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6 things to know about the Mint 400

Jimmie Johnson began his auto racing career racing off-road and stadium buggies before graduating to NASCAR, where he won a record-tying seven championships in the Cup Series.

Rick Mears followed much the same blueprint en route to winning the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Four years before he sipped milk in victory lane after winning his first 500, Mears won the Mint 400 in the desert surrounding Las Vegas.

It is a race in which champions are made. And just as often broken.

On Saturday it will be contested for the 35th time over three laps of a diabolical rock-strewn course originating in Primm that will test the mettle of man and machine.

6 things to know about the Mint 400:

Lofton’s lofty goal

After becoming the first three-time overall winner in Mint 400 history in 2019, Justin Lofton will be gunning for No. 4 in 2020.

Former NASCAR racer Justin Lofton, right, gets ready to spray champagne after winning his third ...
Former NASCAR racer Justin Lofton, right, gets ready to spray champagne after winning his third overall title in the Mint 400 near Las Vegas. (Kilian Hamlin/Mad Media)

The former NASCAR racer — Lofton won one Truck Series race in 84 starts and also had four Xfinity Series starts from 2010 t0 ‘12 — won last year’s Mint with a time of 5:24:26, adding to his overall championships in 2015 and ‘16.

Another victory Saturday would give the 34-year-old California veteran four overall wins in six seasons — a record and model of consistency that would be difficult to top.

Local threats

It wouldn’t officially be a Mint 400 without a Las Vegas driver or two contending for the title, as Rob MacCachren and Bryce Menzies are expected to do again this year.

MacCachren, one of the greatest to have even torn around desert sage, in 2017 finally captured the Mint 400 overall title that had eluded him for so many years.

Off-road legend Rob MacCachren of Las Vegas won the 2017 Mint 400 and will be one of the favori ...
Off-road legend Rob MacCachren of Las Vegas won the 2017 Mint 400 and will be one of the favorites in this year's race. (Kilian Hamlin/Mad Media)

Menzies crossed the line first in 2013 and 2018, when he shared driving duties with Jake Povey.

Both Las Vegans were in the hunt the overall win last year.

Menzies and eventual winner Justin Loften swapped the lead several times before Menzies was slowed by a flat tire on the third and final lap. Menzies’ misfortune enabled MacCachren to make a late charge that also was derailed by a tire puncture.

Tracking positive

Brett Sourapas finished second to Lofton by 2 minutes, 56 seconds at last year’s Mint and once again will share driving honors with his brother, Christian, in this year’s race.

Christian Sourapas’ penchant for running fast precedes his desert racing career — he posted personal bests of 10.82 and 21.49 in the 100 and 200 meter dashes as a freshman sprinter for the University of Oregon’s renown track and field team before transferring to Southern California.

The brothers’ father, Steve, played football for the Trojans before switching focus to off-road racing and winning the 1987 and 2014 Mint 400 overall championships with Dave Richardson and Andy McMillin as co-drivers.

Fear and Loathing at Mint 400

If the Indianapolis 500 is the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and the Daytona 500 is “The Great American Race,” what does that make the Mint 400?

Here’s how the author Hunter S. Thompson, who was hired by Sports Illustrated to write photo captions for the 1971 race, described it in inimitable gonzo journalistic style:

“In some circles the Mint 400 is a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the lower Oakland roller derby finals all rolled into one. This race attracts a very special breed.”

Famous participants

In 1975 — four years before he would race to the first of his record four Indianapolis 500 victories — Rick Mears teamed with co-driver Gene Hirst to win the Mint 400. Mears’ victory came two years after fellow auto racing legend Parnelli Jones won the 1973 Mint with Bill Stroppe as co-driver.

Other notable racers who have driven in the Mint 400 include four-time Indy 500 champion Al Unser, two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward, Formula One world driving champion Jenson Button and off-road stars Mickey Thompson, Ivan Stewart, Jack Flannery and Walker Evans.

The Mint also has attracted an impressive list of celebrity drivers that includes movie and TV stars Steve McQueen, James Garner and Patrick Dempsey; talk show host Jay Leno; astronaut Gordon Cooper; and rock musician Ted Nugent.

The Mint 400 girls

Lynda Carter and Vanna White (The Associated Press)
Lynda Carter and Vanna White (The Associated Press)

Did you know that before they became TV stars, Lynda Carter of “Woman Woman” and Vanna White of “Wheel of Fortune” were Mint 400 girls?

In 1972, former Mint Hotel executive and longtime Mint 400 race director K.J. Howe started a beauty pageant in conjunction with the off-road race that became famous for attracting Playboy centerfolds and other models who were hired for Mint 400 and hotel-casino advertising campaigns.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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