueen and James Garner joined teams. Even U.S. astronaut Gordon Cooper took a turn behind the wheel. The Mint 400 soon became one of the biggest media events of the year and continued until 1988, when it abruptly ended.  

The Mint 400 was reinvented in 2008 by off-road racing enthusiast Casey Folks and his Best in the Desert company. The basic format remains the same, but the trucks and buggies that make up the event are completely modern – and much faster than they ever were before. Now the new Mint 400 is 10 years old, and it’s as big a show as Del Webb could ever have dreamed up.

Mint 400 Trophy Truck

Trophy Trucks Aren’t Normal

The Mint 400 as it’s constituted today brings together every kind of off-road racing vehicle. There are 22 different racing classes, so whether you bring an insectoid buggy or a modified compact pickup, there’s a place for you to race. But the stars of the show are the Trophy Trucks. That race is what everyone comes to see.

Without getting into too much detail, the Best in the Desert racing organization calls these massive machines “Trick Trucks,” because the Trophy Truck name belongs to another sanctioning body. But they’re all the same thing: a tube-frame chassis and roll structure with composite bodywork that sort of looks like a truck, and a really big and powerful engine.

“This is Rampage,” explains 2011 Mint 400 winner BJ Baldwin. “I’ve won 5 championships in this truck. It weighs 6,200 pounds, but the suspension works very well and the chassis is strong. Trophy Trucks have to be extremely strong because we’re constantly trying to bend them in half.”

The engine in a Trophy Truck is a breathtaking piece of machinery. A Trophy Truck V8 costs about $75,000 and requires a $20,000 service job after every event. The engines put out about 900 horsepower and up to 900 pound-feet of torque.

“It’s similar to a NASCAR engine,” Baldwin reveals, “but it displaces 485 cubic inches, has twelve-and-a-half-to-one compression, and a 7400 RPM redline. It’ll make 147 miles an hour.”

The suspension on a Trophy Truck is completely designed for off-road racing, with up to 28 inches of travel in the front and 32 inches in the rear. Multiple shock absorbers help the trucks soak up the jumps and the bumps. The radiator is mounted in the “bed” of the truck, along with two spare tires and a bunch of tools for when the drivers break the truck out in the desert

All in, a top-running Trophy Truck will cost about $500,000.

Baldwin qualified in 10th position before the race, but he raced up to a 4th place finish out of 35 Trophy Trucks that entered the Mint 400 this year.

Jay Leno Mint 400

Jay Leno Takes His Turn

The Trophy Trucks are the big show, but the rest of the Mint 400 weekend involves much less expensive and elaborate vehicles, including limited and stock trucks, buggies, and even classes for the venerable Baja Bug and Jeep Cherokee.

This year, good-natured comedian and all-around car guy Jay Leno came to the Mint to race in the Pure-Stock Production Mid-Size Pickup class. This is for late model pickups with a stock drivetrain, so not at all fast by Mint 400 standards, but fast enough for a novice.

Leno landed a seat in Camburg Racing’s Toyota Tacoma, with co-drivers Jerry Zaiden, Fred Williams, and Ryan Millen. The Camburg team brought home the class win, and Leno is always a crowd favourite.  

“It’s fun because we’ve got time in this kind of racing,” Leno told HeyWyre after his race. “You can take two seconds to look at the road and decide how you want to drive it. In an F1 race, those drivers make split-second decisions, but this is a kind of racing at a speed I can enjoy.”

Toyota Tacoma Mint 400

Drive, Fly, or Just Watch

Driving in a desert race is about the most glamorous feat left in modern motorsports. Thousands of people made their way out to the desert to watch the Mint 400 this year. It’s a dusty business, but at the end of the day, the hot showers and top-shelf restaurants of Las Vegas beckon from just beyond the horizon.

Here’s a tip for advanced adventurers. If watching from the ground isn’t for you, there are numerous helicopters based at a small airport about 10 miles from the race encampment, and you can charter an hour in the air chasing the trucks. There really is nothing like tracking the racers from about 100 feet off the deck in a Jet Ranger. Ask me how I know.

The Mint 400 happens every year in March – because you wouldn’t want to be outside in that desert in July. Click here to see Mint 400 official webpage. As Las Vegas goes these days, the number of people coming to the race hardly makes a difference, so you won’t have any trouble finding a room or a dinner reservation. If you’ve been looking for a good reason to make a winter trip to Vegas, you’re welcome.

Freelance automotive, travel, and adventure writer. Extensive publication history including 9 published books. Regular contributor at the Portland Tribune newspaper, Sports Car Market and American Car Collector magazines, SportsCar Magazine, Performance Racing Industry Magazine. Published online at Digital Trends. Education – BA Univ. of Calif, MS Oregon Health & Science Univ.


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