Vegas’ Race

The legendary Mint 400 was tough and flashy, just like the city that spawned it

In a city known for savvy promotions, the Mint 400 undoubtedly ranks among the most ingenious. From humble beginnings in 1967 as a publicity stunt featuring two men in a dune buggy running 600 miles of dirt roads between Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, the Mint 400 grew into massive event that attracted 100,000 spectators and a host of celebrity racers. It had its own pin-up girls, its own book—Hunter S. Thompson was sent to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 when he got a little off track and wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas instead—and its own downtown parade on Fremont Street.

The race was the brainchild of Mint public relations director Norm Johnson, who dubbed the inaugural event the Del Webb Off Road Rally. It wasn’t much at the beginning, just two hired hunters—LeRoy Wickham and John Sexton of Las Vegas—accompanied by a writer and photographer from the Las Vegas News Bureau trekking through the desert in a dune buggy, camping out at night along the way.

It attracted attention, though, enough that by year No. 2 there were 101 entries and a $15,000 purse. It was dubbed the Mint 400 in 1968 and it was run in a circle course at the Mint Gun Club in the northwest Valley. Southern California rider J.N. Roberts was the first person across the finish line of the first running of the Mint 400, riding a Husqvarna motorcycle. In 1975, organizers relocated the race again, this time to the Las Vegas Speedrome, now the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The Mint was always about publicity, and race organizers knew how to generate it. Competitors battled for a purse that ultimately grew to a guaranteed $100,000, which was big money back in the days when off-road racing was in its infancy. Even if they didn’t finish in the money, racers got Mint 400 jackets and commemorative Mint 400 bottles of Jim Beam.

And then there were the race’s spokesmodels, the legendary Girls of the Mint 400, who included actress Lynda Carter of Wonder Woman fame, Vanna White, and Playboy centerfolds Dona Speir and Tracy Vaccaro.

While most races hide their technical inspections from public view, the Mint 400 turned theirs into a party on Fremont Street, beginning in 1975. Race vehicles and support equipment jammed downtown in front of locals and tourists.

“I moved tech inspection to Fremont Street,” recalls Las Vegan K.J. Howe, who was the race director from 1974 to 1986. “We included the exciting backdrop of downtown Las Vegas drawing thousands of people each year. The tech inspection became as big a part of the event as the race itself.”

The race itself was grueling. The 100-mile laps through rocky, dusty terrain winnowed the field each year; only about 25 percent of the racers who started a Mint 400 finished it. But there was never a shortage of people who wanted to test themselves against the desert. Indy 500 greats Rick Mears, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Parnelli Jones all competed in the Mint 400 at one time or another, as did off-road racing pioneer Mickey Thompson.

The race drew entries from some of the best motorcycle racers in the world, including Las Vegas’ own Jack Johnson, European motocross champion Rolf Tibblin and desert racing legend Malcolm Smith. It also attracted Hollywood celebrities like Steve McQueen and James Garner, and former Los Angeles Rams football star and television actor Fred Dryer, who starred in the series Hunter.

Joe McDonough, a Las Vegas contractor nicknamed “Endo Joe” after rolling his car in the race in 1980, considered the Mint 400 the toughest off-road racing event anywhere. “I was driving along during one Mint 400 when Walker Evans came up behind me in a Class 8 truck,” recalls McDonough, now 74. “He blasted me so hard that it almost jarred my teeth out of my head. There was no warning or anything. He just drove right over me. There is nothing worse than going as fast as you can go and have that happen at 100 mph.”

The Mint 400 ended when Binion’s hotel-casino purchased the Mint in 1988. Binion’s was more focused on its World Series of Poker rather than off-road racing. But the story has a happy ending: The race was revived by the Southern Nevada Off Road Enthusiasts in 2008 as the General Tire Mint 400. This year’s running takes place March 27-28 near the Moapa Indian Reservation northeast of Las Vegas utilizing much of the old Mint course.