It was only when everything was done did I realize that my fate was sealed. My medical insurance inadequately whispering in my ear that I was about to bankrupt my parents. I usually rely pretty heavily on wine or a scotch to take the edge off any nerves in life; but the night before a race I decided against, so in the end I feel asleep considering which of a thousand fates awaited me. The one thing that really bothered me was that I felt so distant from the proceedings. Apart from looking and dressing different to all the guys that were here to do what they had done many times before, I was also in a different hotel to Craig and Damon and I hadn’t been present at the qualifying. It felt like some farcical movie where the cops had chased me into the dressing room of some theater during a performance; and I had disguised myself in a billowing sleeved samba shirt and fruit bowl hat. Would the cops leave before the curtain was pulled up? No they wouldn’t.
The plan, complicated as it may sound, was as follows: Damon would sleep at main pit, which was one of our three pit areas, and be the first to take the three-seater around the course, during the morning race with Sean and Andy. Andy being the owner of said three-seater and Sean being Damon and mine’s experienced co-driver. Once they completed their 100-mile lap around 8 am, they would hand the three-seater over to Craig and I, to take a look at the terrain. Like all good plans it went tits up.
I arrived at the main pit to be told that Craig was up all night throwing up and might not make the race. This meant I would have to drive 200 of the 400 miles. Having a good plan is something that truly helps with the nerves and when the plan changes suddenly, everything goes into free fall. Even though I remained stoic, my bowels churned inside. Damon completed the first lap in the three-seater and handed over to Andy and myself and Spanish Tony, the GGTR’s cultural attaché who, coincidentally, wasn’t made aware of his participation until the afternoon before, when we presented him with the biggest race suit alpine stars could come up with.
The GGTR’s cultural attaché, Spanish Tony (left) is suited up to join Michael “Skiny” Power in the Mint 400. (Credit: Zachary Benge Photography)
Spanish and I jumped in as Andy, the owner of the car, slowly cruised through the pits. Spanish masked his nervousness with humor until we passed the sign that states, “Resume Race Speeds”. The throttle was depressed, the front-end of the car came up two feet like a speedboat, as we hit the first left-hander and bam! Suddenly the cars rolls and we are left in a mist of dirt and broken fiberglass. I release my harness and hop out to help Spanish who’s strapped into the front seat, with his helmet half submerged in dirt.
Hmmm… This added a whole new element of apprehension to what I was already marinating in my mind. We tipped the car back onto its wheels and limped, embarrassed, back to pit. After zip-tying a few things into place and checking to make sure it would make another lap, I hopped back in with Andy – Spanish said he was happy enough with his achievement of having raced the Mint 1 and said he would return another time to compete the outstanding 399. Andy and I took off, both rattled by the crash and trying to focus on the task at hand. The course was brutal. The first half was nothing less than an instrument of torture for your intestines. Oddly-spaced and deep “whoops” that had the back end of the car constantly bucking 4ft off the ground rodeo style. The second half of the course was more to my liking with some high-speed stretches over a dry lake bed and a very tight and curvy, dried-out river wash, full of race-ending rocks in loose sand.
I will say that the physical punishment is definitely exaggerated in the co-driver seat. I guess because you don’t have a steering wheel to hold onto, I don’t know but it’s cruel. I was happy when we crossed mile-marker 100 and I hopped out at the pit. The staging for the main event “or the unlimited class” had started and our racecar, with Damon and Sean buckled in, was already down at the start line. I wandered down to see this incredible sight of millions of dollars’ worth of fabricated steel and rubber and colorful fiberglass, and the hum of deep-throated American combustion. No one was smiling. NO ONE. Not the racers, not the spectators, not the crews who made final preparations as the cars just formed their own chaotic line, like the parking lot after a Yankees game. We crowded around the start line, to watch some of the heroes take off, side-by-side like a drag race. The Mint 400 has people leaving two at a time, which adds an interesting dimension. KJ Howe, the master of ceremonies and the man that drops the flag, was actually smiling as he sent them, two at a time through a twist of turns that you had to come out of ahead of your competitor, otherwise you would be blinded by his dust, as you hit the first section of brutal whoops. A disadvantage to say the least.
As Damon pulled up to the start line, I allowed myself to imagine how he must be feeling right then. Thousands of flat billed baseball caps lined the right-side of the course. Damon, though the owner of the car hadn’t spent any time in it in the last three years; and the snake of a course before him, if over played, could have him on his roof as it did us that morning. I wished him and Sean luck and they sat focused in the car with that thousand yard stare. I realized that I was among men. This was what separates us from the people we were, when you could still hide behind youth and exaggerated stories to make you appear manly. No more pretending.
Damon and Sean disappeared into the desert, behind the car they were matched up against at the start. I remembered Damon saying he prefers chasing to being chased. I wondered if he was feeling that now.
