In 1967, what started as a publicity event became the biggest off-road race in the country. Mint Hotel employee Norm Johnson organized the first-ever “Mint 400 Off-Road Rally” to promote and publicize The Mint’s annual Deer Hunt. Norm sent two matching dune buggies across 600 miles of scorching desert, from The Mint Hotel in Las Vegas to the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe, California. It then became a legitimate race in 1968, and the coverage by national television caught the attention of race fans everywhere—and the event became famous almost overnight.
The second year it was run, Johnson enlisted the help of a few friends, one of which was Parnelli Jones. They enticed many racers who had participated in the Stardust 7-11 off-road events also held out of town near Las Vegas. The race was for both four-wheeled vehicles and motorcycles, until 1977. Entrants of the event came from all over the world and included Indy 500 winners Al and Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Rodger Ward, and, of course, Parnelli. Film celebrities who raced were Steve McQueen, James Garner, Larry Wilcox, and Troy Donahue. Rocker Ted Nugent was also a popular addition to the lineup.
The overall and class winners of the event, reads like a who’s who among off-road champions. Bud Feldkamp, Malcolm Smith, Walker Evans, Don Rountree, Jim Temple, Ivan Stewart, Fritz Kroyer, Jack Johnson, Rod Hall, and the list goes on and on. The race ran over basically three different courses during its history. The first venue (if one can call boulders, silt, and snakes a venue) was run north of Las Vegas near the Mint owned “Gun Club,” where hotel employees and patrons could go shooting without hitting anything civilized. It ran there from 1968 until 1972, but because of pending development in the area, in 1973, the course was moved south of Las Vegas near Jean. Jean now is known for the Gold Strike Hotel & Gambling Hall, but at the time, the only place for food and drink was a small casino, Pop’s Oasis.
The racecourse started just south of Jean, out in the desert, and ran under the 1-15, to the west towards Goodsprings and the Sandy Valley in a giant loop back to Jean. Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe won that race in their Big Oly Bronco under rainy skies and, later that day, tornado force winds that demolished the operations and VIP tents near the finish, sending fans running.
In 1974, because of the ‘gas crisis’ shortage, in a show of good faith, both the Mint race and the Baja 1000 were not run, but both resumed the next year, 1975. It was held on a different racecourse, but start/finish was in the same spot, near Jean.
For the ’76 event, the course moved north to North Las Vegas. The rough terrain, it was felt, was a real equalizer among the classes for a resticted class car to win overall or to do very well in the overall standings. The Start/Finish line was a in a modest racetrack called the Las Vegas Speedrome, where the Las Vegas Speedway now resides. The course ran north of the Speedrome, then under I-15 to the west and north to the fabled ‘rock garden’, which became world famous.
When this author went on an off-road trip to Russia and Kazakstan in ‘93, the German organizer was the publisher of Off-Road Magazine Germany, and kept referring to the Mint ‘rock garden’ as being the roughest desert you could imagine, although he had never been there.
The ‘Garden” did live up to its reputation, Drivers swore that the bowling-ball sized (and sharp edged too) rocks jumped out to attack your tires during both the race and pre-running. It was a foolish thing not to have at least 2 spare tires when just driving near the area. The dry lakes in the middle of the track were also very treacherous for getting stuck and the dust during the race was thick. In many places during the race, visibility was extremely limited.
North of the rock garden, a large chunk of the course ran on Indian reservation land, almost to Moapa, and then crossed to the eastside of I-15 to return to the Speedrome. Each lap was about 100 miles, and after 4 circuits of this torture you had completed the Mint 400.
By ‘78, seven of the thirteen Mint 400 classes were in the restricted engine category, and the popularity of that ruling was shown by 58 entries in Class 9 (1200 cc VW Buggies) and that Class 9 race was won by Ron Gardner and Bernie Mayer. Three years later. That same duo made the best of their Mint experiences and won the Class 1 and first overall in the 1981 race.
In a 1986 Mint program story, race director (for thirteen years) KJ Howe commented on the growing number of spectators. “It all started with a few hundred spectators in 1968. The BLM estimated there were 95,000 to 100,000 at the 1985 event”. But it was because of this popularity that soon led to crowds being restricted by the BLM as to where on the course you could travel and from where you could watch the race. Safety had become a real concern.
But the popularity of the race, both with the public and the media, now put the spotlight on the race as far as environmentalists and public agencies were concerned. Everyone wanted in on the cash bandwagon. A tortoise expert had to be hired to inspect the racecourse before and after the event, at a cost of almost $5000, to make sure the critters’ habitat was not being run over or harmed. A set number of tortoises were allowed to be taken’ during the race, according to the experts, but in fact none were killed that year by racers. At any rate, tortoise fatalities were very low over the history of the race.
