Desert Racing Returns to Sin City: Experience The 50th Mint 400
Ever since the first race organized by Norm Johnson in 1967 to promote the Mint Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Mint 400 has attracted off-road racing enthusiasts from all over the world each year. After a nearly 20-year hiatus from 1989 to 2008, The Mint 400 was resurrected and brought back into the spotlight of off-road racing. While many who attend The Mint 400 describe it as the closest experience to Baja racing as you can get in the United States, those who are brave enough to race this event will tell you it can be equally as treacherous and rewarding at the same time.
It’s for this reason that Ultra4 Racing made The Mint 400 the second race in the Nitto Triple Crown race series. After the marathon that was King of the Hammers, drivers hoping to win the Triple Crown have to prove their strength in desert racing at The Mint and show their finesse on the short course at Crandon.
The 2018 Best in the Desert Mint 400 marks the 50th year of this race, an anniversary that we are all-too familiar with in desert racing as the Baja 1000 and Baja 500 both celebrated their 50th years in the 2017/2018 race season. In that time, the Mint has grown from a point-to-point course with a fastest time of 16 hours to a loop race, sometimes featuring a fastest time of under 6 hours.
This year’s race week kicked off with the 4-Wheel Parts Vehicle Parade powered by Odyssey Battery on Wednesday. The parade began at the south end of the Las Vegas Strip and made its way up Las Vegas Boulevard to Fremont Street, where tech and contingency was held over the next two days. The Mint 400 parade is one of two times per year that Las Vegas Boulevard is closed down completely to normal traffic. The parade has stood to bring off-road racing to the masses, putting 150 race vehicles into the public eye.
All the action downtown kicked off on Thursday. Fremont Street was blocked off to vehicle traffic, creating a unique walk-through experience for the public to interact with the race teams and see the vehicles up close, as well as check out some of the biggest vendors in the off-road industry. While race fans checked out the happenings downtown, the competition heated up just 30 minutes north of town at the Apex qualifying course for the Method Race Wheels Time Trials. The Trophy Truck and Class 1 buggies each gave their best lap to determine their starting position at the main event. The first place qualifier, with the fastest time of the day, was Harley Letner, piloting his Class 1 buggy around the qualifying course faster than the deepest field of Trophy Trucks the Mint 400 has ever seen.
Friday was the last day of tech and contingency, giving race fans one last chance to hang out with the race teams as they made their way through Fremont Street to their tech inspections. We caught up with several Ultra4 drivers, all looking to add some points towards the Nitto Triple Crown series by competing in The Mint 400. Loren Healy, who planned to race his newly built 2-seater Ultra4 for the first time, was excited to see what the new car could do. After an issue forced him to race the Red Dragon at King of the Hammers this year, Loren was confident the car was ready for anything the Mint 400 could throw at him.
At the Nitto Tire booth, the young and talented Bailey Cole was getting ready to push his 4454 Ultra4 car into tech inspection. Bailey and his father, Dave Cole, planned to double-team this race, with Dave starting and Bailey finishing. Although this would be their first time splitting driver duties for a race, neither Bailey nor Dave are strangers to long, enduring hours in the hot seat of an Ultra4. Bailey won the title of the King of Britain in last year’s Ultra4 race in Europe. Dave Cole, who took second place in the 4400 class of last year’s SCORE Baja 1000, was determined to conquer the challenge with his son.
Of course, no Ultra4 race is complete without the Campbell Racing family in attendance. Wayland and Bailey both planned to drive this race, with their father, Shannon, only swapping seats with Bailey if needed. When asked what her strategy was for racing the Mint 400, Bailey Campbell fiercely replied with, “To keep my dad out of the car!” It’s evident this competitive family is all about one-upping each other, but their teamwork and ability to rely on each other both during and outside races makes them fierce competitors.
The first green flag was raised at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, 40 miles south of Las Vegas in the town of Primm, just behind the Buffalo Bill’s Resort and Casino. Although The Mint 400 was officially underway, the unlimited class race would not begin until 12:30 p.m. later that day. The morning air smelled like a mixture of race gas and wet creosote bush, as a light rain began to wash over the desert. The pits were busy with the unlimited class teams making last minute adjustments, as the limited and UTV classes buzzed by, lap after lap. It became evident that attrition was a real issue along this course. It seemed every few minutes another team was being towed into the main pit or a radio call for a tow came in from some team stranded out in the Nevada desert. The Mint 400, clearly, was no cakewalk.
