In 1976 off-road racing and Mint 400 pioneer Norman T. Johnson and Gordon Grimmis wrote the essential bible of off-road racing culture titled simply “Off-Road Racer”. The book has been difficult to find because only 4,000 were made, 100 with a very special real leather cover and a personal plaque on the cover. The book immediately sold out and it has subsequently been out of print since 1979. If you are lucky enough to own one you know the treasure trove of stories it contains. Norm is the one of the founders of The Mint 400. The book is an unabridged account of the colorful history of the birth of off-road culture, the founders, the racers, the supporters, the vehicles and the races everything that makes the culture so great.
Chapter Two: The Mint 400: 1968 to 1976
The Mint 400 is perhaps the most famous off-road racing event in the world today. It is the second-oldest major event and without question the richest in total purse. How did it get started, and why?
In 1967, Norm Johnson (the author of this book), then assistant publicity and promotion director for the Mint Hotel, read a story about a group of four-wheel drive enthusiasts who had attempted to race from Tijuana to La Paz in Baja California. The Mint Hotel was planning its annual deer hunters’ contest and wanted an unusual grand prize. Naturally, publicity is the name of the game in Las Vegas. Two local residents who were constructing glass-bodied dune buggies approached the Mint, suggesting that the Hotel purchase one of the buggies as a grand prize.
A spark ignited in Johnson’s mind—a stunt to tie together the deer hunters’ contest and the dune buggy, possibly garnering a lot of publicity. The Mint would attempt to establish a record for off-road travel from Las Vegas to Lake Tahoe.
A contract was signed to purchase a dune buggy. LeRoy Wickham and John Sexton of Las Vegas were hired to attempt the record run. Bill Bennett, Vice President and General Manager of the Mint, agreed to the stunt.
In August 1967, Wickham and Sexton left Las Vegas with a photographer from the Las Vegas News Bureau, two dune buggies, camping equipment and supplies. They were officially timed away by NASCAR official Herb Hill and Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson—their final destination the Sahara Tahoe Hotel and Casino.
The trip took six days to complete at a cost of approximately $560. Soon after completion of the record run, news clippings from around the world began to arrive at the hotel.
Johnson and the two buggy men began to formulate a plan for a future promotion in which they would extend the original trip into an annual event and lure other participants. They began considering maybe making a race of it!
A final outline was presented to the Mint’s Director of Publicity and Promotion, Bob Plummer. He felt it had merit and instructed Johnson to go ahead and finalize a budget for presentation to Bennett.
It was determined that the best course for such an event would be a run from Las Vegas to Beatty and back. It would be a true desert race. After all, Johnson thought, it might be fun and could work out to be a good promotion.
A final budget for the event was presented to Bennett. Approval was granted to proceed with the first step—work out logistics and discover if there would be an interest.
Johnson began making contacts in Southern California. One of the first persons contacted was Ed Pearlman, who successfully had just promoted the first Baja 1000 off-road race under NORRA. He accepted an invitation to visit Las Vegas and discuss the possibility of staging an off-road race in April 1968. After several meetings—and near agreement—Pearlman opted for his own promotion in conjunction with the Stardust Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip—a race to be known as the Stardust 7-11 in June 1969.
Bennett, Plummer and Johnson discussed this latest turn of events. Should they go ahead with their plans or pass on it, since the Stardust and Pearlman were going to have a similar race? Bennett’s answer: “We had the idea, we have a date, and if you feel you can do it, then let’s go!”
A noted four-wheeler, Bob Feuerhelm of Milne Jeep Company in Pasadena,
California, was approached for help. He offered to contact all his friends and to get the word out. Pete Condos of ConVer in Burbank, California, next agreed to help. Don Arnett, who was just starting in business with a newly designed glass buggy, was let in on the idea. He offered 100 percent cooperation.
But before final approval was given to announce the race, Feuerhelm was killed in a freak accident on the desert outside of Palm Springs. It was a big loss.
A budget of $25,000, however, was approved and the organizers called a press conference in Los Angeles. A Southern California sports writer and publicist, Deke Holegate, was hired to handle arrangements in Los Angeles.
