Carbage at the Mint 400 – 50 Years of American Desert Racing

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It was my first time at the Mint 400 and now I can see why they call it the “Great American Off-Road Race.”


That’s not to say I’ve never seen the Mint 400, quite the opposite. As an East Coat living fan of Trick Trucks – better known as Trophy Trucks but SCORE International has the legal lockdown on that name – and open desert racing, I knew about the Mint before I moved to California about six years ago. However, this was my first live experience of the event and I took in every single day of it.

Setup on Fremont


The first day is Wednesday and, essentially, it’s a setup day for the vendors and most of the trucks for Thursday’s Contingency. The trucks drive down Las Vegas Boulevard to Fremont Street, of which a stretch of several blocks is shut down just past the “Fremont Street Experience” near the Golden Nugget for the event until Friday. It’s a terrific way for fans who might not be able to get out to the desert for any reason to check out the trucks, buggies, UTVs, and Ultra4 rigs before they get dirty and broken.


Vendors ranging from tire companies to marijuana dispensaries to off-road equipment display right on Fremont for everyone to take advantage of the deals just for the race. With the “Experience,” it’s all of Las Vegas rolled into a single street with the earthly, oily flavor of off-road racing mixed in. A high that no drug will ever give me, and I wanted more. On Thursday, these guys gave it to me.

Off-Road is a Community


I had been to several open desert races since I’ve been here, too. So, the Mint wasn’t my first off-road rodeo as many of you know. I just still wasn’t prepared for the speed these guys were about to display during Time Trials. The very first lap around was a sighting lap, this gave the drivers a chance to get prepared for their fastest run as they would only get one chance to set a time. A few took it easy, the guys with experience didn’t.


This was also an experience of how the off-road community works in the open desert. The MGI Motorsports truck was going along fine, but just after the start their #64 TT broke a driveshaft. Scot Fluharty, the driver of record, allowed the truck to coast until he was in a spot where they would safely work on it.


However, after a few trucks and Unlimiteds went by, it was clear they weren’t in a great spot. That’s when crewmembers from the Pro Tech RV UTV team, watching the qualifying themselves, offered to pull it out of the way. Once they were able to strap it, so it could be pulled towards the main road, the MGI truck was on its way back to the pits for repairs being pulled by their chase truck. Fortunately, there was enough time between their breakage to their run to allow the team to fix it and get out for qualifying, ending up 41st out of 67 total trucks.

Always Push


There is a reward for ending up on top of the leaderboard in Time Trials: a one-minute single car head start on the Mint 400 race course. That’s clean air (literally) and the first to take on the track after the Limited classes have mostly finished. An understandable advantage in an open desert race as it’s your time, not your physical finishing position, that determines who wins and who loses. That much clear course could net an advantage of minutes provided nothing else happens in a race where anything will.


So, it wasn’t hard to understand why these drivers were pushing so hard when the time trial course was opened for racing. Some would push too hard while others would find the advantage their vehicle had on the tight and technical path. The technicality of the course would be the key to Harley Letner in the YouTheory Unlimited car to grab that first place starting spot, but only by mere seconds. Normally, we’d hear that it was guys like Apdaly Lopez, Rob MacCachren, or Bryce Menzies in their powerful TTs taking it. However, the need to be nimble and agile overcame the need to be brutish and rugged. The open wheel unlimited car bested Baja 1000 winner, Apdaly, by 1.32-seconds. An unreal separation in time in such a racing environment.


Still, all these guys put on a display of driving that left me speechless for the most part. The insanity I just took in. Even though I missed the first day of contingency that was on Fremont due to the time trials running longer than planned, I knew I had the better experience that day.

Friday in Downtown Las Vegas


Friday, Fremont Street was packed for the second day of Contingency. It’s not unusual to hear about Fremont’s foot traffic, but this wasn’t at the experience, this was where the racers were. Fans were coming in from all over North America to see these guys in person. However, I was there for the Media and Driver’s meeting later that day.


While jovial before the start, it was an emotionally charged driver’s meeting for several reasons. First, this was the first Mint 400 since Casey Folks, the president of the Best in the Desert (BITD) series, passed. I had a personal experience with Casey that cemented my love and favoritism towards the BITD. Years ago, I had this crazy and foolhardy idea to drive from the East Coast to the West Coast in a Nissan Hardbody pickup that would be setup to be street legal and race in the Mini Metal class.

I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, so I decided to email BITD and look for advice on building the truck. In a response back, Casey asked me to call him and I did. He gave me pointers and things to look out for but told me that the idea was risky. Cool, but risky. The fact that he was willing to take my call, talk to me, and make me reconsider the hairbrained scheme made me respect him and I haven’t lost that to this day.

