Racing The Mint 400 With A G-SHOCK Mudmaster Strapped To The Front Bumper
The Mint 400 is billed as the greatest off-road race in the US. At 400 miles - start to finish - and endless rocks, ruts, and countless other racers vying for victory, it’s also one of the toughest. We decided to put ourselves and a Casio G-SHOCK to the test. We strapped the G-SHOCK Mudmaster GGB100-1A3 to the front bumper bar and buckled into the driver’s seat to see what would break first.
If offered, any sane person would gladly opt-out of standing in a dusty dirt lot behind Buffalo Bill’s Resort & Casino, around 40 miles south of Vegas, baking under an unrelenting sun. Add in the promise of no less than 13 hours of physical torture and mental stress, after a sweat-soaked procession in two-hour-long bumper-to-bumper traffic, and you’ll have even fewer volunteers. But, there I was - in that exact predicament - voluntarily. And I wasn’t alone. Not only did my friend Till Bechtolsheimer come along for the ride, with absolutely no convincing needed, but we were also joined by hundreds of other people.
Hunter S. Thompson once famously scribed about this particular annual gathering of motley masochists. He referred to them as “a very special breed,” while on assignment covering what he described as “a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one.” He was, of course, talking about The Mint 400. The largest circus of off-road endurance racing the United States has to offer.
Unlike the late, great, Mr. H.S. Thompson, I did not stay up through the night before The Mint 400. I wasn’t filled to the brim with mescaline, cocaine, ether, and acid. And I also wasn’t there to simply cover America’s greatest off-road race. I was there to be in it — to race it myself. And, while I’d be buckled into the driver’s seat, there’d be a G-SHOCK Mudmaster strapped to the front bumper bar the whole way.
It’s Not Just Any Race
The Indy 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans, two of the most legendary tests of endurance in motorsport, see drivers log a couple of hundred laps and reach speeds over 200 mph. The Mint 400, on the other hand, is just four laps with the average speed somewhere below the posted highway limit. Each lap, however, is 100 miles and meanders around the worst imaginable terrain in the southwestern United States.
Fly over Primm, Nevada, where The Mint takes place, and from 40,000 feet it’s a picturesque painting of soft brown silt broken up by a few, seemingly harmless, craggy mountain ranges. Drive through it - meet it at eye level - and you’ll struggle to believe any story of pioneers and prospectors surviving such a wasteland. Keep heading west and Primm becomes an appropriate aperitif to Death Valley. Holding a motorsport race here defies logic.
This was somewhat of a dual review. On my wrist, and in the relative safety of our cockpit, I was wearing a G-SHOCK Mudmaster GGB100-1A3. Out front, on the leading crossbar of our roll cage, attached using nothing more than its own resin strap and buckle, was a second Mudmaster.
The Mint 400 being one of the toughest, dirtiest races in the United States, it seemed like the perfect place and method for verifying the reputation of a watch known for its durability. In all honesty, I devoted zero energy to worrying about how either watch would fare. I knew the one on my wrist would go the full race distance. I also had complete confidence the one on the roll cage would end up in a pile of dirt out in the desert. Both outcomes were surefire.
Our Race Truck
Modern race trucks and buggies of all shapes and sizes, designed specifically to tackle this terrain, compete in different classes. It’s an eclectic bunch for sure. You’ll see modified vintage VW Beetles, open-wheel dune buggies, UTVs you can buy at a dealership, two-million-dollar 700-horsepower trophy trucks, and everything in between. Seeing all the vehicles together makes Mad Max: Fury Road eerily realistic and attainable.
Our desert racer was one of the in-betweeners. A purpose-built, fairly basic open-wheeled buggy powered by a 180 horsepower Subaru boxer four-cylinder engine in the rear. It’s balanced and decently powered for its weight, but it wouldn’t be setting any course records. According to its owner, Earl Desiderio, who owns and operates the off-road adventure company Zero1, “It’s a bullet-proof machine that can run with the faster classes in the right hands.”
Outfits like Zero1 are the only reason absolute amateurs, with close to no off-road racing experience like myself, can hop in a buggy and participate in an event like The Mint 400. If you have a couple of thousand dollars and can take off work for a week, you can run in The Mint 400. It’s not like road racing where you need a special license and a certain amount of track time. Depending on the car you rent, you might not even need to know how to drive a manual. No one is saying racing 400 miles around the desert is safe though. If you have no idea what you’re doing, you’ll be in some serious life-threatening danger. But when it comes to accessibility, this type of racing has no equal.