Response from the press conference, 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.
Johnson had talked to Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe about entering the race. If Stroppe could prepare a Bronco and Jones could arrange his schedule, they agreed that they would enter. Soon, Stroppe called and Jones officially was entered in the First Annual Mint 400.
The Mint announced to the world that Jones had entered the race. Within days, requests for information on how to enter the race began to arrive from everywhere.
Another noted race driver of NASCAR fame, Mel Larson, was suggested as a possible entrant by one of the executives of the Del Webb Corporation in Phoenix, Arizona. Larson was contacted and agreed to enter if a vehicle could be located for him to drive. Arnett, true to his word, agreed to furnish a Corvair-powered buggy he then was building, the Claimjumper.
The purse had been established as $15,000 guaranteed. Suddenly, manufacturers who had been sent letters requesting contingency began to respond. Such companies as Gates Tires, Champion Spark Plugs and Gabriel Shocks pledged money, and before you knew it, the total purse was over $30,000.
While publicity and plans continued at the Mint Hotel, Wickham and Sexton were living on the desert making the course. Permission from over 60 landowners, including Howard Hughes, was obtained. The Bureau of Land Management which controls most of the land in Nevada—was asked for permission. Never having heard of an off-road race, they had absolutely no idea how to handle such a strange request. After many phone calls and letters to Washington, D.C., word came down to allow permission for the race.
Finally, it was race week. Staff meetings were held to assign various jobs to Mint executives. Don Holladay, Hotel Sales Manager, was assigned to timing and the start/finish line; Joe O’Rayeh, Keno Manager, was placed in charge of the Beatty checkpoint and fuel stop; Andrew Zorne, Assistant Keno Manager, was put in charge of impound and the parade lineup; Bill Cleek, Credit Manager, was to handle registration. Deke and Olga Holegate would be brought to Las Vegas to assist with the press.
One must remember that the Mint 400 was a first-time event for everyone involved. Most of the people working it were hotel or casino oriented, and knew little about racing.
Permission had been obtained from the city to block off Fremont Street for the parade of vehicles to the start line, located at the end of Fremont on the edge of a junkyard, six miles away. The Clark County Sheriff’s Jeep Posse would handle official communications and first aid on the course. Volunteers from a local four-wheel drive club and a motorcycle club promised to handle all checkpoints.
Technical inspection was held in the Mint parking lot and was not very complete, compared to today’s standards. One only needed a vehicle, a roll bar and seat belts with harnesses to pass. Of the 109 vehicles entered, everyone passed, including Mint Hotel print shop employee Reggie Jackson. Jackson entered a 1947 Chevrolet Coupe, with donations from employees of the hotel paying his entry fee. Incidentally, Gates Tire Company donated a set of tires, and Gabriel donated the shocks.
Confusion started early on the day of the race. Cars exited from impound in every direction and lined up on Fremont Street. The Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, Ed Fike, officially started the entries for the parade. During the parade, vehicles got mixed up completely, some getting lost en route and others breaking down. It was total confusion as the time approached to start the first car.
Holladay somehow was able to put a time to each vehicle as it was flagged away by starter Herb Hill. Where number 40 was supposed to start, perhaps number 61 actually started. But, with luck, 101 cars and motorcycles were officially on their way.
No race of this magnitude had ever been attempted in the United States. So the time it would take to get to various locations on the course, such as Ash Meadows, Beatty or Shoshone, were poorly estimated. O’Rayeh, dressed in a business suit and alligator shoes, arrived in Beatty at his assigned time, only to discover that three motorcycles and a pair of cars had already been fueled and were on the way home. Fortunately, the gas station attendant had recorded the numbers and times, or the drivers would never have received credit for arrival and departure from the checkpoint. A similar incident occurred at a sand dune checkpoint located between Ash Meadows and Beatty.
All night, radio reports kept coming into the hotel: cars were still running but were lost; this person or that rider was injured and needed help; this or that car had rolled over; cars and motorcycles were seen racing on the highways; and Jones had destroyed his Bronco at five different locations. It was, in all honesty, confusion at its glorious best. The race was off and running.
