Ever since I shot the King Of The Hammers race, people have asked me why the sudden interest in off-road racing. My reply is simple: because it is awesome. Off-road racing is very visually appealing – there is such a wide range of racecars and it’s very dynamic both in the appearance of the competitors and the terrain they are running on. There are so many variables, as the course is constantly changing over the duration of the race. What the drivers have to overcome just to cross the finish line is madness.
I was really looking forward to checking out the Mint 400, as I had heard so much about it. It is known as the oldest off-road race in America as it started back in 1967, and many racing legends including Al Unser, Mickey Thompson and Steve McQueen have graced this glamorous off-road test of endurance. It is held about an hour south of Las Vegas, near the Nevada and California border.
The race is relatively high speed compared to the King Of The Hammers as there was no rock crawling involved, but it is not any less challenging and fewer than 50 percent of the teams cross the finish line.
Much of the high speed sections are run on dry lake beds, where massive clouds of dust get kicked up by the hundreds of race cars. There was so much dust that it completely blanketed the valley, including the main highway going into Las Vegas.
There were massive elevation changes as well, which provided for some excellent views of the entire race course.
The course is a 92 mile circuit and the race comprises four consecutive laps for the Unlimited class teams. There are three pit areas spread out over the length of the circuit.
The race is just one day, but after a few laps the driving line got very rutted and caused many flips – but it also made for some nice jumps.
The race officially ended at 10pm for the Unlimited class guys, so they race well into the night. It’s crazy as I had a hard enough time navigating the access roads at night with all the dust that was in the air. I couldn’t even imagine what it was like for the competitors.
In the Limited class there were some serious-looking rigs that still somewhat resembled street vehicles. In fact, some of these cars were driven to the event.
Also in the Limited class were these smaller all-terrain vehicles, some of which were running two-stroke motors.
The Unlimited class mostly consisted of these Trophy Trucks, but since the term ‘Trophy Trucks’ is trademarked they call them ‘Trick Trucks’.
Also in the Unlimited class were four-wheel drive and two-wheel drive buggies.
The weekend had started in Hollywood, where I went to trade cars with my sister. My Nissan Titan did not have four-wheel drive, but my sister’s Nissan Pathfinder did. On the way to Vegas I picked up two
hitchhikers of my shooting buddies, as they were also covering the Mint 400.
Shooting off-road racing had so many challenges that I’ve never faced before, one of which was having to four-wheel my way to shooting locations. A normal road vehicle just wouldn’t do.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the driver-side mirror decided to quit. Nothing a little gaffer’s tape couldn’t fix.
There is nothing like the smell of the inside of a Vegas casino: cigarettes and buffet food. We picked up maps of the race course and attended a briefing that mentioned where we could go and what to watch out for.
That night we hit a local superstore for all the essentials, which includes high-visibility vests. The last thing we wanted was to get run over by a monster truck.
We crashed out for a few hours at Danny George’s house and at 4:30am packed up the trusty Pathfinder for an all-day Speedhunting adventure.
By the time we got to the start-line, the race was already under way. The Limited class guys started at 6am sharp.
The starter let the eager drivers go in pairs at 30 second intervals. At around 7am the sun peaked out over the mountain range.
Pretty soon all the cars were off and the starting grid was empty. It would take almost two hours for the lead guys to finish their first lap. It probably didn’t help that they started in the dark to begin with.
The race was definitely underway. I had witnessed the start, I was sure of that much. But what now?
The circuit was designed in a way where we could catch up to the pack of cars at key points of interest. So we headed out to our next spot, one of the many dry lake beds.
After some spirited off-roading we arrived at what was called ‘Rockets’. I am assuming it was because the cars look like tiny rockets shooting through the lake bed.
I loved it, because I noticed something that I have never seen before. The dust took the shape of the terrain. It was so clearly defined. It was beautiful.
Already this early in the race this team shredded a tire. Track marshals came by, but they could only offer to take the spare away – they couldn’t help, or the team would be disqualified.
Soon the last car of the pack made its way through ‘Rockets’ and we were off to our next spot.
We knew that we were literally in the middle of nowhere when we got to this shooting location, because that was exactly what it was for… shooting.
There were certainly some interesting things people brought to shoot at. There were TVs and I even found a few printers.
Most of the vehicles who went through this section caught some serious air. I find shooting jumps is a whole new dimension of race photography that I have not really shot besides shooting rallycross.
Competitors were coming by less and less frequently, probably because we were near the finish line.
By 10am they were spread out all over the course. It was no longer a race, now it was an endurance contest. The idea of trying to “cover this race” in any conventional press sense was absurd.
But we had to go on. We needed total coverage. So we set off on a trail that took us to a rock quarry.
By now the Unlimited class guys had already started. They left the start line at 1pm and within moments they reached our location.
This was the tightest section of the course, but there were also a few jumps as well.
This was also the dustiest part of the course. It was hard to breath at times, let alone see where you were going. Luckily we had our high-visibility vests on to communicate to the drivers that we were friendlies. Hired geeks.
We escaped the dust and headed to the pits, but not before crossing this intersection where the race course met the access road. It was absolutely nuts how fast these guys went through this section: they barely touched the pavement at all, some guys just jumping from one side of the dirt to the other.
All of that jumping took a toll on the race rigs. This team was in the pits for emergency control arm repairs.
It was a very clean break, but it was nothing a little on-location welding couldn’t fix.
At this point the goal for these guys was to finish the race.
I’m guessing these were the new type of spotlights that can grow a beard.
Nick Woodman, founder and president of GoPro, was racing in the Unlimited class. Although, before his stint the transmission decided to quit on his co-driver.
Nick waited patiently as the team sourced a new transmission so they could finish the race.
It was an interesting coincidence that as the Mint 400 was going on, right outside the circuit was a dirt oval where the TORC series was practicing.
As if there were not enough jumping trucks in the area already!
The amount of earth these guys move just amazes me. If you guys have not noticed, I did not have the chance to try different lenses as the dust forced me to shoot with just two lenses, one on each body.
The dust is like a part of the trucks. It’s almost like an organic living creature trailing behind these magnificent machines.
The sun started to set and the guys in the lead were on their last lap. It was the home stretch.
For the rest of the field, there was a long night ahead of them. The race ended at 10pm, but I heard that some guys didn’t make it back till past 11pm as they are still very far from the finish line.
The mixture of dust and the sunset created these beautiful layers.
As the sun went down the temperatures dropped dramatically. The visibility also worsened; it was hard enough to see in the daytime.
I noticed more and more guys going off course, but there was nothing stopping some of these guys from finishing this historic race.
Pretty soon it was pitch dark and our day of Speedhunting in the desert was over. We packed up and headed back to Hollywood that night.
I didn’t even know who had won the race. Maybe nobody. All I know is, I hiked in the desert till my nose started to bleed and that I love off-road racing.