Chad Ragland

This was also the first race since Chad Ragland, a fan favorite UTV racer and son of five-time SCORE Baja 1000 winner, Larry Ragland, had passed. Chad was battling leukemia but ultimately lost the fight on January 24th, 2018. He not only drove Trophy Trucks like his father did, but also formed his own UTV parts company, CageWrx, in 2014. He was especially close to Matt and Josh Martelli, the brothers who formed and head Mad Media and UTV Underground. We all watched a memorial video on Chad and his life.

Sherriff Lombardo


Finally, this was also the first major off-road race after the tragedy at the Mandalay Bay tragedy. Many of the racers are Las Vegas natives and Sherriff Joseph Lombardo spoke to the racers and the media in attendance. He credited and thanked all of them for making sure that shooter was never made famous by never making the focus about him. “You never spoke that son of a bitch’s name,” he stated as the passion from his voice filled the room more as he spoke, but the everyone remained steadfast and civil until he was done. The clapping and cheering was deafening as he stepped down, wishing the racers well and to be lawful during the event.

Partnerships


Now, it was time to get everyone ready for the race tomorrow. Just before I left, friend and fellow photographer David Karey and I spoke. He asked if I wanted to get his pictures since he was just there for a single team in the Limited start, the Sorenson Team in Trophy Lite. He wanted to shoot the Unlimited race but didn’t really have a real reason to do so other than fun. So, he and I decided to partner up for the Mint 400. We might do it again, but the only way I can do so would be the pay him again, so be sure to support Carbage by buying stuff in our Merchandise link at the top of the page or on the Patreon. That way, I can have a second talented shooter out there with me to get even more in-depth coverage.

Early Bird is for the Birds


Back to the early start and the race itself. The Mint 400 was a loop race, as it had been for several years now. The total race mileage for each lap would be 118-miles but some classes would only take two laps while the vehicles with better suspensions and more powerful engines would take three.


There would also be two starts: Limited at 6am and Unlimited at 12:30pm. The Limited starters would consist of the UTVs, Jeepspeed, Stock classes, Trophy Lite, Bugs and Buggies, 8100 Pre-Runners, and the Vintage Class. Unlimited would be the Trick Trucks/1500 Unlimited Cars, 6100 Trophy Spec, 7200 Unlimited Mini/Mid-Sized, Class 8, and the 4400 Ultra4 Unlimited rigs. So, the “slow” guys would start first. So, most all of us had a long day ahead as I was at the track from 5am to around 6:30pm, but there wasn’t much that would prepare us for what laid ahead of us as the sun set.

Limited but Giving It All


I will always have a soft spot for Bugs, so you can say I really love Class 5000. It’s considered an open class but must be a sedan or convertible Volkswagen like the Hoonigan Scumbug but also includes Safaris, 900-series Porsches, Karmann Ghias, Type-2, and Type-3 Volkswagen chassis. You can have any suspension you want, however it must remain “stock concept.” So, while you can have multiple shocks or coilovers, you must keep the beam front suspension, IRS, or semi-trailing arm design the cars originally came with and keep the same wheelbase as stock. You can also run any tire you want, provided it fits under the stock-style fenders or Baja-styled body.

However, the overall win for the Limited starters would go to Brock Hedger in the Tensor Tire Alumi Craft Class 1000 car. These are open suspension cars, but the engines are limited to their design and how many seats the cars have. Single-seat cars are limited either smaller displacements, less valves, while two-seat cars can use slightly bigger displacements or more valves. That is, unless they use a specific but Turnkey Engine Supply sealed Production Engine like the GM EcoTech or Ford 2.0-liter TIVCT.

The Red Mist of the Afternoon


While Brock was celebrating his win, the Unlimited cars and trucks got their starts underway. That’s when the crazy hit and, while I knew to keep my eyes open on any truck running, I wasn’t quite prepared at how much red mist would hit these guys on the first turn. Once Letner was given his head start, these guys were on a mission with nothing standing in their way.


The first pair off the line were RPM Off-Road’s Clyde Stacy and Apdaly Lopez. Stacy had the better start in the twin-engine TT and had the initial inside line. Apdaly wouldn’t have it and found a new inside line, near us as media. You see, the defined track is that deep brown dirt, but Lopez would cut in and pass Stacy just before he exited on the packed and drier surface. It was a brilliant move but one I don’t think anyone was prepared for.


He wasn’t alone as just a few trucks later, Derrick Sproule in the Sproule Racing truck would take a similar line to try and pass the Polaris RZR Truck of Johnny Angal.