Another government agency, as KJ Howe recalls, was another obstacle to overcome. “We started out just going to the County Commission and getting our permit for the race ‘rubber stamped’ so to speak. But by 1986, things had changed gradually and we had to go before the Air Pollution Control commission, with TV cameras and the media in force. A lady on the commission started saying that the Mint would have to pave so many miles of race course to ‘mitigate’ the dust in the air.” “I asked her who was going to mitigate the dust when the next dust storm hit the area,” KJ recalls. “And, I said that at around a million dollars a mile to pave part of the course wasn’t going to happen, and that we would just have to cancel the race. They called a recess and returned a few minutes later with our permit for the race, with their ‘request’ of paving the course put off until another time.”
In the mid eighties, a few major tire sponsors put together a meeting between former foes Walt Lott of the High Desert Racing Assn. and Sal Fish of SCORE. What emerged from these diplomatic negotiations was a combined series of races that included the Mint 400, which made it more popular than ever from 1986 to1989. In 1986, the race moved back to the Jean area for a three year run. In 1989, the final Mint race of the 20th century returned to North Las Vegas and the Speedrome was again the start/finish.
In 1986, HDRA President and Mint official Walt Lott commented on his relationship with the BLM, the federal authority that oversees all racing on public lands, Lott said “I’ve been involved with the Mint 400 for 29 years, the first year as a racer, and every race since as a race official. I’ve not found an easier group of people to work with than the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). I’m not going to say that it’s always been perfect; we’ve had our rough time. But all in all, they’ve been receptive to our ideas.”
The future of the Mint 400 race came into question in 1986 following the sale of Del Webbs Mint Hotel and Casino to Jack Binion, owner of the Horseshoe Club. Binion didn’t want the event, but continued because of contractual obligations. The race was now named the ‘Binion’s Mint 400. In fact at the time, Binion’s management remarked that the race, its competitors, and tech inspection on Fremont Street was a negative impact on gambling and their Bingo players. It was the beginning of the end of the event, as long as Binion’s was concerned, But because of the financial benefit this promotion brought to the area, under Binion’s ownership the annual race continued to be run in 1988 and 1989.
By 1989, three years had passed since the Mint Hotel, as an entity, had ownership of the event. The Mint’s upper management, KJ Howe and Andy Zorne, were themselves race competitors and motorsport enthusiasts who understood and appreciated the importance of this event to the sport of off road racing and the local community. But now time had run out on the roughest and toughest racing event on U. S. soil after the 1989 Mint 400. Considered a motor racing icon, on the level of the SCORE Baja 1000, the promoters declared the legendary event as dead and a historic era in off road racing had come to an end.
For the statistics fans, the race was won only twice by a truck, and all other years by buggies, single and two seat. The 1973 race was won overall by Parnelli Jones in the legendary Oly Bronco, and in 1989, Ivan Stewart won in his Toyota, in his 5th try in a truck. The winningest class driver was the late Manny Esquerra in Class 7 (mini-pickups) with a record 10 class wins in his Ford Ranger.
The Mint went “dark,” (in Las Vegas parlance) for nearly twenty years– but was resurrected by SNORE in 2008, SNORE was a Las Vegas based club that had been organizing club events in the desert since the beginning of modern off-road racing, going back to the 60’s. SNORE soon found the event grew bigger that their ‘club’ wanted to deal with and they felt that they should sell the Mint 400 name to film and television producers Matt and Joshua Martelli—marking the next significant chapter in the event’s evolution.
In 2012 The Martelli Brothers, Matt and Josh, partnered with Best in the Desert’s Casey Folks and the race was added to the Best in the Desert championship schedule. The brothers handled the promotion and marketing, and Casey of ran race operations, A one hundred mile race loop that has been used many times that is just east of Jean, NV has now been blessed by the BLM, and the Martellis now have a new 5 year agreement to run the Mint 400.
“Our vision is to attract global attention for the sport and the off-road industry”, said Josh Martelli in a recent interview. “Its not just a desert race, it’s a platform for off road culture. Think about X Games and what that event did for various action sports by putting them all under one banner. We want to do the same thing in off-road,” said brother Matt. The promotion efforts of the Martellis and race ops under Casey Folks over the past three seasons have earned high praise from KJ Howe when he simply said, “I think they are doing a helluva job putting on the race”