Drivers reported back to the Mint Hotel tired and dirty. Some were mad. Others were elated and could not wait for the next one. One motorcycle rider from Chicago pushed, pulled and carried his bike the final 10 miles of the race. Another racer, driving a pickup truck, changed an engine, transmission and rear end, only to become buried in a sand dune outside Ash Meadows.
Earl Thompson, Executive Vice-President of the Sahara Hotel, and Bud James, President of Nevada Operations for Del Webb, walked nearly six miles after they broke down. But the two executives were “hooked” and already were talking about the next Mint 400. The race was already a success, and the first vehicle had not yet crossed the finish line.
Early in the morning, in the pitch of darkness, the first finisher crossed the line at the end of Fremont Street. It was J.N. Roberts aboard a Husqvarna motorcycle. Slowly, more bikes began to come home, all ahead of the estimated time schedule.
Then, just as the sun was coming up over Sunrise Mountain, a slightly different sound could be heard in the distance. Two headlights could be seen bouncing along. It turned out to be Gene Hirst. The first four-wheeled vehicle (a dune buggy) had completed its 400 miles. Hirst lit his pipe, cleaned off his face and grinned.
Before long, most of the cars and bikes that would finish the race had crossed the finish line. Just prior to the dinner banquet that same night, a dust-covered, bloodshot-eyed Jeep driver and co-driver walked into the Mint Hotel. They announced that they had finished the race but there was no one to meet them. They officially were designated finishers and were given a standing ovation by those gathered in the hall.
Of the 101 official starters, only 32 completed the entire 400 miles. Jones and Larson were not among the finishers.
Bennett announced that there would be a Second Annual Mint 400 with a date and purse soon to be announced.
Meanwhile, Arnett had formed the International Desert Racing Association (IDRA) along with Mel Larson. They planned to promote and sanction other off-road events, hopefully including the 1969 Mint 400. A contract would be signed between IDRA and the Mint Hotel for sanctioning the 1969 race. The organization was actually conceived in the coffee shop of the Mint Hotel two days before the race, with Johnson sitting in as an advisor.
Publicity was tremendous. National magazines such as Life and Saga featured stories and pictures of the race. Television crews converged on Las Vegas, as did sports writers from every corner of the United States.
Soon after the race, Johnson was promoted to Director of Publicity and Promotion at the Thunderbird Hotel (then owned by Del Webb). A publicist and writer by the name of Bill Bray was hired to replace him at the Mint. Larson was hired by Bennett and Plummer to act as consultant and race director.
The Mint operated a gun club on the outskirts of Las Vegas at Tule Springs. Set up to serve food and beverages, the club also had gambling. A decision to hold the race at Tule Springs was announced. It would be an eight-lap race of 50 miles per lap, with everyone running four laps on Monday and four more on Tuesday.
Tule Springs would become famous as the “silt bowl” of off-road racing. The 1969 race was given a guaranteed purse of $30,000 and a total budget of $98,000. Bray and Larson began to refine the rules. Johnson, who was now at the Thunderbird, was consulted from time to time.
1969 was the year the Mint 400 came of age. Bray and Larson had brought a new format to the sport: instead of one long, grueling lap, they had instituted a shorter course, divided the laps into two days, and allowed vehicles to be repaired overnight. Rules were tightened up and better control was maintained. It was also much easier for the press to cover the race, and spectators were given a better opportunity to watch it.
A total of 188 entries were registered by race day. Jones was on hand, as were both Bob and Al Unser, Lee Majors, Mickey Thompson and comedian Shecky Greene, to name a few. Only 39 percent of the starters finished the required number of laps.
In 1970, the purse was raised to $50,000. Bray had resigned to take a position at the Tropicana Hotel on the Strip. Johnson had resigned to accept the Vice-Presidency of a private advertising agency. O’Rayeh (the man who had been late to Beatty) was named Director of Publicity and Promotion at the Mint.
