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Mint 400 History: Off-Road Racing’s Wild West Caper

Jeramiah Drew Mint 400

It started as a PR stunt to promote the Mint Hotel’s annual deer hunt, but the Mint 400 has turned into a cultural phenomenon that brings racers and fans from all over the country to Las Vegas.

With 14 drivers sponsored by Dynojet in this year’s Mint 400, you’ll see plenty of black and red when the race takes over Southern Nevada, March 4-7. 

Hundreds of racers — and thousands of spectators — flock to the Nevada desert every year for this race, which has a colorful story. While history claimed Del Webb’s Mint Hotel, once a jewel on Las Vegas’ iconic Fremont Street, the legendary race lives on.

Deer Hunting & Dune Buggies

Back in 1967, Norm Johnson, the assistant publicity and promotion director for the Mint Hotel, was trying to figure out a way to draw more attention to the hotel’s annual deer hunters’ contest. He read about a group of enthusiasts who raced from Tijuana to La Paz in Baja California, Mexico. Coincidentally, a couple of locals who built glass-bodied dune buggies suggested that the Mint purchase one to use as a grand prize.

That’s when it all came together in Johnson’s mind. To promote the deer hunters’ contest, the Mint Hotel would seek to establish a record for off-road travel from Las Vegas to Lake Tahoe. The dune buggy was purchased, Las Vegas locals LeRoy Wickham and John Sexton were hired to make the run, and the seeds of the Mint 400 were planted.

According to Johnson, who (along with Gordon Grimmis) wrote an essential history of the sport titled “Off-Road Racer,” the trip took six days to complete and cost approximately $560. 

Another great idea formed, not long after Wickham and Sexton finished their arduous trek to the Sahara Tahoe Hotel and Casino: turn this run into an annual event and open it to a field of competitors.

The next year, the Del Webb Mint 400 Desert Rally was born.

From Hectic Start to Desert Icon 

As sponsorship money rolled in, the race was able to offer a truly grand prize: a purse of $30,000.

However, with all the attraction and attention the first-time race drew came several growing pains.

“One must remember that the Mint 400 was a first-time event for everyone involved,” Johnson wrote in his book. “Most of the people working it were hotel or casino oriented, and knew little about racing.”

The safety inspection was primitive compared to what racers go through now, as competitors needed just a roll bar and a seat belt with harnesses to pass. 

“Confusion started early on the day of the race,” Johnson wrote. “Cars exited from impound in every direction and lined up on Fremont Street. The Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, Ed Fike, officially started the entries for the parade. During the parade, vehicles got mixed up completely, some getting lost en route and others breaking down. It was total confusion as the time approached to start the first car.”

Of the 101 cars that entered the race, only 32 completed the entire 400-mile course that started and finished on Fremont Street. J.N. Roberts, riding a Husqvarna motorcycle, was the first bike to finish. Gene Hurst, in a dune buggy, was the first four-wheel vehicle to cross the finish line.

Racers loved the contest, and in 1969, 188 drivers competed in what we now know as the Mint 400. The event attracted celebrities like Steve McQueen and racing stars like Al Unser and Rick Mears. Legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote about his time covering the 1971 race in his book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which was later turned into a hit movie starring Johnny Depp in 1998.

By 1976, 347 cars and 97 motorcycles took part in the event, which became a Las Vegas mainstay … until 1989.

On Hiatus & Triumphant Return

That iteration of the Mint 400 lasted until the late 80s when the Mint Hotel was purchased by Jack Binion, who owned the Horseshoe Club next door. 

The event continued in 1988 and 1989 as Binion’s Mint 400, but only due to contractual obligations. According to Four Wheeler Magazine, Binion felt that the race and spectacle around it on Fremont Street had a negative impact on gambling and bingo profits. That, combined with environmental concerns, led to the sunset of the race.

The Mint 400 was resurrected in 2008 by Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts (SNORE), with sponsorship by General Tire. The response was tremendous, and rights to the race were soon acquired by producers Matt and Joshua Martelli, who later partnered with the Best in the Desert racing series. 

“It’s not just a desert race, it’s a platform for off-road culture,” Matt Martelli told Four Wheeler Magazine. “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.”

Last year, 550 race teams from 30 different states and several countries competed in the Mint 400, as the event has roared back to glory. The 120-mile course stretches from Las Vegas to the California/Nevada state line town of Primm.

Dynojet at the Mint 400

Jeramiah Drew Mint 400

In addition to having a booth at the event, Dynojet will be well-represented on the course. There will be 14 Dynojet-sponsored drivers competing in this year’s event.

Last year, Las Vegas native Jeramiah Drew placed 17th overall (6th in the UTV Unlimited class), completing the course in a little over 8 hours, 11 minutes. He’s back again this year, in UTV #2925, with Chris Edmondson as his co-driver.

Dynojet is also supporting the future of off-road racing, with 7 youth competitors across 3 events. 10-year-old Ryder VanBeekum and 11-year-old Chase Mankin are making the most of the Mint 400, competing in both the Youth 570 and Youth 170 races. Mia Chapman, 17, is a strong contender in the UTV Pro NA event.

Best of luck to all Dynojet-sponsored drivers!

Youth 570

  • Car #561Y - Ryder Chapman, Polaris
  • Car #664Y - Ryder VanBeekum, Polaris
  • Car #701Y - Chase Mankin, Polaris

Youth 170

  • Car #25 - Jennifer Owens, Polaris
  • Car #101Y - Chase Mankin, Polaris
  • Car #115 - Liam Salas-Fisher, Polaris
  • Car #164Y - Ryder VanBeekum, Polaris

Youth 1000

  • Car #97 - Jessie Owens, Polaris
  • Car #1177Y - Mike Kelly, Polaris

UTV RS1

  • Car #R972 - Katie Vernola, Polaris

UTV Pro Turbo

  • Car #T927 - Justin Smith & Jeff Day (co-driver), BRP

UTV Pro NA

  • Car #1927 - Ryan Ottersberg & Jason Mack (co-driver), Polaris 
  • Car #1937 - Mia Chapman & Erica Sacks (co-driver), Polaris 

UTV Pro Unlimited

  • Car #2924 - Lacrecia Beurrier & Emily Dobrzenski (co-driver), Polaris
  • Car #2925 - Jeramiah Drew & Chris Edmondson (co-driver), BRP
  • Car #2964 - Robert VanBeekum & Eric Bergman (co-driver), Polaris

Teaser image courtesy of Jeramiah Drew

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