At noon, two rows of Trophy Trucks lined up along a fence holding back spectators, with the exception of Harley Letner in his Class 1 buggy leading the pack. As the Trophy Trucks and Class 1 buggies tore off into the desert, the first pair of Ultra4 cars lined up along the start line. Nitto team drivers Marcos Gomez and Jeff Brown were first off the line, followed shortly after by Loren Healy, Wayland Campbell, Bailey Campbell, Casey Currie, JP Gomez, Erik Miller, Mel Wade, Dustin Isenhour and Dave Cole.
Just as the Ultra4s were tearing off the start line, BajaLite driver Mike Jams crossed the finish line in his 3003 car on 35x12.50x17 Nitto Ridge Grapplers and snatched up the first place position in his class. This well-deserved victory came just months after Jams and the Desert Race School team threw in the towel after 600 miles of battling the Baja 1000, due to a faulty transmission.
Each of the three laps of The Mint 400 is 125 miles long, combining wide open lake beds with tighter canyons. While dust is normally the biggest enemy of anyone racing this course, a steady rain kept most of it down on the ground. Good news for teams who were pulling strong through the afternoon, and bad news for those who were broken down waiting for parts or a tow. The rain grew heavier as the afternoon went on and the Ultra4 class drivers made their way into their second lap.
Loren Healy quickly picked off several positions, pushing his way to the front of the Ultra4 pack, his lead growing as the second lap progressed. Just behind Loren was Paul Horschel, piloting the 4419 car, with Casey Currie and Erik Miller not far behind him. Casey was showing his desert racing experience by keeping even unlimited spec Trophy Trucks behind him around lap two. By the end of lap two, Loren still had a commanding lead and headed into the night to begin the final lap. Around that time, Las Vegas local and veteran Trophy Truck class winner, Bryce Menzies, crossed the finish line and officially took first place overall in The Mint 400.
Now completely dark, the course was beginning to take its toll on the various teams still sprawled out along it. Mel Wade’s 4451 Jeep Ultra4 suffered a fire at Pit B, luckily with no injuries and only slightly damaging the car. Bailey Cole suffered mechanical failure that ended their race early. Erik Miller also suffered mechanical issues with his engine and had to pull out of the race early. The remainder of the Ultra4 field was pushing hard to finish the race.
Just a few miles into his final lap, Loren Healy lost his dry sump oil pump drive belt. Luckily, they were able to fix it on the course, but it cost him precious time and his lead position. Paul Horschel had passed him and built a lead of several miles by the time Loren’s car was back on the move. As they made their way around the final lap, Loren noticed an issue with his rear differential. Instead of pushing at 100 percent and risking a breakdown in the middle of the course, where it would take hours in the rain to recover, Loren decided it was best to run at a slower pace and hope to catch Paul.
During that time, the Currie team had pushed through the field to a physical third place. Leaving Jason Scherer behind him, Casey’s younger brother, Cody Currie, piloted the 4402 IFS car around the third lap with ease, passing dozens of broken down vehicles from every class.
Paul Horschel crossed the finish line physically in first place, with an elapsed time of 8 hours and 3 minutes, earning him the first place position for the 4400 class. Just 25 minutes later, Loren Healy crossed the finish line in a physical second place, followed directly by Cody Currie in a physical third place. Official times show that Cody Currie had Loren Healy beat by just 46 seconds on corrected time, placing him officially in second place and Loren in third.
The fans had all gone home, the announcers were done, the TVs were off and the only ones remaining were the crews and families of the teams coming into the finish. As each of the cars rolled up on the wet stage, the rain grew even heavier still. By 10:30 p.m., the 4400 class podium finishers had all came across the stage and headed back to the pits. 2018 King of the Hammers champion Jason Scherer landed a fourth place finish, coming in after the Currie team. Not far behind was Shannon Campbell, who took over Bailey’s seat during the second lap.
As the desert night grew colder and moved to the early hours of Sunday morning, most teams were back in the main pit behind Buffalo Bills. The Mint 400 had proven itself once again as a monumental undertaking, rendering many high-performance race cars useless and shedding the light of victory on only the few who bested its challenges. There’s a reason so many hold this race in the same regard as competitions such as the Baja 1000. It’s downright brutal. But as the sport of off-road racing continues to grow deeper into the mainstream, attracting larger crowds and longer entry lists each year, The Mint 400 will always remain an important artifact in American motorsports.
Enjoyed reading about desert racing? Check out our coverage of the 50th SCORE International Baja 1000!
Photos courtesy of The Mint 400 and Casey Currie Motorsports