Promise of adventure fuels rebirth of historic Mint 400

I grew up near the beach. Never had an issue with sand. A shower always was nearby to wash away another day’s activities. Volleyball. Frisbee. Skimboarding. Paddle ball.

I just never thought about riding an 800-horsepower truck up and down the coastline.

Never mind across the desert.

I can’t imagine there is a more exciting race to watch, the idea of such powerful machines taking on all the elements Mother Nature offers over a course built to create the sort of rollovers usually reserved for your Wii or in Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-induced haze.

Yep. I would guess the Mint 400 has given more than a few drivers fear and loathing as they twist and turn and traverse the 100-mile course four times over nearly eight hours.

They begin doing so at 6 a.m. today outside Jean, but leading names such as Robby Gordon and BJ Baldwin and Rob MacCachren won’t get started until 1 p.m.

It’s big stuff to those involved, because besides all the flying sand, some serious history is being ripped from those buggies and cars and trucks.

“Take nothing away from asphalt racing,” Casey Folks said. “But unless there is a crash or a driver is causing some problems, it’s pretty much the same thing as they go around and around. Our racing gives drivers something different each time they come around — rock gardens, soft sand, silt beds, hills, dry lakes, rolling jumps. And they’re doing it at almost NASCAR speed.

“It’s pretty spectacular stuff.”

Folks knows the sport’s archives better than most, as a past winner of the event’s motorcycle division and race director who operates Best in the Desert Off Road Racing. He understands the deep appreciation so many hold for the Mint 400, from its first race in 1967 to a hiatus between 1988 and 2008 to its rebirth these past few years.

What a time it must have been decades ago. It is a race first created to help promote the Mint Hotel’s annual deer hunt, but eventually some of the biggest names in racing and Hollywood took part.

In the racing, that is.

It is part backdrop for Thompson’s autobiography “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” where a journalist and his attorney arrive in the 1970s to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race, only to abandon their work and experiment with countless recreational drugs such as LSD and cocaine because, well, what else would you do on assignment here?

Generations have helped build the sport, family trees filled with branches that stretch to those early off-roading days and the Girls of the Mint 400, which included Vanna White and Lynda Carter.

How great. Wonder Woman was all over this thing.

Baldwin’s entrance into the sport was different. He watched his first race as an 8-year-old and immediately was hooked, convincing his family to also become interested.

He built his first buggy at age 16, and the Las Vegas native is 32 today and one of the finest drivers of trucks often valued in the $600,000 range for a sport in which this year’s winner might get $20,000.

His nickname: “Ballistic.”

“We are truly the only unlimited class in all of motor sports left, where we can build whatever we want as long as it looks like a truck,” Baldwin said. “We don’t have the rules and restrictions of a NASCAR when it comes to how the car is built.

“The sport is crazy. If we have a bad crash out in the middle of the desert, we might have to wait an hour for medical attention to arrive. But I love it more than anything. I have as much passion today about it as I had watching the Baja 1000 as an 8-year-old.”

Matt Martelli and his brother, Josh, are partners in a production company and now own the Mint 400, their hope being to reinstate popular features from the race’s glory days and add enough modern components so that the mainstream eye takes a closer and more interested look.

The idea being, with a partner in Fuel TV and high-definition cameras that give viewers far more detailed looks at the physical grind it takes to race these vehicles for such long periods of time, more people will be drawn to it.

“It takes crazy people, crazy dreamers to make this happen,” Martelli said. “The race is about America, about being American, about going out and using your land and attempting to do things that are really difficult and proving people wrong and taking on challenges.

“It’s very important to keep this race alive and continue growing it.”

I’m sure if Thompson were alive, he would agree.

In a drug-induced haze sort of way.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN Radio 1100 AM and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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