It’s 1971, and a colorful moment in Las Vegas history is unfolding in an expanse of desert north of the city.Journalist, author and provocateur Hunter S. Thompson has come to town to write about the Mint 400 off-road race for Sports Illustrated. Instead, he ends up authoring “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
The novel has little to do with the race; rather, Thompson uses Las Vegas as a backdrop to explore the chasm between the mainstream establishment and the era’s drug-soaked counterculture.
But the novel helped build a mystique around the Mint 400, which Thompson described as an epic and unforgiving endurance test of thick dust, jagged rocks and rough terrain — a “race that attracts a special breed.” The event, an annual attraction for many Las Vegas residents, began to entice an even broader audience thanks to Thompson’s novel.
“In some circles, the Mint 400 is a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one,” Thompson wrote.
Forty-five years later, the Mint 400 lives on, thanks partly to the reputation Thompson helped establish.
“When Hunter Thompson came and wrote about it, it was very good for us at the time and remains good for us even today,” said KJ Howe, the Mint 400’s race director in the 1970s and ’80s. “He could have gone to any race and covered it, but somehow, in one of his stupors, he found that the Mint 400 was the thing to go to.”
Today, the event is south of Las Vegas, not where it started — near a firearms range operated by the founding sponsor of the event, the Mint casino. The race draws teams fueled by lucrative contracts with sponsors such as Red Bull and Monster energy drinks, competing in vehicles bristling with the latest in race car technology.
“If you go to the driver’s meeting or the technical inspection, you’d say, ‘My God, this is a bazillion-dollar sport,’” Howe said. “It’s not only the cars; it’s the motor homes and 18-wheelers for the drivers and crews.”
The event remains a test of drivers’ endurance, as well as the durability and design of their machines. Race vehicles must be able to plow their way through heavy silt at 2-3 mph and blast across dry lake areas at 130 mph.
The event was held from 1968 through 1988, then revived in 2008.
Although the Mint 400 isn’t as big as it was during the 1970s, when it drew as many as 500 competitors and crowds estimated in the six figures, it retains its party atmosphere and fuels heated competition.
“It’s back to its elite status,” Howe said. “You’re not going to get as many entries as we once did, mainly due to the (Bureau of Land Management) restricting the number of vehicles and spectators, but it would be over 600 entries if there weren’t those restrictions.”