Now that the start of the race is approaching, time is compressing. Two days before the Polaris RZR Mint 400 Great American Off-Road Race gets under way in the dusty outskirts of fabulous Las Vegas, 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,” he says. “I don’t have the words. It’s really more of a feeling …” He trails off, running his hand along the back of his tight crew cut. “I mean, just look at the thing.” Gleaming in a new coat of matte black, with a low arched body atop raised suspension and big chunky tires, this über-customized Ford Ranger XLT with a new V6 says more than this polite husband and IT guy ever could articulate about the history and culture of his passion.
Park, 39, bought the truck off a lot down the road and spent three months and $40,000 of his own money customizing her with his team. Right now, they’re making 11th-hour adjustments. The Polaris RZR Mint 400 is a pro-am event that draws more than 300 of the country’s best racing teams, competing for big money and bigger exposure. The pros’ sponsors want their brands seen; the amateurs want sponsors to see them.
Number of words Sports Illustrated assigned journalist Hunter S. Thompson to write a photo caption about the Mint 400 in 1971.
Number of words the Gonzo journalist ultimately wrote, which became the basis for Part One of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The total number of fans who bore witness to this year’s running of the Polaris RZR Mint 400.
The number of teams who did not finish this year’s race. A total of 330 had entered.
The two camps are discernible: In general, pro racers and their teams wear new boots, shades and coveralls. Their trailers are customized and absolutely everything is plastered with stickers of the big-name brands. Ams’ gear tends to be mismatched, maybe a bit worn, and their trucks are more spare. For the race, Park and his co-pilot will wear dusty black coveralls with white racing stripes and personalized shoes from Osiris, his sponsor. Other sponsors’ patches are sewn down the sleeve. “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 biggest race of his life, filled with stress and excitement, Park makes eye contact and speaks in a clear, focused manner. His voice has no trace of the cliché SoCal drawl you hear in surf movies; his vocabulary attests to his engineering background. (“Structure elevates your team success.”) He doesn’t BS.
“My dad was a 28-year veteran of the Navy SEALs,” he says. “He was on the underwater demo team and he worked with Jacques Cousteau on the first underwater breathing apparatus. So he’s out doing these amazing things, and I felt this need to be Superman as well, to go on these aggressive adventures.”
This meant loading dirt bikes into pickups and off-roading to more rural areas around California and eventually 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 soon was winning races throughout Baja and California. Over time he met sponsors and started working with a business partner to form a local olive oil company called Baja Olive. The brand’s name is now brightly screened across his black truck.
Baja is important to off-roading, to Park, and to the Polaris RZR Mint 400. It’s an off-roading mecca spanning 750 miles, where, in 1967, another famed race began. The first Baja 1000 drew off-roaders from around the world, and such was its success that casino mogul Del Webb and his PR man decided a desert race would be a great gimmick to promote their new hotel: The Mint. Thus, the Mint 400 was born.
The light is fading with still more to do, but Park is unfazed. He still has to hit Auto Zone tonight and tweak the suspension. It’s in these hours, narrow wedges of time he’s found between work and family, that he’s turned a passion into a career.
Park’s day starts around sunrise. He has breakfast with his wife, Mia, a pianist and magazine editor, in their small tiled kitchen and goes to work. For the next nine hours he multitasks: troubleshooting his design firm’s obscure computer issues, managing Baja Olive, courting sponsors to give him parts and garages to lend him time and machinery.
He gets home around 6 p.m. and spends an hour on social networks, promoting Baja Olive. After dinner he changes into coveralls and heads out to work on the truck.
We’re at someone’s garage, and one thing leads to another that always leads to another—then it’s midnight and the phone’s ringing because my wife wants to know if everything’s OK,” he says. Park’s team latches the truck’s doors into place. James Oshea, 39, and Scott Breauxman, 47, grew up in northern San Diego County, off-road’s cradle of life. Oshea and Breauxman are both volunteers and seasoned experts who’ve been racing here since they were kids. The three friends go back a quarter century. Two days and endless details later, Park is revving his new V6 engine in a parking lot behind the Gold Strike Hotel and Casino underneath a cold desert moon. It’s 5 a.m. 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,” Park says. “Let’s get this.” Park hits the gas, makes one broad, squealing circle and is gone, receding up the slight hill toward the glowing line of racers on their way to the start. There are trucks, ATVs, dune buggies, old-world Volkswagen Beetles and sandrails—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 go vvrrooooooooooooooOOOOOM. And smoke. Some stall and don’t start again. Racers take off two at a time, following not a flag-waving Polaris RZR 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 rub it out with a hard eraser.
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 kept via a GPS, and time is added for violations like driving off-course. The sun is just eclipsing the mountain peaks when Park reaches the line. A large official in an orange vest doesn’t look up from his tablet 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 goes out to the team (it 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,” Oshea says. “That’s why I was on the roof. We got oil. We got spark. I don’t know …”
“It’s the motor,” Park says, 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, a shrieking thanking and listing of multiple awards for multiple teams in multiple classes.
Park and his team didn’t attend the festivities, or any of the notorious afterparties that help give the Mint its raucous undercurrent. They had beers at their hotel in Jean, Nevada, 30 miles from the Strip. 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 getting enough fuel, Park explained two weeks later, as he sat at home with his wife, enjoying March Madness basketball on television 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 545-mile desert trek. “The desert won this time,” he says. “But that’s why they call it racing. There’s always another one. 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.”