Its a cloudy, damp Monday evening, and here I sit, in the aftermath of the The Mint 400. Thousands of images to process, a story to write, and a head cold as a result of all the fun I had in Vegas. Its not the first time for me, in this position. And with any luck, it won’t be the last.
You see, last weekend was the 50th Anniversary of The Mint 400 in Las Vegas, NV, and I was lucky enough to attend for my second year in a row. And not just attend, but to experience all of the rock splitting action from behind the scenes as an established member of the media. It’s a position I hold dear, as I’ve worked hard to get here with little monetary reward. But motorsports are my passion, and the experiences it has afforded me, along with the people it has introduced me to are invaluable.
The Mint 400 has a deep historical value in America, which is how it became known as “The Great American Race.” When it formed in 1968, it was merely a promotion for the famed Mint Hotel in Las Vegas, but as word spread, and the prize purse grew, it became an animal all its own.
Its important to note that this weekends anniversary race wasn’t the 50th running of this event, but actually only the 50th anniversary. Because while the first race took place in 1968, the event disappeared in 1989 after the The Mint Hotel was sold to Jack Binion (Binion’s Hotel) who deemed it a waste of his resources. It was only recently resurrected in 2008 when SNORE reorganized and added to their schedule, and eventually sold it to the Martelli Brother’s who now own, promote and operate it today in conjunction with The Best In The Desert. And quite well, I might ad. But enough of the history, lets get to the weekend’s events.
My trip started Friday morning at 4am where I was up and out in order to arrive to Las Vegas’ Freemont Street in time to catch all the festivities. Technically, the event started on Wednesday, with the famous vehicle procession down the Las Vegas Strip. But as previously mentioned, I still have to work for a living and was obligated to finish out most of the week doing so. The beautiful weather made the drive seem short and I was parked one block off the Freemont Street Contingency in no time flat. Its always so exciting to pull up to all the action. Like a kid pulling up to the toy store, I couldn’t wait to get out of my truck, throw my camera gear over my shoulder and hit the strip. Unfortunately my excitement cost me an extra $95 dollars because I forgot to walk over and pay for a parking pass. Not only did they give me a $20 parking ticket, but I got a second $75 ticket for not having my new registration stickers on my plate! I mean, if that ain’t a kick in the balls, I don’t know what is. Thanks LVPD. But I digress.
Like the previous year, I had a great time walking the stip. The street is lined with offroad parts and manufacturing vendors, and many others of various kinds. Is one big horsepower infused party. Even Moab’s own Pirate’s Cove Resort was there, demonstrating their particularly beautiful scenic offerings, if you know what I mean. Its also a great way to get to mingle with the teams and witness all of the amazing race vehicles as they wind their way through the bustling street, pushing through the crowds to make it to the inspection station. Its also a fun way to see old friends and make some new ones. In fact, the first person I ran into was Tom Leigh (Tommygun Images) who was busy working his way through the strip himself, camera in hand.
But one of my favorite moments of the day was when I bumped into K.J. Howe at the media meet and greet party at Atomic Liquors on Freemont Street. I had recognized him from last year, and introduced myself. For those who don’t know, K.J. is one of the former managers of the Mint Hotel back in its day, and a founding fathers of The Mint 400. He was responsible for promoting the race back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and became the race director and even a competitor for many years. He is also responsible for conceiving the Mint 400 Girls as a promotional tool for the sport, which has held tradition to this day, with the crowning of a new “Miss Mint” every year. For all intents and purposes, he is like Mint 400 royalty, and has hundreds of amazing stories to share. I convinced him to do an on-camera interview and tell a couple of those stories with me, which I plan to share here on River Dave’s Place at some point, as well as my own YouTube Channel, Fast Loud Photography. It was definitely a highlight of my day.
