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Auto racing hits back-to-back homeruns in Southern Nevada

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Las Vegas Motor Speedway drew more than 200,000 fans March 8-9 on the grounds of what used to be the old Mint 400 now staged south of Las Vegas. Photo by Tom Donohue.
By Mike Henle

Not long after Brad Kesolowski won both the Sam’s Town 300 NASCAR Nationwide race March 7 and the Kobalt Tools 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup event a day later on a weekend that attracted more than 200,000 fans, the resurgence of the Mint 400 off road race continued the roar of auto racing south of Las Vegas near Jean a week later.

In a true contrast of styles, each event had its own allure complete with pre-race festivities captivating fans and keeping the roadways and the airways jammed for two straight weeks.

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Mint 400 returns with record field and great following in rough and tumble event
Date: March 21, 2014

Off-road racing is tough to master whether you’re a competitor or a promoter. In either case, it takes high-dollar equipment to compete and nerves of steel to promote.

There is nothing easy about off-road racing especially as it relates to managing the costs of the event, keeping the Bureau of Land Management happy and making sure that checkpoints are managed, spectators are kept relatively safe andsponsors are happy.

First presented more than 45 years ago, the 2014 Mint 400 presented by Polaris March 14-17 has continued its resurgence started in 2010 following the race’s demise in the 1980s when Del Webb Corp. sold its Mint property to the Binion family of LasVegas.

San Diego's Andy McMillin won the 2014 Mint.

The end result in 2014 was a field of more than 300 vehicles battling south of Las Vegas. However, more importantly was the fact that Fremont Street was jam-packed with fans and racers for tech inspection on the Friday before the race only a few days before a never-ending crowd followed the trail to an area near Jean.

According to race officials, 55,000 fans attended pre-race events on Fremont Street while a figure ranging from 22,000-40,000 attended the race itself.

In the words of former Mint 400 Race Director KJ Howe, the gathering on Fremont Street was reminiscent of the old days long before the addition of the Fremont Street Experience took the area to an all-new level of excellence.

The Mint 400 was always good for Las Vegas in earlier years and even once drew more than 500 vehicles under Howe’s leadership. It was such a pop culture that the Clark County School District knew each year that tech inspection would undoubtedly produce high absentee rates simply because students took the day off to enjoy the fun.

So when the Martelli Brothers Matt and Josh jumped into the equation, a star was reborn in the desert in yet another example of how vitally important the sport of off-road racing is to the Las Vegas economy.

Off-road racing and stock car racing have become huge additions to the landscape and ironically enough, the groundsof Las Vegas Motor Speedway used to be the site of the oldMint 400 events when names like Parnelli Jones, Mickey Thompson, Jack Johnson and four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears highlighted action with powerful cars and endless stories.

When Jones’ co-rider complained of chest pains one year, the wily former Indy 500 winner pulled off the track, found a group of fans in wait and dumped the co-driver before continuing on with his own journey on a desert course intended only for those with strong will and strong bones.

Then during yet another race, one fan apparently overcome by alcohol decided to cross the rail road tracks not far from the start-finish line only to become high-centered on the tracks just as a train powered around the bend.

The conductor spotted the SUV on the track and wasted no time in lifting the vehicle off track in a high-speed delivery that must have sent squirrels, lizards and snakes running for cover to escape the sound and the thunder.

“We weren’t messing around,” the conductor said. “As far as we were concerned, there was no time to stop anyway, so the best thing we could do was simply boot the truck off the track. There wasn’t time to do anything else.”

The latest version of the Mint 400 may not have featured a lead-footed member of Union Pacific and while Jones was the race’s grand marshal he wasn’t behind the wheel of a deep-throated V-8 in what would have been a blessing to every buggy racer in the event 30 years ago.

While the sport of off-road racing looks pretty basic, its effects can be nothing less than brutal. Trophy Truck driver Andy McMillin of San Diego won the 2014 event so treacherous that of the 55 Trophy Trucks that started, the percentage that finished was less than half.

However, with a record field of Trophy Trucks starting the event, there was enough thunder to rock the valley south of Las Vegas for miles. And while the prison in Jean is now closed due to budget cuts, the best names in the sport took no prisoners in attempting to conquer what must be one of the toughest motorsports events in the world.

Spearheaded by veteran off-road racing guru Casey Folks of Las Vegas, the Mint 400 ran smoothly despite enough challenges to discourage anyone else from even trying to rival Folks’ efforts.

With all of the good related to the Mint 400, there continues to be an element of bad blood with the Bureau of Land Management, the governing body of public lands which has on a scale of 1-10 has a popularity rating that rivals an auditor with the Internal Revenue Service.

Meanwhile, it appears that sponsors – especially those wanting to fill their hotel rooms – were happy.

“It was fabulous,” said Curt Thompson, executive director of operations for Gold Strike Hotel and Gambling Hall in Jean. “It was above and beyond all of our expectations in rooms sold. Our two gas stations and convenience stores had people lined up in three lines all day long. We were at 100 percent occupancy Friday and Saturday and the spectators were a huge boost for our fuel stations and convenience stores. It was so busy in the gas stations that I was filling the beverage coolers. The product was going out faster than I could put it in.

“I can’t wait to do this again. We wish we had more events like this on public land.”

However, while Thompson praised the event, he did say that the lack of post-race media coverage was troubling -- and he wasn't alone with his feelings.

Josh Martelli said “Overall, it was a fantastic event for the city of Las Vegas and Jean, the great state of Nevada, the off-road community and the public.”

Ten bucks for parking in designated spectator areas was met enthusiastically and in fact, if there was a problem with this year’s Mint, it was that the spectator areas were filled to capacity and will undoubtedly be expanded in 2015.

With all of the good, though, came a few “bumps in the road"considered normal procedure for something as immense as the Mint 400.

First off, I’m scratching my head wondering why the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority chose not to provide an economic impact statement especially considering that the event was nothing less that massive.

Howe said recently that the old Mint 400 included economic impact statements considered a huge element in a city like Las Vegas where any and all special events are gauged by the attention it draws and the money it generates.

Yet another misunderstanding rumbled through the press room during the March 8 NASCAR Nationwide race based on the fact that the Mint website included information saying that media credentials were $100.

Word spread through the grounds of Las Vegas Motor Speedway quickly and several members of the media were puzzled over what was a first in Southern Nevada where most promoters would give most anything to have coverage of a prestigious event.

One veteran auto racing publicist Jan Shaffer of Indianapolis responded with “They don’t even charge for credentials at the White House” while KLAS TV-8 Sports Director Chris Maathuis said the best negotiator on earth couldn’t get the CBS affiliate to cough up $100 to cover anything let alone the Mint 400.

Mint promoters defended the move saying that the fee was necessary to offset the heavy costs leveled by the BLM. When the race was concluded, an email stated that 200 credentials had been sold without a single complaint.

In addition, the race official stated that all fees for local media types were waived. Meanwhile, whether or not photographers should share their profits with the BLM is an issue that could one day end up in court if it hasn’t already.

In fact, race publicist Norm Johnson said the fee was only intended for the “fringe” media and especially for photographers who capitalized on their work by selling their images.

In the meantime, Bureau of Land Management spokesman John Schumacher spoke freely about the BLM’s required cut before choosing not to comment after the race by adding that official comment would have to come from someone other than him.
The appointed mouthpiece of the BLM never called back or returned an email request seeking comment about the event although it was apparent that the department undoubtedly received a hefty fee from the Martelli brothers for their services.

The event will be aired July 6 at 2 p.m. Eastern time on NBC.

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