Desert racing an endangered activity

Enjoyment for desert racers and fans has been wilting for decades because of bureaucracy, environmental concerns and urban sprawl.

Many rejoiced with the new Mint 400, which was put on Saturday by Southern Nevada Off-Road Racing Enthusiasts. It was a solid, well-run event, according to accounts by those who attended or participated.

Approximately 180 drivers started SNORE's race. Although that fell well short of its projected 300 entries, the club should be lauded for successfully creating a desert race in Southern Nevada, which has become a greater challenge each year since the original Mint in 1968.

While a desert flower might have bloomed Saturday, one that has flourished the past three years is endangered.

The fourth annual stadium-style SCORE Las Vegas Terrible's Cup event in July at Las Vegas Motor Speedway could wither and disappear in the wind.

Of the Cup's three financial backers -- Herbst Gaming, the SCORE Desert Racing Series and Las Vegas Events -- only LVE seems eager to extend the event's life.

Championship night drew a crowd of 8,371 in July and 6,417 the day before at the speedway's Dirt Track stadium. Race promoters had created what they called a "1.5-mile chunk of Baja."

Attendance far exceeded anyone's expectations as new fans were exposed to rugged racers and advanced racing machines.

LVE was instrumental in creating the Cup because its mission is to bring visitors to the valley. No time of year is in greater need of luring gambling tourists than when temperatures hit 110 degrees.

Sal Fish, president of SCORE, opted not to offer series championship points to participants this year because many racers complain short-course, stadium racing manufactures expensive carnage. Some say it's an insult to desert racing's tradition of running through open, barren spaces.

The points carrot, however, is why 81 racers entered last year's Cup compared with 49 for the 2006 nonpoints race.

Fish isn't convinced the event is worthy of the investment of time and money.

The Cup's death knell began ringing when many of Herbst's slot machines quit.

Herbst Gaming -- privately held by racing brothers Ed, Troy and Tim Herbst -- could be forced to file for bankruptcy protection unless it can restructure its debt of $1.146 billion, according to a story in Wednesday's Review-Journal.

Herbst's organization -- desert racing's flagship backer for more than two decades -- finds itself wallowing in a sea of red ink instead of vats of red paint used for decades on its popular race vehicles.

Fish this week said he hasn't heard from the Herbst family since January. Pat Christenson, the LVE president, plans to submit a proposal to his board this month to raise its ante to compensate for what it apparently will not get from Herbst.

Our economy has become treacherous, and the Herbsts are trying to spin out of a mountain of money challenges.

It's a precarious time for desert racing.

Much of the course used by SCORE in Laughlin for its January race could become a golf course or be developed at any time. Fish is uncertain what land will be available for SCORE's September race behind Buffalo Bill's, which Herbst acquired last year.

SNORE's Mint race could blossom into a colorful tradition, but much of the course it used is slated to become a regional airport.

The Terrible's Cup joins the desert tortoise in a burrow for those endangered, and we hope the popular race doesn't become extinct.

And, for that matter, the sport of desert racing.

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