Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

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Las Vegas memories: Looking back at the first Mint 400 off-road race

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SUN FILE PHOTO

The Mint 400 started in 1968 at the old Fremont Street casino of the same name. Billed as “The Great American Desert Race,” it ran for 20 years.

The Mint 400 is the one of the world’s oldest and most famous off-road races, having just staged its 50th anniversary race. As someone who was there at the beginning of the race and played a key role in launching it, I’d like to share the story of how it got started.

In 1967, when I was an assistant publicity and promotion director for the Mint Hotel, I read a story about a group of four-wheel drive enthusiasts who had raced from Tijuana to La Paz in Baja, Calif. Around the same time, I became acquainted with two locals, LeRoy Wickham and John Sexton, who were constructing glass-bodied dune buggies and had approached the hotel to suggest we purchase one of the vehicles as a prize for our annual deer-hunting contest.

We discussed various promotion ideas with the two buggy builders and came up with a wild plan. We would purchase one buggy and send it on an off-road journey from the Mint to our sister hotel in Lake Tahoe. The deal was approved by Bill Bennett, general manager of the Mint Hotel, and Wickham and Sexton agreed to make the trip.

In August 1967, the two men left Las Vegas with a photographer from the Las Vegas News Bureau, two dune buggies and camping equipment. The trip took six days at a cost of $560.

News coverage of the trip was unbelievable. We began getting news clippings from the around the world, and that’s when a light bulb went off to have a race like the Baja event.

Wickham and Sexton were hired to lay out the course. Permission from more than 60 landowners, including Howard Hughes, was obtained. Sen. Alan Bible helped coax the Bureau of Land Management into approving the event, stipulating that it would charge $10 for each vehicle entered in the race.

Bob Fuerhelm, who worked for a Jeep dealership in California; Pete Condos, a pioneer in off-road accessories; and Don Arnett, who had just designed a new glass buggy, agreed to help.

We staged a news conference in Los Angeles, and responses from the publicity, word-of-mouth, and wire stories began to trickle in to the hotel. The Del Webb Mint 400 Desert Rally was on its way to fame and glory.

I talked to racing legend Parnelli Jones, my friend from my early days of racing, and convinced him to enter. The Ford Motor Co.’s Lee Iacocca, then best known for spearheading the development of the Mustang, agreed to provide a Bronco that would be modified for Parnelli.

Before we announced Jones’ entry, the Mint had received 56 entries. After the announcement, the entries just poured in. We ended up with 109 cars and motorcycles officially entered. The entry fee: $150.

With the assistance of Arnett, Condos and NASCAR driver Mel Larson, who also agreed to compete, we came up with some basic rules. Competitors needed a roll bar if they were driving an open-air vehicle, as well as a helmet, lap belt and fire extinguisher.

We established a guaranteed purse of $15,000 for the race, plus contingency funding from auto equipment and oil companies. By race day, the total purse had grown to $30,000 plus a lot of free products.

After the mayor of Las Vegas allowed us to block off Fremont Street the morning of the race, 109 vehicles lined up in front of the Mint. Del Webb was on the platform along with Lt. Gov. Ed Fike, who waved the starting flag. With police escorts, the parade left Fremont Street and headed six miles to a junkyard, where a dirt road began.

No race of this magnitude had ever been staged in the U.S. During pre-race staff meetings, it was estimated how long it would take for a race vehicle to arrive at a given checkpoint such as Ash Meadows, Shoshone and Beatty. That would determine what time it needed to be staffed and ready to time each vehicle as it stopped. Our estimation for Beatty was off by nearly 30 minutes. A Mint staff member who’d been assigned to checkpoint duty arrived in Beatty only to discover that three motorcycles and a pair of cars had already been fueled at the checkpoint’s gas station and were on their way back to Las Vegas. Fortunately, the station attendant had recorded the numbers and times.

Although people have made false claims about the first race over the years — including that a checkpoint official forgot to show up and the original rules were borrowed from the Mexican 1000 Rally — those were the only real hiccups.

The race grew to the point that 400 cars were entered, but it was canceled in 1988 after the Mint was sold. In 2008, a local off-road race organization brought the race back and ran it before selling the rights to its present owners, Matt and Josh Martelli and Mad Media.

And as they say, the rest is history.

Norm Johnson, a Las Vegas resident since 1965, is a former sports columnist for the Las Vegas Sun and started racing cars at 14 while growing up in California.