Between Till and I, we had a decent amount of racing experience. It’s mostly road racing, and most of it belongs to Till. He regularly competes in International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) in an Acura GT3 with Gradient Racing, has logged hours behind the wheel on track in vintage cars, and owns a professional-grade simulator. I’ve done a race weekend in a Mazda Miata, attended a handful of race schools, and that’s pretty much it. We both knew what we were doing and had some idea of what we were getting into.
The Math Checks Out
The worrying part was the advice from veterans, guys who’ve subjected themselves to this sort of competition for years, decades even. “The only way to prepare for The Mint is to run The Mint. Other than that, just look after your machine and you should be fine. Maybe.” They also suggested bringing along warm clothes, perhaps some playing cards, and a bottle of whiskey. If you break down on the far side of the course, it’ll be a while before anyone gets to you. In which case, the cards and whiskey come in handy. We tucked a bottle into the center console.
“I’ll be happy as long as we finish.” In what other sport do you hear that? What would baseball need to be like for players to genuinely worry they wouldn’t see the seventh-inning stretch? Or if playing a full 18 holes was an award-winning accomplishment, rarely achieved in the PGA? The rate of attrition in The Mint 400 is so high. The odds of mechanical failure, driver error, or just bad luck ending a race, make crossing the finish line at The Mint 400 a true test of grit.
Based on our math, both of us would be treading water in the car. As long as we stayed afloat, finishing the race would be a reality. That was the goal, plain and simple: make it to the end; finish the full 400. Hopefully, the whiskey would be celebratory, not consolatory.
11:00 am, Gridding Up
After getting in line and gridding up at 11 am, there we still were, inching towards the starting line of the 2020 Mint 400 around 2:50 pm. It was hours of patiently waiting in the queue before a bearded man in a bucket hat and limousine-tint sunglasses waved us up between two vertical black monoliths — shipping containers marking the start-finish.
Surprisingly, I was oddly calm. Calmer than I’d been the entire week. Just getting to the starting line taxed my brain like nothing else. Not the waiting, standing around, or crawling to the start line on race day, but the months of organizing leading up to it. Booking a race car with one company, coordinating flights for multiple people for preliminary trips to Vegas for practice days. Having that company back out last minute, getting set up with Zero1, and all the fires needing to be extinguished in between. My mind was weightless just watching the starting lights flash. It was an ultimate relief. I honestly thought the most difficult part was in the rearview and the Primm desert was the home stretch.
Finally, The Starting Line.
The last light lit up, I raised the revs, dumped the clutch, and aimed the buggy towards turn one. We worked our way through the well-groomed infield course, taking it relatively easy, careful not to stall or get overzealous and put the car on its roof in the first hundred feet. It sounds ridiculous and overly cautious, but it happens to a handful of racers each year.
Grandstands and spectators disappeared behind the hill and we snaked our way past a solar field, long power lines, and out onto the silt bed. Following sage advice, I feathered the throttle at 75mph and limited us to that, protecting our machine. We could’ve gone slightly faster but Till and I agreed to err on the side of caution, a theme we wanted to stick to.
Keeping a close eye on the fluorescent trail markers, the wide-open, near white markers started to funnel down to a single lane trail. The perfectly flat terrain and soft, baby powder sand disappeared and gave way to gravel, basketball-sized rocks, and teeth chattering washboard.
I have the utmost respect for Till. Not least of which because he trusts me enough to drive him out into the desert at full speed, in a rear-engined race buggy we spent minimal time in leading up to this. As the co-driver, sitting shotgun, he kept us on course by simultaneously eyeing the GPS and calling out turns, suggesting speeds and gear shifts, all while on the lookout for on-track hazards. Not that I was incapable of doing those things myself, but when you can relinquish some responsibility, it frees up your bandwidth. The plan was for me to do the same after we switched seats during our first pitstop, back near the start-finish, 70 miles away.
