BY DINT OF THE MINT: Recalling the Vegas race from which Hunter S. Thompson became permanently linked to the mythos of Las Vegas
Del Webb and his crew at the Mint just wanted people to come to his casino’s deer hunt in 1967.
What they opened the way for was:
A) One of the most famous pieces of journalism in American letters;
B) With Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic opening line, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” generations of bad tattoos and bland Twitter bios.
The story that eventually landed in Rolling Stone as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” had a fundamentally weird start. Webb’s Mint Las Vegas procured a dune buggy to hand out as the top prize for its deer hunt (and if you ever wondered just how different Vegas was 50 years ago, that should tell you everything).
To drum up interest in it, Webb’s assistant public relations man and racing fan Norm Johnson looked to the nascent Baja 1000, the original off-road race from Tijuana, Mexico, to La Paz, Bolivia, to see who could tame Latin America’s most unpaved roads.
Importing the idea to Las Vegas, Johnson signed up two drivers, Las Vegans LeRoy Wickham and John Sexton, to haul six days through the desert to Webb’s Sahara Tahoe. It worked. Word spread, and the race grew. The next year, the Mint 400 Del Webb Desert Rally was officially born.
In 1971, Thompson got the assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover the race, and we’re sure you’ve read it or seen it or went to school with someone who had the poster on their dorm room wall and wouldn’t shut up about it. But what somehow gets lost in all of it is the actual race.
Around 260 teams ponied up the $300 entry fee — which entitled entrants to a commemorative Mint 400 Jim Beam decanter, a pair of race jackets, tickets to the banquet dinner and other assorted detritus — to compete in six categories spread out among motorcycles, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and both production and non-production cars.
From March 21-23, 1971, the teams were ready to run the eight laps of the 50-mile course at the Mint Gun Club (later Las Vegas Gun Club) at Tule Springs. Because when you need to find a home for your off-road race, naturally you turn to the gun club your casino owns.
Kicking things off, Las Vegan Max Switzer finally broke through and took the motorcycle race for his first win in five tries. He partnered with Hollywood stunt driver and 1968 motorcycle winner J.N. Roberts to nab the $6,000 prize by running the race in nine hours, 54 minutes and five seconds. It was 17 minutes faster than the competition and they were the only team to crack the 10-hour mark. Whatever strange masochism pushes someone to subject themselves to 10 hours of inner-thigh agony and throat-destroying dust-eating, we want no part of it.
“Switzer came blasting up to the finish line on a Husqvarna 400 an hour after the sun went down to complete the eighth lap around the 50-mile course,” the Las Vegas Sun reported. It was the first win in the rally for a Las Vegan, and the last until Jack Johnson would hit the wire in 1975.
On the auto side of the ledger, Bill Harkey, a 52-year-old dune buggy manufacturer from San Fernando, California, paired up with 27-year-old Danish-born auto mechanic Fritz Kroyer, of Santa Susana, California, to drive Harkey’s single-seat Hi-Jumper Volkswagen buggy to the win in the overall four-wheel and production categories.
It took the duo 13 hours, 30 minutes and 42 seconds to make the route. Only 28 cars out of the starting 264 finished the race. Just like the attrition rate in The Cannonball Run, but with a dreadfully disappointing dearth of Dom DeLuise.
Harkey and Kroyer would score again in 1972. Hunter S. was on to politics by then.
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