I returned to our main pit to wait the 2 hours until we would see Damon and the car again. It would be 4 hours until I got in the car…if Damon didn’t have any mishaps. This is the really fascinating dynamic of desert racing. It’s rare that someone doesn’t share the driving duties of a 400 or a 1000-mile race. Most often teams have two or three drivers that switch up at different points. Even though there is such a machismo, there is also this fine understanding you must have with your fellow drivers, to trust that they will drive with their heads and not their balls and get the car to you. After all the time and money and effort that goes into it, you are left out in the desert hoping that all goes well and that you have trusted the right person to deliver the package. Knowing Damon as a friend and as a man, he is someone that delivers. There was not a doubt in my mind that he would be back with the car intact. Craig was the team’s handsome wild card and I suspect why he was chosen to race the final 3rd of the race; as he had that irresistible urge that desert racers have to provide YouTube with incredible crash footage or win the f*cking race for us. Sadly it had now been confirmed that the only race Craig would be participating in today, was the race between his bed and the toilet in his hotel room.
Damon came in for his first pit, for a splash of VP’s finest high octane 113 and told me that he would be back.
I decided to suit up. As I’ve said in the past, the effort put into getting the race suits and the helmets right pays off in the moment when they have the ability to make you feel 10% braver; and give you this sense of purpose you wouldn’t have in your street clothing. And not a moment too soon, as I had been trying to keep my mind off the race by talking to Cameron in the motorhome, who was paralyzed from the waist down. An injury he sustained in a freak lacrosse accident. His Dad, Brandon was one of our pit crew and fellow desert racer.
Cameron also revealed that his father had broken his back during the Baja 1000 – a scene captured by helicopter in the filmDust To Glory, where you see a man being worked on by a medical crew in the desert next to a twisted car. Cameron decided to take my anticipation to a whole other level by revealing that Sean; the co-driver currently in the car, had broken his spine in November and was participating against all doctors’ orders. I was either in the company of some bad ass desert racers or spine reconstructive surgery had come leaps and bounds, since my days of jumping off hotel roofs into pools.
I recently saw this YouTube clip of all my childhood heroes suiting up before a race. Watching these giants, leads you to believe that they have such peace of mind, as they make themselves right before a race. Having now been one of these men, I’m convinced that they, like me, are just walking around pre-race with a mask on. This is serious business and I imagine the whole concept of motor racing would seem a ridiculous pursuit, if you’re in the back of a helicopter having that beautiful race suit cut off you and with your brain swelling up in your skull.
A little over two months ago, Damon oh so casually suggested we race the Mint 400. Had his tone been more in keeping with the realities I was now facing; it should have been posed to me by a Ralph Steadman caricature standing before me smoking a nub of a cigar, with a tray of surgical devices and a car battery, me covered in highly flammable race fuel.
But there is also something very beautiful about that point of no return. Even though I can prove to be a man by merely producing a birth certificate, I have only truly tested the concept once in my life…on the Baja peninsula. Something about the Mint was different. This was the big league. I was up against 70 other unlimited cars and my giant vagina would be visible for miles, if I didn’t produce the goods.
Damon, good to his word, brought the car back and suddenly the time for thinking was over. Damon hopped out and I jumped in with Sean. A hive of activity as the crew refueled the beast, GoPro’s are swapped out and safety harnesses are tightened to dominatrix comforts.
Driving this car is very different to anything most have experienced. There is no clutch but four gears. Normally you shut the engine off to put it into gear but shutting down during a race is always a risk. So I have to jam it into gear and hope for the best, then keep my foot hard on the brake until the signal is given to pull out. I’m a little overzealous and give it too much throttle, which results in me spraying the crew with rocks. First words out of Sean’s mouth are an angry reprimand for my disrespect. I realize that Mr. Broken Back is not happy. Seems our radios don’t work and lack of communications makes everything more difficult. I think the reality of going into this treachery with a totally inexperienced driver is also starting to set in with him. Sean was in for a lap during the morning’s recce and had just completed two with Damon. By the time we came back around, he would have already completed his own Mint 400. The change of plan meant he would be doing a double shift, as I was planning on swapping from driver to co-driver for Craig’s final stretch. As we past the “Resume Race Speed” sign again, I was all too aware of how quickly we could end up on our roof; and also aware of the fact that Sean’s generosity would be short-lived if I didn’t perform.
My plan was to get the first lap under my belt and get my “race on” on the second lap. These cars are designed to be driven fast over the most gnarly moguls; and often if you hit them too slow the suspension is ineffective and the ride becomes even more “uncomfortable”. Through the communications in our helmets I could hear Sean’s breaths as we hit these compressions. He suffered in silence but I found myself more focused on not hurting this man any more than necessary, instead of racing the car and at a certain point after I said “Sorry” about a particularly spectacular “g out” he let me know it was ok to “just f*cking drive”. Sean’s confidence in me grew with every mile that passed, as he realized I had a strategy and wasn’t just there to create cool pictures for my Facebook page. The first 50 miles were now unrecognizable. The morning’s race had dug everything really deep and the car’s belly was slamming into the ground. There were also silt beds to contend with and Sean was not shy about letting me know, that getting stuck to dig for a few hours would result in my death by strangulation.