The trail started to tighten up and fold in on itself. Blind turns and crests were taken on faith, and every time Till came over the radio there was a new chance to immediately ruin our race. “Rock left.” Keeping it straight and to the point. “Left turn. Keep speed up. Third gear.” I gave each squawk a “copy” in return. We were in the thick of the quarry section of the track. The most treacherous stretch, no matter what you were driving. Wheel hungry boulders littered our path. The occasional “rock right/left” turned into rapid-fire orders. I was slaloming for survival.
50 Miles Down, 350 To Go
Around mile marker 50, Till came over the radio. “Someone’s trying to pass.” It was another Class 5500 buggy. They got impatient and bumped us. I pulled over to let them by, gave them enough room, and they still clipped our front tire. Is that totally legal in this race? Yes. When it comes down to it, off-road racing is most certainly a contact sport. That wouldn’t be the last time we saw that car.
We eventually passed them back after they apparently stopped to fix two flats. And then, around mile marker 70, they were behind us again, looking to pass with no space on either side of the track for us to let them by. Another shove — this time it wasn’t so friendly. We felt it through the cabin. Putting two wheels off the track, we let them by then turned back to the course. The steering was heavy, the exhaust started singing a new tune, and every bump in the road shot through our seats and into our backs. Something clearly wasn’t right, but I tried to keep up the pace.
Something’s Not Right
Barreling down a straightaway that looked identical to one we floated over earlier in the day, it was now sending jackhammer blows through the suspension. Internal organs strained to stay in place and my chest muscles were clinging on for dear life with every shock. The G-SHOCK? It was doing just fine. We slowed down, way down. We were done protecting our machine. It was now about the two meat bags inside the machine making it back in one piece.
Ten miles from the pit lane, I had to pull over. I had to know what the hell was wrong with the car. Till insisted I stay in the car while he inspected, to save time. He hopped back in, said the suspension appeared fine and started buckling up, but I wasn’t convinced. I walked around the back of the car and confirmed my fears. Exhausted and eager to get back to the pits to have the crew pore over the car, Till overlooked a few not-so-minor details.
The rear section of the roll cage surrounding the engine: gone. Exhaust muffler: somewhere in the desert. Serpentine belt: nowhere to be found. Alternator: looking like someone dropped it 12 stories then bolted it back, in vaguely the right place.
Lap One, Done And Dusted
Limping back to the pits, the sun was setting on the day and our race. I held on to a pointless glimmer of hope when Earl waved us into the pits and went around the back of the car to assess the damage. He walked up to the driver’s side, gave the international hand sign for “kill it” across his throat, and told me to switch off the engine. “Hate to say this but your race is over.”
He confirmed what I already knew, but didn’t want to accept. We could’ve gone back out and finished the race. But with no power steering and no alternator to hold a charge, our light bar would’ve drained all the power the moment we flipped the switch. Then we would’ve been stranded in the dark, out in the desert with nothing but misery and frustration to keep Till and I company.
A few four-letter words, and a heated Q&A with the drivers of the other car later, we opened the bottle of bourbon. “Better in the pits than out in the desert, right?” I checked the time with the practically spotless Mudmaster on my wrist. Then, for the first time since I put it there, I gave a thought to the one on the roll cage.
Unlike the rear of the car, the front was considerably more intact. The Mudmaster? Still ticking, wearing a thick coating of desert dust. Barely a scratch.
With that, we gathered our gear and walked back to the bar in the spectator area, where more bourbon and beer chasers waited.
Making it to the starting line of The Mint 400 is an achievement only a couple hundred people can lay claim to. Beaten, battered, and bruised as we were, one lap — 100 miles — of The Mint 400 is still more than most can say they’ve done.
In the days leading up to the race, I couldn’t help but constantly feel anxious, excited, and nervous all at once. I couldn’t stop thinking about all that could go wrong, followed quickly by thoughts of what would happen if it all went perfectly. Come race day, sitting in the driver’s seat of our Class 5500 buggy, gridding up for the start, all that faded away.
I found myself calm and focused on getting the start right, then the first mile, then each mile after that. One at a time as they came. It was downright meditative despite the brutal terrain. Would I do it all over again knowing it would end up the same way? Hell yeah, I would. It’s the goddamn Mint 400. Do I think that’s insane? No. I just consider myself part of a very special breed.
To learn more about the G-SHOCK Mudmaster GGB100-1A3, visit G-SHOCK's website.
(Photography by Jarry Truong and Enki Tovuuch)