Tule Springs was again the site for the third annual race. For safety reasons, however, it was decided to race bikes on Monday and cars on Tuesday.
The 1969 race had attracted press coverage like never before. A total of 256 members of the press, radio and television registered to cover the race, including crews from Japan and Germany. The 1970 race would be even bigger. The Mint 400 was big news! Cost of promoting the race had risen from $25,000 in 1968 to over $130,000 in 1970.
Walt Lott, then-President of SNORE, joined the staff as race steward, and Denny Selleck was hired to handle technical inspection. The Mint 400 would become an independent race with no sanction. Deke and Olga Holegate remained as press coordinators (they would remain in this capacity through 1973), and Mike Smithwicke was hired to assist O’Rayeh in publicity.
A total of 287 vehicles entered the 1970 race. Technical inspection and impound were located, for the second consecutive year, away from the Mint Hotel, at Cashman Field. Race vehicles were escorted to Fremont Street for the official parade to Tule Springs.
The eventual overall winner of the motorcycles was the team of Mike Patrick and Phil Bowers, riding a Yamaha. The same pair had repeated their 1969 victory, thus becoming the first back-to-back winners.
Drino Miller and Vic Wilson teamed for overall honors among the cars. The two raced a new Hy-Bred, single-seat racer, which was to cause a major problem for the Mint officials in 1971. The year 1970 also saw the creation of the first, and now priceless, Mint 400 Commemorative Jim Beam bottles.
The Third Annual Mint 400 was in the history books. It had brought together the largest field of vehicles ever assembled for a race of any kind. Again, March was selected as race month for 1971, with the entry fee raised to $300 and the purse to a staggering $60,000.
On January 5, 1971, Jess W. Hinkle was named Vice-President and General Manager of the Mint Hotel, replacing Bill Bennett, who was elevated to the corporate office at the Sahara Hotel. Hinkle would remain in charge of the hotel and the famous race through 1974, and would eventually be responsible for many improvements and the race’s continued growth. Another addition to the staff of the Mint Hotel in January was K.J. Howe, a young, blond, former Army officer, who joined the publicity staff. Larson remained as race director, with Lott as race steward and Selleck as chief technical inspector.
It was at this time when technical rules for all off-road racing became stiffer. One of the controversial rules was the requirement of a roll cage, which immediately made Miller’s winning car from 1970 illegal. Larson, Lott and Selleck informed the driver that modifications to his car would be necessary before it would pass inspection. A heated exchange between Miller and the staff of the Mint 400 ensued. Miller refused to make the required changes, as he believed his car to be legal. The eventual outcome was that Miller showed up but without his car and therefore did not defend his title.
The 1971 race saw a new name added to the Superstars of off-road racing. Fritz Kroyer, driving a new single-seat race car designed by Bill Harkey and dubbed the Hi-Jumper, won overall honors with a time of 13 hours, 30 minutes.
A Las Vegas bike rider, Max Switzer, teamed with 1968 winner J.N. Roberts, came home the overall winner on a Husqvarna. It was the first victory for a Las Vegas entrant and would not be repeated until Jack Johnson pulled it off in 1975. Incidentally, throughout the history of the Mint 400, no Las Vegas car had ever won the race or its class until 1976.
The total budget for the 1971 event was $145,000. It should be pointed out that with an entry fee, the driver pays for more than just a chance to race. A free Mint 400 Jim Beam bottle is issued to each entry, in addition to two free race jackets, patches, and T-shirts, tickets to a dinner banquet and the official program—a package worth over $55. This policy is still current, although drivers in 1976 were given a choice between a jacket and a helmet bag.
The 1972 purse was announced by Hinkle as $70,000 with an entry fee of $385. O’Rayeh resigned before the event and Larson was given the position of Director of Publicity and Advertising. Howe was designated as publicist for the race and assistant to Larson.
It was in 1972 that Keno Manager Andrew Zorne and Howe broke the odds at the Mint Hotel. The duo had entered the race with the car built originally in 1968 for a Sahara Hotel executive. The boys, who knew the odds, had established them at 100 to one against finishing the first lap, let alone the entire race. After 13 hours, 41 minutes, hundreds of cigarettes, and many stops on the course to “shoot the bull”, the dynamic duo completed eight laps for a 27th finish in Class 2.
