Author: Craig Perronne Photos: Mad Media
With all the focus on the latest technology and ever-increasing speeds in the desert, it is easy to forget that our sport has an amazingly rich and colorful history. Just by its rugged, rough and independent nature, desert racing tends to attract plenty of unique and interesting individuals who like to do things their own way. Even at the height of big sponsorships during the late 1980s, most racers in the Dirt Sports Nation were a far cry from the carefully groomed and politically correct racers of other series. That was (and still is) just fine with us as it keeps things interesting. Racers tend not to be an overtly sentimental bunch either. Most will gladly cut up a vehicle in the hopes of getting a bit more speed out of it. Or, when a chassis reaches the end of its useful life, it is unceremoniously cannibalized for parts and left in a corner of a shop to be slowly forgotten about. Others are simply the victims of crashes and deemed not worthy of being rebuilt. Events like the rebirth of the NORRA Mexican 1000 have helped to change that. Racers now proudly dust off and rebuild older chassis to campaign them south of the border. Some have even gone on long searches to find their former racecar to bring it back to its former glory. All of it has turned an eye back onto the long and storied history that is a major part of desert racing. When most think about the history of our sport, the tendency is to think of Baja. With the Baja 1000 celebrating its 45th anniversary just a few months ago, it is only natural. Indeed “The Mil” has created some of the richest and most historical moments in desert racing, but one does not have to go all the way to Baja when it comes to timeless moments, as the Mint 400 has been creating them right here in the USA since 1968. After our friends at Mad Media showed us a treasure trove of old-school photos, we knew we had to share them with you. What follows is not only a look back at the unique history of The Mint, but where it is today as well. Taking a photographic journey back through time is always fun, but what it does as well is show us truly how far we have come as a Nation. Enjoy our special look at the past and present of the unique General Tire Mint 400.
Miss Mint 400 Of huge benefit to the Mint 400 race was its intimate relationship with the Mint hotel. While often overlooked, this gave the race the backing of some of the brightest public relations minds in the business. If there is one thing Vegas and its multitude of hotels are good at, it is constant promotion and creating buzz in the media. Among these “brains” was Mint hotel executive KJ Howe who served as the Race Director for the Mint 400. Skilled at putting the “Vegas” touch on events, Howe came up with the brilliant idea of the “Girls of the Mint 400” competition in 1972 as another angle to help promote the race. Plus, years of being around Vegas showgirls had taught Howe that having great looking women around never hurt anything. The idea was to make the Miss Mint competition and title the most glamorous in motorsports. With KJ Howe and the Vegas marketing machine in full swing behind the Mint 400 Girls concept, it actually did see great success and helped launched the careers of notable talents such as Lynda Carter who would star in the Wonder Woman television series along with Vanna White of Wheel of Fortune fame. Other women who would see fame after being Mint Girls included Playboy centerfolds Tracy Vacccaro, Donna Speir and Vickie Grace. Many other Mint Girls would go on to see smaller roles in movies and television series as well. Upon the Mint 400’s return, the idea of “beautifying” the Mint was also revived, but this time there would be only one Miss Mint crowned instead of several Mint 400 Girls. To help propel the Miss Mint competition to its former glory, sponsor General Tire came on board early and this year, along with Metro Honda, upped the prizes to $5,000 in cash along with a shiny new Honda Civic.
CONTINGENCY Yes, that is a frikkin tank rolling down Freemont Street! In case it is hard to tell, contingency at the Mint 400 was a pretty big deal at the height of the race’s popularity. We have no idea how they did it, but contingency was a big enough event for the city to grant permission for a tank to cruise down a major Las Vegas street. Somehow we doubt even whiny little Justin Bieber or the overly annoying Psy could pull that off nowadays, and we would be highly surprised to see a tank ever rolling down The Strip. Contingency at the Mint 400 was the place to be in off-road racing during the 1970s and 1980s. Heck, people even got married at it. With the race turned into an absolute juggernaut and the biggest off-road motorsports events in the U.S., it is little surprise that thousands showed up to get a look at the latest in off-road machinery. Its location just steps outside of many of the major casinos of the time didn’t hurt either. Times have of coursed changed. What used to be downtown Las Vegas is now referred to as old downtown as much of the focus has turned to The Strip. However, Fremont Street still rocks and is perfect for hosting contingency. Held literally steps outside of casinos and restaurants and what is still the heart of a major city, the General Tire Mint 400 contingency is still one of the most unique in the U.S. and gets better every year.
MAKING NEW HISTORY What Norm Johnson, KJ Howe and others involved in making the Mint 400 into what it was grasped early on is that it had to be much more than just a race. It couldn’t just be a quick contingency, off to the desert for a day of racing and then that was it. Instead, they knew that to be successful the Mint 400 had to be an event instead of just a race. They shrewdly added pre- and post-race parties, a plethora of press conferences, parades, girls and just about any other angle they could think of to help promote the race as well as make it the off-road event of the year to attend. That same thinking has been applied to the current General Tire Mint 400, now run by Best In The Desert and the Martelli brothers of Mad Media. Knowing that they had to do the same as the early forefathers of the Mint 400, the Martellis and Casey Folks have diligently gone about adding unique events to the Mint. Among the highlights is the KMC Wheels Pit Crew Challenge that attracted plenty of attention this year right in the heart of downtown Las Vegas. That same night was a driver meet and greet, the Miss Mint competition and the Mint 400 VIP party, adding a full palate of activities for both fans and drivers to take part in. Without a doubt the coolest and most iconic addition this year was the vehicle parade where 70 race vehicles went straight down the Las Vegas Strip all the way from Circus Circus to Mandalay Bay. Thousands of onlookers dropped their jaws as Trophy-Trucks, Class 1s and other off-road machinery thundered by complete with a police escort. It was truly a memorable and awe-inspiring moment. By carefully looking to the past, the current management of the General Tire Mint 400 is building its future.