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Legendary Mint 400 faces development incursion toward its off-road course

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Photo courtesy Mint 400.

The signature clouds of dust that once put a halt to Hunter Thompson’s coverage of the Mint 400 could spell doom for the race’s future just outside of Las Vegas if a plan to expand the city limits south moves forward without input from desert racers and off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, the organizers of the race warn.

“What’s frustrating to the desert racing community is that a lot of this information has come out willy nilly and we weren’t asked to participate or considered in the process,” said Josh Martelli, who with his brother Matt bought the Mint 400 in 2011 and has operated it since. “Though, to be honest, I don’t know that our one race event can go toe to toe with commercial growth and activity.”

Martelli said he only recently learned of the Clark County Commission’s proposal to open up more than 38,000 acres adjacent to the city of Las Vegas – most of that along I-15 south of the city – for commercial and residential development. Las Vegas, which is constantly adding new residents, is restricted from physical expansion largely by the federal Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act of 1998, a law that restricted the Bureau of Land Management from selling certain lands in the valley surrounding the city to developers. The county-level proposal would be the first step in amending the law’s so-called “disposal boundaries” at the federal level.

The existing disposal boundaries have made it possible to run the Mint 400 over the last eight years on a 100-mile course at Jean Dry Lake, an off-highway vehicle area close to I-15 about halfway between the Las Vegas city limits and the California border. Indeed, the ability to visit an OHV area 20 minutes outside of the city is one of the things that makes Las Vegas attractive, Martelli said.

In fact, one might argue that rapid access from the Las Vegas casinos to the desert was instrumental in the founding of the Mint 400 50 years ago. Growing out of a 1967 publicity stunt by Norm Johnson to promote Del Webb’s Mint casino and hotel by sending dune buggies through the Nevada desert from Las Vegas to Lake Tahoe, the race itself began in 1968 and attracted a number of celebrities and some of the world’s top racing drivers over the next several years.

“There was a time in the 1970s when it attracted 550 entries,” Martelli said. “It was crucial to the marketing of Las Vegas and was viewed as a trifecta race with Indy and Le Mans.”

From the start, the race had enough clout to warrant shutting down Fremont Street for the ceremonial start of the race and a police escort out of town for all the participants.

Mint 400 start on Las Vegas’s Fremont Street sometime in the 1980s. Photo courtesy UNLV Libraries Digital Collections.

And, perhaps most famously, the 1971 running of the Mint 400 provided the impetus for Thompson’s infamous account of his road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with his lawyer, even though the race itself, obscured by a the dust storm kicked up by riders’ tires, only figured into a few paragraphs of his “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

By noon it was hard to see the pit area from the bar/casino, 100 feet away in the blazing sun. The idea of trying to “cover this race” in any conventional press-sense was absurd: It was like trying to keep track of a swimming meet in an Olympic – sized pool filled with talcum powder instead of water. The Ford Motor Company had come through, as promised, with a “press Bronco” and a driver, but after a few savage runs across the desert – looking for motorcycles and occasionally finding one – I abandoned this vehicle to the photographers and went back to the bar.

Webb continued to sponsor the race until 1988, when he sold its namesake casino and hotel. After a couple more years, the “Great American Off-Road Race” then lay dormant until 2008, when the Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts resurrected the Mint 400, though without the Fremont Street festival atmosphere. Instead, SNORE ran the race on a course situated north of Las Vegas both on land overseen by the Moapa tribe and on land overseen by the BLM. After the 2011 event, BLM officials decided that the race caused too much damage to local vegetation and, rather than counter the decision, SNORE sold the race to the Martellis, who moved the race to its current location in 2012.

Martelli said he’s not yet sure exactly where the new Las Vegas development boundary will fall or how close it will come to the current race course. However, he said even if encroachment of development won’t itself restrict racing, air quality regulations designed to keep man-made dust down within a certain radius of inhabited and developed land likely will either put a stop to off-road racing in Jean or effectively mandate a smaller, less challenging race course.

“We’d be getting squeezed out between any new construction and the desert tortoise,” Martelli said, referring to Areas of Critical Environmental Concern included in the proposed plan that are meant to protect endangered species including the tortoise. “In a way, we’d end up an endangered species too.”

In response, the Martellis have voiced their concerns to each of the Clark County commissioners and have discussed the situation with the county’s director of air quality, but they have also started to look at alternative locations for the Mint 400, mostly in Arizona and Northern California. “It’s tough to say whether we could run this race anywhere else in the Vegas area, and it would be very difficult to move away from Las Vegas because we’re paying tribute to the race’s heritage,” Martelli said. “But I don’t think we can sit idly by and just say the Mint 400 is over, either.”

And while the city stands to reap millions of dollars in tax money from any development that results from the proposal, Martelli said the race already brings about $40 million work of economic activity to Las Vegas and, according to the five-year plan the brothers recently filed with the BLM, they anticipate that amount to increase to $140 million.

In a best-case scenario for the plan, as Martelli said others have explained to him, the plan passes at a county commissioners meeting later this month, then takes about two years to go through Congress before the BLM can begin to sell property in the newly expanded disposal boundaries.

Martelli said he doesn’t fault the county and city one bit for pursuing the plan, but he would like to get the county commissioners to include language in their proposal that would protect OHV access and address the concerns that the Martellis and SNORE representatives have raised.

“If they don’t, we’ll take it from there,” he said. “We may have to go to Washington then.”

The Clark County commissioners have scheduled a June 19 vote on the proposal.