Classic like original Mint 400 shouldn't have its name soiled


Classics should be sealed in time. Never touched.

The Mint 400 desert race was held in early May from 1968 to 1988. Period.

The 410-mile trek from Las Vegas to Beatty and back was the brainchild of Las Vegan Norm Johnson.

The Mint brought legitimacy to desert racing and needed only one year to go from a publicity stunt to a nationally renowned motor sports event.

Unfortunately, Southern Nevada Off-Road Racing Enthusiasts, an organization of today's off-road racers, is calling its new event on March 29 the Mint 400.

A great race like the original Mint should not be pirated.

Calling this SNORE event the Mint 400 degrades memories of the original and distorts history by trying to put a famous face on a new, unproven race.

Johnson, the publicity director at the old Mint hotel, joined with racing pioneer and Southern Nevada resident Mel Larson to develop the event into Las Vegas' first racing tradition.

They convinced Parnelli Jones to enter the inaugural race a year after he won the Indianapolis 500.

That was a coup.

Al Unser Sr., Rick Mears and Rodger Ward -- among the biggest names in American racing at the time -- also hit the desert during the Mint's heyday, when up to 500 racers competed and 100,000 fans watched.

Actors James Garner and Steve McQueen also ran in the Mint.

Hunter S. Thompson buried the race's legacy into American culture when he featured it in his 1972 book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

No one has the right to prey on the race's rich legacy until Thompson walks back into the lobby of a downtown hotel with the Mint sign hanging over the entrance.

Of course, Gonzo journalist Thompson killed himself three years ago, and the Mint hotel became part of Binion's Horseshoe in 1989.

Neither will be reborn, and neither should the Mint 400.

May they all rest in peace.

The only positive from this grave-robbing is that people are talking about desert racing's glory days, especially from the late 1970s and early 1980s when it started and ended at the old Las Vegas Speedrome, now the site of Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The only similarity between old and fake, though, is that technical inspection will be back on Fremont Street -- albeit east of downtown -- beginning Thursday.

But not one inch of desert used for the first 18 editions of the Mint will be part of this year's course; the real Mint was north of town, but its bastard stepchild will run between Jean and Primm, south of Las Vegas.

Over the past two decades, the landscape of desert racing has changed, even if much of the terrain hasn't.

Large tracts of desert once used for racing have been developed or deemed off-limits to protect the desert tortoise.

The litigious nature of society and potential liability keeps race fans from getting close to desert circuits, let alone inside them.

Review-Journal sports staffer Sean DeFrank grew up with the old Mint after moving to Henderson in 1974. It was a rite of passage into adulthood back then for teens such as DeFrank to beat sunrise in order to homestead a track-side spot in the McCullough Range south of Henderson after the race moved south of Las Vegas in the mid-1980s.

DeFrank recalls pre-running the course days before the race to scout a good patch of rock to catch the action. His eyes light up when he recalls helping to rip off a bashed-in rear-quarter panel from a race truck when the driver stopped for help during the 1987 race.

He is one of thousands with Mint experiences to share.

"Families would camp out in the middle of the desert to be part of the Mint 400," Johnson remembers. "That's what was the Mint 400."

Taking a legendary name is an easy way to get prestige for an event, but a race must stand on its own merits instead of those of another.

Seeking success from another's accomplishments can leave a bad taste.

Calling it the Breath Mint 400 would be more apropos.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.

 

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