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Mint 400: A learning experience

The Mint 400 is known as one of the toughest desert races in North America. 400 miles of grueling desert, washouts, ravines, rocks, silt and 800 horsepower Trophy Trucks reminding you who sits at the top of the food chain. Needless to say our Class 5 car does not sit quite that high in fact we were the last class to start the race, a reminder that we are the slowest and thus most vulnerable car out racing with the big dogs. We didn’t go more than 75 miles into our first lap before the leaders in the Class 1 cars and Trophy Trucks were already creeping up behind us on their second laps. The advice we received before the race was simple, “watch your mirrors, watch your mirrors and get the hell out of their way… other than that you’ll be fine”. Easy enough right

The weekend started off with contingency and tech along the historic Fremont Street in old downtown Vegas. I have some fond memories of skateboarding through the casinos and inebriated late night bouts of gambling and deep fried Twinkies along Fremont, this is just another chapter in what I consider my favorite Vegas stop Our car made it through tech without any problems and all our personal safety gear checked out, our last formality was a drivers meeting and we were officially starting amongst 150+ other vehicles in the big race.

Freemont Street

We were starting somewhere around 160th, literally a few cars from the back of the race, again based on our speed and our classes general ability. Team Canguro was off with Marc behind the wheel and myself co-driving, watching that mirror and occasionally the GPS too. The first few miles of the race course were nasty deep silt, like we were dragging our skid plate as we fought the silt, taxing our motor as we pinned it to get through. By the 10 mile mark we had literally passes a dozen broken rigs, a sign of things to come. By mile 20 we had already smacked our skid plate a what seemed like a hundred or more times, the ruts were deep and our car was set up with a pretty conservative stance in the rear. While it was hard going the car was working great and through running a slower pace we were feeling out the course. By the last quarter of the lap traffic in the rear view mirror was getting heavy, my primary job as co-driver is to navigate via the GPS, radio progress to the pits, watch the gauges on the car’s (Matilda is her name) vitals and watch that mirror! Soon enough I was blasting at Marc to get out of the way as we had big traffic bearing down on us. I can tell you its quite the chore to keep an eye on the GPS, watch for objects through the dust in the mirror and manage to brace up when the car is romping through whoops, ruts and washouts. We had a few hard hits that literally knocked the breath out of me, not because they were so abrupt but rather they were so unexpected as my concentration was fixed on what was happening behind us, not in front. Just as soon as I took my stare off the mirror and was checking the GPS for marked dangers and checkpoints we had been hit. Its officially called ‘nerfing’. A fast running trophy truck was letting us know he wanted us out of his way and now. Rather than wait for a second love tap, we got the hell out of his way and let him pass. While we are clipping around decent speeds, they are doing easily double our speeds and they pass with some serious aggression… that’s racing. The nerf was no doubt a shock, its about like getting rear ended as you sit gracefully at a stop light. Marc and I took it in stride, it wasn’t just a few seconds later we were laughing about it and radioing back to the pits that we had taken a hit but still moving strong.

The Start

Lining up at the start

Marc drove a solid lap and got us back into the pits, my turn to take the wheel. Our stellar pit crew made some quick changes to the shocks to try and squeeze a bit more lift out of the rear as we had been beating the death out of our skid plate. It was my turn behind the wheel and if we wanted to get out before the cutoff time for a 4th lap, I had some time to make up, like 30 minutes of time. I had Dave H. as my co-dog, his job again watching that mirror particularly during the 2nd lap as we had constant passing traffic. We were making good time, my familiarity with the course through lap #1 gave us some needed advantage to work up our speeds. Dave was doing a great job keeping us from becoming a trophy truck target, we took one more hard hit from a passing truck just as night was starting to fall. The truck had its lights blazing and we were glued to the mirrors trying to see him get up on our tail. Turns out he turned out his lights to be able to move through our dust and flipped them back on right as he pulled up behind us. He have us about 1.5 seconds of his siren and a couple horn honks and we were once again nerfed, this time more shocking than the last as we didn’t even have a chance to react. Its one thing when you have a place to pull out of their way, its another to be a sitting duck. All is well that ends well, we were still moving and the mirrors were clear. We had just rounded through the 25 mph zone of pit two at ~mile 89 when we lost our clutch, like zero clutch and stuck in gear. We were in some deep silt and I couldn’t downshift, the car stalled thankfully off the side of a wide spot. Dave deployed our flares to keep passing traffic from running us over and we tried to diagnose the problem on the side of the course. With little choice we drove the car back to the pits in 1st gear, making the passes even more sketchy as I couldn’t easily stop or accelerate to get out of their way. Before long we were back in the main pit and diagnosing the problem with our team. Sadly it wasn’t going to be a fix we could do in the pits, the problem was inside our bell housing and would require us to pull the motor to fix… we were officially out of the Mint 400 with just 2 laps under our belt. Sadly Dave H and Ryan wouldn’t get a chance to drive this time

We loaded up the car, tucked our tails and headed back to Vegas. It was a brutal course and I’m glad our car held up as well as it did, our skid plate is trashed, our clutch fried and our confidence broken but we will be back for the Caliente 250 in June. Between now and then we plan to fine tune our suspension, fix the clutch and get out and practice!

A big thanks to the members of Team Canguro (DCon, Dave, Darren, Mark & Ryan) and to our killer pit crew (Matt & Chats) for making this all a reality. While we didn’t finish the race, we learned from it and considering 2/3 of all entries had similar fate… we can’t hang our heads too low.

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