After several laps up and down Freemont Street, and a few more chance encounters, I realized I was starting to get hungry for a beer… er-uh, I mean, burger… so I grabbed one of each before heading to the Media Safety meeting being held at the Golden Nugget Hotel – The contingency event’s official headquarters. The media safety meeting is pretty interesting. This is where you come to realize the value of your position. Not so much for the Martelli brothers (although they do need us photogs to promote their event), but in your responsibility as one of the media. One misstep by any one of us more than 200 on-course media members and it could mean the end of the Mint 400 when the BLM decides to cancel the permit. It’s a lot to consider, and I don’t take it lightly. I personally know that I don’t ever want to be “that guy”.
After the meeting, with press-credential in hand, I decided it was time to head back to my room at Buffalo Bills Casino & Hotel in Primm, NV – The location of the race start line, and official race headquarters. All that walking on pavement, made me realize that I had forgotten good walking shoes or boots for out in the desert the next day because “my dogs were barking”, as they say. I remembered that there was that desert outlet mall behind the Primm Hotel, so I packed up the truck (where I discovered my gift from the LVPD) and hit the road back to Primm, where I figured I’d pick up a cheap pair of boots to trash in the desert.
When I arrived in Primm, I dropped my stuff off at my room, and headed to the mall. It seemed like an odd thing to do on a Friday night in the desert, surrounded by some of the toughest guys in motorsports. But… it was a necessity, so I grabbed my purse and walked in. Just kidding. ;-)
I don’t know how many of you have been to that mall, but I gotta say… it was a surreal experience. Here it was, this huge mall in the middle of a expansive desert in a town which I doubt has any native residents. I walk in on a Saturday evening and it was completely, empty. I mean, literally. There was only, like, one other person I could see in the whole mall. The stores were open, the shelved were lined with luxury goods, music was playing and I was surrounded by opulent architecture. But I was the only one there.
It was confusing, but I had experienced this feeling before. Have you ever been to a foreign country, say, Mexico, and you go to a store which looks new and nice, and you walk in and its packed with foods and goods that you know none of the locals can afford? You feel like its completely out of place for its environment, like, it doesn’t belong there because you know that the local economy couldn’t possibly support it, but you’re glad it is because you really needed a pair of boots… or a bag of oranges, or a stick of deodorant. And you almost feel guilty because its all there for what seems like just for you. Well, that was the feeling. Strange. But… I found some nice, light, affordable hiking boots, made the purchase, and headed back to my hotel. I’ll contemplate that enigma another day.
By the time I got back to my hotel, it was about time for dinner so I headed down to the Denny’s on the Casino floor. I wanted something close, quick and easy and that was about as good as it was going to get. As I stood there waiting for a table for one (me), they called out a name… “KIM! PARTY OF 6. KIM, PARTY OF 6! Nobody responded, so I jokingly called out for them, KIM, PARTY OF 7! KIM, PARTY OF 7! I figured I would hitchhike on their table to get seated sooner, but wasn’t really that serious. They heard my call and approached the podium, where we joked about my sneaky plan. Then the hostess walked their party to their table. When the hostess came back for me, she walked me through the restaurant, and where do you think she sat me? At a table right next to theirs. Without hesitation, Kim yelled over to me and said, hey, you might was well sit with us now! So I hopped up, scooted up to the end of their table and proceeded to have one of the best meals I’ve had at a Denny’s. Not because of the food, but because of this wonderfully nice family that invited a perfect stranger to eat dinner with them, and not sit there alone. (Not that I mind it at all, but in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a very social person).
It turns out that they were there as guests / support for one of the teams in the unlimited race – the Class 6200 car of Mike Avila, #6228. And no, NOT the same Mike Avila of Waterski Racing fame, and known for his Nordic cat, Warpath. But I did think that was pretty ironic since I had just spent last weekend with him in Parker for the waterski racing season opener. Anyway, I had a really nice time visiting with Kim and her family, and I couldn’t have been more grateful for the invitation.
The next morning was a 4am wake up call for Race Day. I didn’t sleep much that night, but I got up and made it down to the starting line behind the hotel by 5am to start shooting the first release of cars off the line. Its well known that this race attracts all sorts of celebrities who come for there share of bragging rights, and while milling through the rows of cars, I spotted a few. The first was Diesel Dave and Heavy D sitting at the lineup in their #976 Polaris RZR Turbo UTV. They had their game face on, but were willing to give me a smile for the camera.
