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Pursuits | Unforgettable Experiences: In the Dust

  • Ezra Dyer

At the Mint 400, a novice takes the wheel of an off-road race machine—and goes for the win.

The buggies start in the dark. Out in the desert a half hour south of Las Vegas, a line of off-road buggies and tricked-out Jeeps stretches into the gloomy blackness beyond portable floodlights. This is the Mint 400 starting line, a seemingly arbitrary slash in the sand marked by a set of traffic lights. There is no yellow, just red and green. And every 30 seconds or so, the green light flashes and the competitors in two parallel lanes gun their engines and charge off into the desert in a spray of grit and dust, the severity of the terrain expressed in the wild dance of their headlights as they move up through the gears. At the first corner, about 100 yards out, a Jeep lies on its side, helpless as an overturned horseshoe crab. Someone’s race ended at Turn 1, and that fact fills me with icy trepidation. Because in a couple of hours, I will be strapping into the driver’s seat of a 200 hp buggy and trying my luck in the toughest off-road race in America. 

Desert racing is unique among motorsports in that there are opportunities for novices like me to show up and compete. (Try doing that at, say, the Daytona 500.) The concept is called arrive and drive, which pretty much sums up the requirements. You do not need your own race team, sponsors, or competition license. Outfits like Zero One Odysseys—which, during other times of the year, hosts buggy adventure tours across the desert—will set you up with a race vehicle, pit support, a navigator, and a day of training. You pay the requisite amount of money—in this case, $17,500—and you are in a position to win a trophy. 

Among the 330 competitors who showed up in March for this year’s Mint 400, Red Bull fielded a team in a Zero One buggy, a custom-built race machine with a rear-mounted Subaru motor and suspension travel that makes a Ford Raptor look like a Conestoga wagon. In addition to yours truly, the team includes Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware and television personality Sal Masekela. Each of us is allotted 100 miles of wheel time—one full lap of the course. The modestly powered buggies and Jeeps run in the morning, while the monstrous “trick trucks,” some of them packing twin-turbo V-8s and costing more than a half-million dollars, race in the afternoon. The morning racers get three laps; the trucks are fast enough to squeeze in four.

Masekela and Ware split the first lap, switching drivers at the midpoint pit stop. I vow to run the entire second lap before handing the car back to my codrivers for the third lap. By the time I arrive at the predawn starting line, Masekela is already out there in the boonies, having taken the green flag at 6 am, when the streets of Vegas are still dotted with stragglers who have yet to go to bed. I watch the last of the competitors roar off and then walk over to our pit area to await the return of car No. 5501.

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