Two days before the Mint 400 Great American Off-Road Race gets under way in the dusty outskirts of Las Vegas, Nevada, racer Justin Park sits on the porch of his quaint home in Encinitas, California, looking at the truck parked in his gravel driveway.
“You get in that thing, put on your helmet, hit the gas, and it’s just – it’s on,” says Park. “I don’t have the words. It’s really more of a feeling…” He trails off, running his hand across the back of his neatly shaven crew cut. “I mean, just look at the thing,” says Park of the customised Ford Ranger XLT with a new V6 engine. Gleaming in a new coat of matt black, with a low arched body atop raised suspension and chunky tyres, the truck says more than this polite husband and IT guy ever could articulate about the history and culture of his passion.
The Mint 400 is a event that draws more than 300 amateur and professional racing teams from all over America. Big money and bigger exposure are up for grabs. The pros’ sponsors want their brands seen; the amateurs want sponsors to see them. It’s easy to spot the differences between the two camps. In general, pro racers and their teams wear new boots, shades and overalls. Their trailers are customised and everything is plastered with stickers of big-name brands.
Amateurs tend to wear mismatched gear, maybe a bit worn, and their trucks are more simple. For the race, Park and his co-pilot will wear dusty black overalls with white racing stripes and personalised shoes from Osiris, his sponsor. Other sponsors’ patches are sewn down the sleeve.
The number of words Sports Illustrated magazine assigned Hunter S Thompson to write a photo story about the race.
The number of words he actually wrote. The “mean gibberish” went on to form the basis of Part One of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
The number of fans who bore witness to this years running of the Mint 400.
149 Race Teams
The number of competitors who did not finish this year’s race. A total of 330 entered.
“The Mint is iconic,” he says. “I grew up hearing stories about it around here. You do well in this race, and your life’s going to change, so the pressure’s on.” When he’s not 48 hours from the big event, filled with pre-race nerves and excitement, Park makes eye contact and speaks in a clear, focused manner. His voice has no trace of his Californian accent reminiscent of surf movies. He makes statements that show he’s knows his engineering, saying things like, “Structure elevates your team success.”
“My dad was a 28-year veteran of the Navy SEALs,” says Park. “He was on the underwater demo team and he worked with Jacques Cousteau on the first underwater breathing apparatus. He was out doing these amazing things, and I felt this need to be Superman as well, to go on these adventures.”
This meant loading dirt bikes into pick-up trucks and off-roading to more rural areas around California, and eventually to Baja, Mexico. As Park made the transition from bikes to small trucks he could work on at home – dirt bikes mean injuries, he says – he was soon winning races throughout Baja and California. Eventually he got sponsorship deals and formed an olive oil company called Baja Olive with a business partner.
The brand’s name is now emblazoned across his black truck. Baja is important to off-road racing, to Park, and to the Mint 400. It’s an off-roading mecca spanning 750 miles of Mexico where, in 1967, another famed race began. The first Baja 1000 drew off-road racers from around the world, and such was its success that casino mogul Del Webb decided to start a desert race to promote his new hotel: The Mint. Thus, the Mint 400 was born.
Justin Park still has to go to the Auto Zone shop and tweak the suspension before he goes to bed. The light is fading and there is much more work to be done, but he’s unfazed. It’s in these hours, slithers of time he’s found between work and family, that he’s turned a passion into a career. Park’s day starts at sunrise. He has breakfast with his wife, Mia, a magazine editor, in their small tiled kitchen, and goes to work.
For the next nine hours, he’ll troubleshoot his design firm’s obscure computer issues while managing Baja Olive and courting sponsors to give him parts, and calling up garages to lend him time and machinery. He gets home around 6pm and spends an hour on social networks, promoting Baja Olive. After dinner he changes into overalls and goes to work on the truck.
“The next thing is we’re at someone’s garage, and one thing leads to another that always leads to another,” says Park. “Then it’s midnight and the phone’s ringing because my wife wants to know if everything’s OK.” Park’s team latches the truck’s doors into place. James Oshea, 39, and Scott Breauxman, 47, are from Northern San Diego County, California, off-road racing’s cradle of life. Oshea and Breauxman are both volunteers and seasoned experts who grew up desert racing. The three have been friends for more than 25 years.
Two days and endless refinements later, Park is revving his new V6 engine in a parking lot behind the Gold Strike Hotel underneath a cold desert moon. It’s five o’clock on race morning and he’s strapped into the cockpit of the reinforced cab, alongside Oshea, who is making the move to co-pilot for the first time after helping Park in the pits.
“All right, guys,” says Park. “Let’s get this.” Park hits the accelerator, makes one broad squealing circle, and is gone, receding up the hill towards the glowing line of racers on their way to the start. There are trucks, ATVs, dune buggies, vintage Volkswagen Beetles and sand rails, which look like go-karts that grew up in the desert and ate their vegetables.
They tic and rev and snarl and cough and growl and grumble and make a sound that goes vvrroooooooooooooOOOOOM. There’s also a lot of smoke. Some drivers stall their engines and don’t start the race. The racers take off two at a time, following not a flag-waving Mint 400 girl, but an average-looking dusty traffic light. There’s already a low, tacking mist of sand over the course, like someone tried to erase it with a rubber. A total of 25 classes, from Class 5, the VWs, to Class 7 Stock Mini, Park’s class, are participating; the quickest time in each class wins. Each racer’s time is recorded via GPS, and time is added for violations like driving off-course.
This sun is just eclipsing the mountain peaks when Park reaches the line. A race official wearing an orange vest doesn’t look up from his tablet computer as Park stops, stares straight ahead, and then disappears in a low chute of dust.
He never makes the first pit, about 50 miles from the start. Early on, he feels the horsepower drop. At mile 33, the truck stalls, starts again, goes 10 more minutes, then quits three miles from Pit A. A text message goes out to the team that just reads “problem” and soon Breauxman is engaging every piece of his Toyota’s four-wheel drive to move over dunes, creekbeds, and cacti, until he sees it. The truck emits a dry wheezing sound that pops as the engine tries to turn over. “We just called the guy who built the engine,” says Oshea. “We got oil. We got spark. I don’t know…”
“It’s the motor,” says Park, almost to himself. With an expression somewhere between crushed and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me, he helps Breauxman loop a tow rope through the front suspension and they begin the long trek back. After the race, on a distant shimmery stage, the feedback-heavy awards ceremony that takes longer than the race itself is going on. It’s a shrieking thanking and listing of multiple awards for multiple teams in multiple classes.
Park and his team don’t attend the festivities or any notorious afterparties that help give The Mint its raucous undercurrent. Instead, they have a few beers at their hotel in Jean, Nevada, about 30 miles south of Las Vegas. When all was said and done and they examined the outcome of the race, the fatal flaw was indeed the motor. A computer malfunction meant it was not receiving enough fuel, Park explained two weeks later as he sat at home with his wife, enjoying March Madness basketball on TV and still undeterred. Now he’s rigorously testing the truck and looking forward to August, when they will compete in the General Tire Vegas To Reno, a 543-mile desert trek.
“The desert won this time,” he says. “But that’s why they call it racing. There’s always another event. It’s long, it’s hot, and we’ll need the whole team to work really hard. But that’s our focus now. That’s our story.”