Next, as I was standing at the starting gate, a couple girls in media vests walk up and stand next to me. They were with this guy who looked suspiciously familiar, but couldn’t place a name to his face. We exchanged hellos and some small talk, but when the race official let him past the media line, because he was “with the race”, I finally asked…. “yeah, why do you look so familiar to me?” He stuck out his hand and said… “how you doin’ sir, I’m Steve Torrance.” Steve Torrance? The NHRA Top Fuel Driver? No wonder!
I’m aslo a huge fan of drag racing, so this was a treat. We proceeded to chat for 10 or 15 minutes, and it turns out that he was there to race the second lap of the UTV Pro Turbo class with none other than Antron Borwn, who was already out on the course doing the first lap. He was a real nice guy, and it was a pleasure to meet him.
From there, my plan was to head out into the deep desert to get to my first shooting location I had scouted, which was about 12 miles away by car, and another mile hike into the back country. From there I shot the limited race which consisted of UTVs, Trophy Lights, VW Bugs and Buggies and yes, the Diesel Brothers Antron Brown and Steve Torrance.
After a few hours of shooting from that ridge, I decided I wanted to shoot the Unlimited Race from a different location so all the shots didn’t look the same. I had heard about a huge silt turn deep in the desert which was only accessible by foot, so I left before race one was over, and started hiking back to my truck.
The course map they gave me was basic. What’s impossible to realize on a map is the shear vastness of the Nevada desert. The mountains are so big, and the air is so clear, that what looks close enough to throw a rock at can actually be 10 or 15 miles away. I knew I had to drive around 5 miles in on the access road, but when I got there I discovered I had to hike another two miles in to get to the turn. So without burning any more time, I threw my gear on and started hiking.
I got there in plenty of time before the Trick Trucks made their appearance, but what was funny is that I ended up running into a friend of mine who was already there shooting. He’s a Havasu local and a darn good photographer, and we had a great time shooting the bull while waiting for the first Trick Truck to come by.
Finally, it was time. Off in the distance, you could see the helicopter heading our way, and you know they are chasing the first truck leading the pack. As it gets closer you can start to hear the roar of those 800HP motors screaming through the desert. It defies logic how these trucks can reach those speeds over the harsh desert terrain, and when they finally reach you, and you’re ready to release that first shutter bomb, the hairs on the back of your neck are standing on end. It never gets old. The trucks came through, one by one, blasting out of this massive silt berm, and the photo ops were everything I was hoping for. I rapped off as many shots as I could as the procession passed, and was happy with what I captured.
The one downside to hiking in, however, is that you have to hike out. And before I could make it back to my truck, the fastest guys had already made another 100+ mile lap. By the time they got back to me, I was in a really bad place to shoot from and wasn’t able to get the variety of shots I had hoped for. None the less, it was worth the effort, and now I can hone my strategy for next year.
By this time, the sun was starting to set, and I was physically exhausted. Hiking is one thing, but carrying my 40lbs of camera gear doesn’t make it any easier. I made it back to my truck, and then back to the hotel where the finish line was but it was now dark and my body, with only a couple hours sleep, was starting to shut down. I decided to call it a night and not shoot the finish line and awards ceremony. I was starting to feel really bad, and couldn’t push it any longer. I got back my room and crashed. When I woke up 10 hours later, I was sick as a dog. I had paid the price for the ultimate offroad photography adventure.
As I sit hear with my head cold, recounting my Mint 400 experience, I can honestly say I have no regrets. Parking ticket, head cold, and all. If you’ve never been to the Mint 400, I would recommend planning a long weekend for next years event. The party on Freemont street during contingency is like nothing else, and the racing action on the course is goose bump inspiring. If you like raw horsepower, badass cars and trucks, Gambling and beautiful girls, there’s no better place to find it than in the middle of the Nevada Desert.
Thanks for joining me.
Word & Images : Erick B - Fast Loud Photography