Larson, who had continued to attempt off-road racing and had not yet finished a lap, entered a two-seat race car with Astronaut Gordon Cooper as co-driver. True to Larson’s record, his car failed to finish the first lap.
Experience, however, began to show during the 1972 event. Personnel were now experienced. The race had most of the bugs ironed out of it and things were running far more smoothly. A total of 390 vehicles including 84 bikes, entered the fifth annual race. It would be the last year for Tule Springs—which all the race drivers were glad to hear. The race was silty and dirty, as was usual for Tule Springs. Only 32 percent completed eight laps.
Kroyer repeated his 1971 effort and became the first two-time, back-to-back winner in the car divisions. Rolf Tibblin (the great orator) and Bob Gross, riding a Husqvarna, were first among the motorcycles.
The sixth annual race, a twin loop race covering 200 miles a lap, was located at Jean, Nevada. The 1973 Mint 400 would become better known as the “Year of the Big Snow”. Many firsts were established in 1973: the Mint’s first publication of its now-famous full-color program; the first rain, snow and sleet accompaniment for the off-road race; the first time Parnelli Jones put everything together for the Mint 400; the first Mini-Mint Bike race was established; the entry fee went to $400; and the budget was $160,000. The largest field ever of cars and bikes entered—305 cars and 101 bikes. Only 28 percent finished, however.
The overall winner, after five attempts to finish a Mint course, was former Indy 500 champion Parnelli Jones and co-driver Bill Stroppe. Driving his “Big Oly” Ford Bronco to first place in the two-seat division, Jones almost flew around the 200-mile course, despite the inclement weather.
The race was doomed from the start for many drivers. One entire section of the parade from Fremont Street to Blue Diamond Road—where the official starting line was located—took the wrong turn off the freeway and actually headed for Tule Springs, before the motorcycle police escort realized what was wrong. After circling through a residential area, the group of race cars was lead back on the freeway and arrived at the designated starting area just as it began to drizzle.
A sudden gusty wind blew banners and flags in every direction. Not until nearly half the field was away did the rain change from a drizzle to a downpour. And, as the cars left Jean (15 miles from the start line) and headed into the mountains, storm clouds appeared over the mountain range and Sandy Valley. Sleet, winds of 50 mph and more snow and hail greeted the drivers. Most drivers were unprepared for the change in weather, having only summer racing clothes on. In Sandy Valley, cars were forced to a complete standstill as visibility became zero at certain points along the course and carburetors froze. Many drivers were treated for frostbite and were unable to continue because of the extreme cold.
Motorcycle riders, who raced on Monday, had beautiful weather. Rolf Tibblin, teamed with Mitch Mayes, again captured overall honors for Husqvarna.
Larson, who had led the development of the Mint 400 since 1969, resigned soon after the 1973 event. He is now Vice-President of Marketing for Circus Circus Hotel and Casino, which is owned by Bill Bennett. K.J. Howe was appointed by Hinkle to replace Larson and the race became his “baby” to nurture.
At the awards banquet, Hinkle received a standing ovation when he announced that the seventh annual race would have a guaranteed purse of $100,000. The Mint 400 had come a long way in a short period of time, from a purse of $15,000 in 1968 to $100,000 in 1974.
However, the great race never came off. A crunch in oil supplies for the United States struck and management decided it would be best to cancel the race.
It came back bigger and better than ever in 1975. A new course was selected by Howe and Lott. It included a full-fledged speedrome for the start/finish area, main pits, and spectators’ bleacher seating for the first time. The course would cover a distance of 100 miles and would be a four-lap event.
The environmentalists had been raising a storm of controversy all through the West and finally took aim at the Mint 400 in 1975. Through their efforts, the budget, which was approximately $190,000, had to be raised to allow for an environmental impact study and monitors.
