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Hourglass - The Sandmaster Wins The 1975 Mint 400

Posted in Features on August 15, 2014
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North Las Vegas, Nevada, April 1975 Don Arnett, the Sandmaster boss, celebrates with his drivers Gene Hirst and Rick Mears in an impromptu winners circle after winning the Mint 400. Race director K.J. Howe looks on while drinking down a cold beer, which was well earned after he drove his own car in the race.

Sandmaster was the winningest team in the business. Hirst and teammate Bobby Ferro won so many races that their list of wins wouldn’t fit on a team T-shirt. Managed by the hard-charging, ex-racers Arnett and business co-owner Scott McKenzie (who handled the car building and race prep), the team was almost unbeatable. Only Parnelli Jones and his Big Oly Bronco put a dent in their long list of wins.

To make Sandmaster’s one-two punch even deadlier, Rick Mears was added to the team for this race. He was one-third of the talented Mears Gang—a Bakersfield, California, team that included his dad, Bill, and brother, Roger. The three had also won their share of events, especially in shortcourse buggy racing. However, no one at the time could envision that Rick would go on to win four Indianapolis 500s, tying for the title of most wins at the famous Brickyard with A.J. Foyt.

“Pappy,” as Hirst was nicknamed, was an old-time motorcycle racer, as was Bobby Ferro, but both moved up to desert buggies about 1968. The astute Sandmaster management team put both of them on the payroll early and they started winning races, usually driving separate vehicles. Hirst preferred the Hustler chassis, in which he sat more upright and had rear gear reduction; Ferro liked the more laid down, sleek Funco chassis. Both were VW powered.

It was said of Hirst, the rougher the course, the more he liked it, which meant there was plenty for him to like in the Mint 400. Sharp volcanic rock laid in wait for racers on at least 15 miles of the course, making tires especially vulnerable

“This is the first time the race was run north of Las Vegas, in the area we call the ‘Rock Garden,’” said K.J. of that 1975 race. “It’s the roughest off-road race anywhere, and many drivers want us to keep it that way. But we had to cancel last year’s race [1974] because of the fuel crisis. President Ford sent us a thank-you letter for being responsible race promoters—us and the Sebring (Florida) endurance race.”

• Sandmaster was a pioneer in the sandbuggy industry. The company developed the Claimjumper kit car in 1968 and sold more than 500 to other racers and recreational users.

• Hirst and Ferro, with the help of racers Johnny Johnson and Rick James, put Sandmaster on the record books with a record 5 consecutive overall wins at the Mint.

• Although not under the Del Webb Corporation since the 1980s, the Mint race continues to thrive under the leadership of the Martelli Brothers, a mediabased company in California. “I think they are doing one hell of a job with that race,” said K.J. recently. “They really promote the event well, and with Casey Folks’ and Best in the Desert’s involvement, I’m impressed. I think they’ve got a winner.”

• Sandmaster the business morphed into McKenzies, run by Scott McKenzie. In 1988, the business was sold to Jeff Quinn, who kept the McKenzies name.

Vaya con Dios

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