Survival Of The Fittest In The Nevada High Desert
The Mint 400 is to desert racing what the Indy 500 is to the oval track. Today, the Mint remains one of the oldest desert races in existence. It all started back in 1968 when a public relations director at the Las Vegas Mint Hotel, Norm Johnson, came up with a plan to create an event that would attract visitors and bring in additional revenue. Centered around Fremont Street in what is now the old downtown area of Las Vegas, the racers would arrive on a Thursday, go through tech inspection on Friday, and race on Saturday. The format was wildly successful for fans, media and local hotels and casinos. For more than 20 years, the Mint 400 enjoyed steady growth. Its reputation as the toughest off-road race in the USA attracted big-time television stars like James Garner and Lee Majors, along with crossover racecar drivers Al and Bobby Unser, who at the time were among the best in Indy-car racing.
The Mint was a super-demanding race; as such, simply finishing it earned teams bragging rights that few other motorsport events could match. Each year, event organizers would plot out a course through some of the most unforgiving terrain in the Mojave Desert and then turn the teams loose. Usually, fewer than half of the racers would complete all 400 miles. The race course comprised four 100-mile loops, and event organizers maximized media exposure and fanfare while racers battled it out right before their eyes. The Mint gave independent racers and low-buck weekend warriors a chance at glory; it was open to everyone, regardless of sponsorship or affiliation.
In 1975, the event had reached its pinnacle. The world of motorsports watched as an astonishing 354 vehicles and 51 motorcycles converged to battle it out for a share of just over $100,000 in cash payouts.
As the years passed, rising insurance costs gave the Mint 400 a lackluster reputation with promoters and event organizers. By 1988, the old downtown area of Las Vegas was in dire need of revitalization. The Mint 400 race was put on hold when the Mint Hotel was sold to a more risk-averse group of investors. The hiatus continued for over 20 years.
In 2008, General Tire, along with Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts (SNORE), revived the Mint 400 race. Together, the two organizations hoped to continue the tradition and allow the Mint 400 to blossom once again. We're happy to report that their plan succeeded. This year, some 250 race teams, in over 20 different vehicle classes-some from as far away as China-battled it out for a slice of $40,000 in prize money. New for 2009, the course was moved east of Las Vegas to an area known as the Moapa Indian Reservation, about eight miles west of Glendale, Nevada. The new route was picked largely because of its terrain similarities to previous Mint 400 races. Maintaining the format of previous Mint races, the course would punish teams four times over the same 100.6-mile loop.
A Field Of One
Today, the Stock Full class is by far the most grueling class in the desert, and it is arguably the closest representation of the type of vehicles that were used in the glory days of the Mint 400. Stock Full trucks are big, heavy vehicles, based on fullsize production rigs that begin life at dealerships. No fancy tubular chassis or high-end one-off masterpieces of fabrication-just basic trucks and SUVs that are limited to factory suspension design and other components such as steering and control arms. Basic safety items such as rollcages and fuel cells are mandated, but otherwise, the vehicle must remain largely stock. Since the Stock Full rules do not allow racers to modify or reinforce critical components, you have to drive smart.
Combine these vehicular limitations with the brutal terrain found in eastern Nevada's desert, it's no wonder that Kent Kroeker's Stock Full Dodge Power Wagon was the only vehicle in its class. For Kroeker, the challenge was not beating other vehicles, but finishing the race in the allotted 17-hour time limit. Even a short distance in a Stock Full race truck on this type of terrain takes a sizable toll on your physical and mental health. Because of this, Kroeker tried to spread the racing burden out among a core group of individuals he refers to as his warriors, giving each driver and co-driver equal opportunity for agony.
Kroeker's General Tire Dodge Power Wagon is one mean Stock Full Truck. It sports a 600hp 5.7L Hemi and will do 120 mph flat-out. Combine that with four-foot whoops, rocky crossgrain, and 10 inches of travel, and you get one thing: Pain.
Riding in the right seat, navigating for Kroeker during the start was epic. The driving style is straightforward: Simply mash into anything and everything as fast as you can while trying to remain conscious and keep the truck together. It's like getting punched in the kidneys continuously while trying to speed through busy traffic in low visibility. Oh, and don't hit any rocks. If you black out and hit a big enough rock, it could be game over.
Even if you don't hit anything, stuff still breaks. In the first 100 miles, Kroeker and Stover passed the entire Trophy Lite field, most of the Class 7 trucks, and all of the nine cars. Then the two lost the transfer case, costing the team nearly an hour of race time to replace it. Kroeker's right-hand man, John "Zambo" Zambie, took over driving duties for Lap Two. He snapped a driveshaft, setting the effort back even further. For the final two laps, desert veteran Rudy Iribe took over. After about 50 miles, the steering broke. With no support vehicles allowed on course and no visual cues, the team was forced to locate the truck with grid coordinates and then Kroeker and his dad had to physically run the replacement parts out to the truck, on foot-six miles! Talk about tough.
With over five hours of downtime, Iribe had to drive like a madman just to finish under the time limit. The team made it to the checkers in 16 hours 59 minutes and 2 seconds, netting a win with only 58 seconds to spare.
This is what it takes. It's also why Stock Full racers are a special breed-hard as nails, mildly deranged, and willing to do anything to get the truck across the line.
PhotosView Photo Gallery
|2009 Mint 400 Results|
|Class: Trophy Truck (unlimited)|
|Rick D. Johnson||8:40:52|
|Class: 8 (full size, unlimited w/ frame)|
|Ted Hunnicutt, Jr||11:22:17|
|Class: 3 (short wheelbase 4x4)|
|Class: Stock Full (full size production vehicles)|
Designing Tires for Desert Racing
The General Tire brand was at one time one of the biggest players in the off-road racing community. However, like the Mint 400 race, industry climate changes occurred that prevented General Tire from continuing their support of desert racing. Then, in 2007, General Tire's directors decided to return the company to its competitive roots and develop an R&D strategy that would eventually turn out a portfolio of light-truck production tires for the masses. We asked General Tire's light-truck tire division manager, Tony Talbert, about General's new Grabber competition tire, and specifically how desert racing influences the design and production of passenger-car tires. His observations:
"The critical point in designing the Grabber competition tire was that we wanted to use technology that allowed the tire to excel in the most severe desert racing conditions and be transferable to a streetable version. It has always been our goal in going racing, prior to offering an extreme traction tire to the general public, to develop the technology that was race-worthy and then introduce the street version of the tire with that same technology. In essence, when the Grabber street line is introduced later this year, everyone will be able to buy a tire born from and incorporating racing technology. Two key technologies that we have developed for the competition tire are the Duragen casing and innovative "Strake and Chamfer" tread design.
The Duragen technology involves both the steel belts and body casing. We use technology that has strengthened the steel belts to the point that the steel belts in one tire are strong enough to lift a Baja Trophy Truck. This translates into a stronger, more durable race and street tire. The Strake and Chamfer tread design is a pattern that at first glance doesn't look extremely aggressive. However, the strake-or sweeping groove across the tread-allowed our designers to open, or chamfer, the corners of the tread blocks to give direct block interface with the terrain. The result is very aggressive traction in a pattern that is very stable at speed."