The last truck to do it, though, would be the Pin Manufacturing truck of Juan Carlos Lopez, father of Apdaly and a Baja 1000 regular. However, Juan’s inside move wasn’t for a pass but to recover from over-rotating the first turn. Full lock, full power, and he looked like the best out of Formula Drift but on dirt and in a much heavier vehicle. After that, Killian from Mad Media came over to say we probably should stay on top of the dirt mound but try not to get closer to the track despite us being within the 50-feet rule. Honestly, as scary as it seemed to anyone who wasn’t on the course, it was fun and most of us were already in a safe location.


Fortunately, most every truck afterwards was calm and collected. Even the normally crazy Ultra4s were rather polite and cordial in comparison to the earlier rough and rowdy Trick Trucks. After that, Dave and I went out to a few locations like Pit B and a fast road crossing. It was that second road crossing where we got some amazing shots, especially if you’re a bit of a suspension or tire nerd like I am. Well, I’m a total car geek, but these images are telling as to the abuse these trucks and Unlimited cars can take.

Geeking Out at a Road Crossing


While the large travel and position sensitive suspension setups are great for the big jumps, most of the open desert consists of deep ruts and boulders. The road crossing we were at developed a massive cut just before the asphalt and nearly every truck with the suspension and tire to take it hit it at full speed. I have never seen or captured images of such massive tire deformation that Dave and I got. The tire looks like it’s flat, as if cut, but that is the amount of movement these sidewalls have in these “project” tires. It would then bounce back and the suspension would then have to deal with the spring force these tires had in them from the impact.


These trucks are passing us at well over 70-MPH at this point. So, for the suspension and the tire to take these hits and not burst or break apart was simply incredible to capture. However, as the lights were coming on, the rain began to finally fall as it had threated to all day. Mother nature, it seemed, wanted to be a part of this 50th anniversary of the Mint 400, too. Even so, it was still a spectacle to view as the lights began to trace their way across the Nevada sand that would eventually turn into mud.

Luck Be A Lady, but She Wasn’t Easy


For all that advantage that Letner had earlier in the day, he would lose it. A tire would cost him his lead and Apdaly Lopez began to make his move, but luck wasn’t with the 2017 Baja 1000 winner, either. After taking the lead, Lopez’s lightbar had failed and that lead to hitting a large rock. That disabled their onboard air jack system and, after cutting a tire, had to use a pump jack to raise the truck up to change it. He and his co-driver rushed to change it and were successful in getting done to finish the race physically in first place.


However, this is open desert racing. Just because you cross the line first doesn’t mean you’re going to win. While some will credit strategy and teamwork for their wins, there is another factor in the desert. One that seems supernatural, an influence that isn’t in control of teams or drivers. It’s one that’s hard to explain unless you’re a gambler inside a Las Vegas casino. Luck.


Luck has no skillset, it’s not guaranteed no matter what rituals or spirits you pray to. Luck doesn’t have a favorite or someone it pushes to the side. Luck is just that – Luck. That’s what Bryce Menzies in the Red Bull Trophy Truck had this day in the desert. By a margin of victory of only 28-seconds and after racing for nearly six-hours, Menzies would take the win and his second of his career, he had won in 2013. He joins a list of seven drivers before that night who had won the Mint twice since 1968. A legendary list that Menzies name is now included on.

The Future of the Mint


Dave and I look forward to bringing you all the 2019 running of the Mint 400. Next year, though, will be the return of the motorcycles and quads. This will be the first time since 1971 that the motorcycles will race in the Mint. The original reason that “Raoul Duke” went out to cover the Mint, bringing “Dr. Gonzo” along for a very strange ride. Makes me wonder what our adventure will bring in 2019 as well.

Carbage Host

Justin Banner
@jb27tt on Instagram or RacerBanner on Facebook and Twitter

Additional Photography

David Karey
@AmDrift on Instagram

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Justin Banner

The Talent Behind the Camera – Justin Banner Since 2007, Justin Banner, Lead Editor and Owner of Carbage, has been involved with the automotive media in many capacities. From podcaster, to writer, to videographer, to announcer – he has done many forms of automotive entertainment and is why he should be your expert in content creation. He is viewed by many as an industry voice and works for the top online publications of modern media and include Speedhunters, MotoIQ, Super Street Online, and many others. Justin has also been involved in the automotive industry since he came to the working age of sixteen years old. Since that time, he has worked as a mechanic, service writer, and salesman in automotive parts. This means that not only can he relate to your audience at any skill level, he also knows what you’re looking for to generate lifetime customers and sales. Justin is also a Journalist Level member of the Motor Press Guild, an industry recognized entity of professional automotive journalists, since 2015. To be at this level, one must not only be invited by another member but also have sourced material as proof of working experience in the field.