Las Vegas Sun File
Saturday, March 10, 2018 | 2 a.m.
IF YOU GO
Free general parking is available at the Gold Strike Hotel in Jean, with access to four spectator areas via shuttle buses that run every 30 minutes. There also will be free parking for spectators at the start/finish line in front of Buffalo Bill’s Resort and Casino, Primm Valley Resort and Whiskey Pete’s Hotel and Casino.
A checkpoint official got drunk the night before and forgot to show up. Kids out in the boonies kept moving the course markers. Some racers got angry when organizers made them fit their vehicles with seat belts.
So went the first Mint 400, says race organizer LeRoy Wickham. Staged in 1968, when off-road racing was just getting off the ground, the event was a dusty, noisy, majestic mess in the Nevada desert, Wickham says.
“I mean, it was people running around with their heads cut off,” he says. “It was so disorganized, it wasn’t funny. But we were having a good time.”
Today, the event will celebrate its 50th anniversary when more than 350 racing teams will gather at Primm to compete in what is touted as “the most challenging off-road race on the planet.” The race follows several days of special events that included a procession Wednesday on Las Vegas Boulevard.
With its corporate-sponsored competition teams, crisply organized race operations and vehicles with sophisticated electronics and mechanical components, the race has come a long way since its first year.
But what hasn’t changed is the race’s prestige. When it started, Wickham says, it was the first major off-road race in the U.S. and one of the first in the world.
About 100 competitors participated that year, driving cars that were like Fred Flintstone mobiles compared with today’s racing machines.
In the 1960s, Wickham was running a fiberglass shop, making products like swimming pool slides and planters, when a friend suggested he start making dune buggy bodies.
That led to an idea—Wickham and a partner would drive two of his dune buggies from Las Vegas to Lake Tahoe, off-road all the way.
“It was a two-fold trip,” he says. “It was to have a ball and do something nobody had done yet, and to promote the buggy bodies.”
It worked. After the drivers got back, having traversed nearly 500 miles of rocky terrain in street cars with standard suspensions, talk turned to holding a race similar to the Mexican 1000 Rally, one of the first off-road competitions.
In 1968, Wickham marked the course for the first Mint 400. The Bureau of Land Management gave him essentially free range, he says, and ranchers offered access to their properties.
“They were the friendliest people, because they never had company. They were willing to do anything for excitement,” Wickham says of the ranch operators.
After the race survived its pell-mell first year, it quickly gained stature. Celebrity drivers such as Parnelli Jones competed in it, and Hunter S. Thompson put it in the international spotlight when he wrote about covering the event in his iconic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
But despite its prestige, the event was halted after 1988 after sponsorship fell off and environmental concerns added complexity to routing the race. It wouldn’t be revived until 2008.
But today, 50 years after Wickham laid out the first course and borrowed a set of rules and regulations from the Mexican 1000 Rally, the race is going strong.