Howe, in an effort to prove to the City Fathers and other businessmen of Las Vegas just how important the race was, decided to mail all of the official race jackets to each entry (two per car or bike). He asked everyone to wear the bright red racing jackets when they came to Las Vegas for pre-run and especially during race week.
For a solid month, all that could be seen in Las Vegas were red Mint 400 racing jackets. And, on Fremont Street during race week, it appeared that the “Red Sea” had been transplanted to Las Vegas. Howe proved his point. The city and other businessmen got behind the race 100 percent, and the various environmental groups had lost the battle.
A total of 354 cars and 51 motorcyclists left the starting line. Howe blamed the high cost of entering and the reduced factory support for the independent bike rider for the low number of motorcycles entered in 1975. But, it was one of the best Mint 400s ever held. For the first time, technical inspection lasted for two days and two nights on Fremont Street. Banners and flags of various contingency companies were flown from the arcade in front of the hotel, and thousands of people lined the street to watch the parade of cars and bikes as they were inspected.
Andrew Zorne, who was in charge of the impound area and parade in 1968, and who shared driving honors with Howe in 1972, was named Vice-President and General Manager of the Mint Hotel prior to the 1975 event. Hinkle was promoted to President of the Del Webb Corporation in Nevada. It was Zorne’s race now!
Zorne had watched the race grow from an idea, to reality, to a Super Classic. He and Howe decided to give the Mint course one more lesson in executive racing skill. They almost completed one lap, when Zorne went into a wash (in the 14-mile rockpile section) a little too hot, coming out upside down and holding the steering wheel in his lap. He had three cracked ribs and one destroyed race car for his second effort.
The 1975 race saw a teenage Las Vegas bike rider, Jack Johnson, come into his own when he and Mark Mason rode a Yamaha to first overall in the bikes. Johnson would team with Tibblin in 1976 for a second win.
Gene Hirst, who had won the first Mint 400 in 1968, teamed with Rick Mears in a Sandmaster Hustler to take the overall checkered flag, thereby becoming the fourth man in history to win twice among the cars. Others were Fritz Kroyer, 1971-72; Rodney Hall, 1969-73 in four-wheel drive divisions; and Johnny Johnson, 1969-1975.
MINT 400—Shown above are some of the strange vehicles that have competed in annual Mint 400, including Baja Boot driven by Bud Ekins and Guy Jones (#4), and Condor motorhome (#2). (L.V.N.B.)
The 1976 race was scheduled for April (the first race had been held in April) because of the Long Beach Grand Prix. Also, the downtown Las Vegas area could use the business more in April than in March. And 347 cars and 97 bikes showed up to take the green flag at the speedrome Tuesday morning.
This race was to prove the roughest of all the great events. Only 62 cars and 19 motorcycles completed the required four laps. 73 of the 1200 cc single-seat cars, which usually had the highest percentage of finishers, started, but only nine finished.
Gene Hirst, the “Pappy” of active off-road race drivers, who had retired after winning in 1975, was urged out of retirement by Don Arnett and teamed with Bobby Ferro. The team drove a Sandmaster Hustler to overall victory with a time spread of 42 minutes over the next finishers—Ed and Bob Rodine in a Chenowth 1200 single-seat racer. Johnson and Tibblin had won overall the Sunday before with a Husqvarna motorcycle. Hirst is the only driver to have won the Mint 400 three times.
What is the future for the Mint 400? According to Howe, the course will be much shorter, perhaps 60 to 65 miles. The entry list will be limited to 350 vehicles.
The Mint 400, Howe explained, has just outgrown itself. Something has to be done to limit the number of entries, as there is no longer a reason to go after every race driver in the world. It is already the “Crown Jewel” of off-road racing and of the newly created Hi-Desert Series.
“It will now definitely become the prestigious event it has always been,” Howe explained. K.J. has since resigned from the Mint Hotel to establish his own Public Relations business in Las Vegas. So the future of the Annual Del Webb Mint 400 Desert Rally is bright. It is considered by Las Vegas to be one of the two great events held in that city each year. Publicity is the name of the game in the desert mecca, and the Mint 400 is the King of Publicity.