Once we passed the silt, a whole new chapter opened up in our friendship. I think at this point Sean had decided two things. That he wouldn’t be joining me for the 2nd lap and that the worst was behind us. We sent word back to the main pit from pit B that Sean needed to get out at the next fueling; and to find someone that was willing to see this through with Skiny.
At about this time Andy was enjoying a vodka cranberry and a left-handed cigarette in the motorhome, thinking the most exciting thing to happen to him that day would be flipping his car with me and Spanish Tony inside; and a seven layer bean dip. Little did he know he was destined for glory.
The GGTR’s Class 1 Buggy kicks up dust in the Nevada desert. (Credit: Larry Chen)
I was sad to see Sean get out, as he was the perfect co-pilot and there is something to be said, for the peace of mind that comes with being in the car with someone that knows their sh*t. With Sean in the seat next to me, I felt there wasn’t a problem we couldn’t overcome.
As we pulled into the main pit, I saw Andy standing they’re wearing his helmet – the man that had almost killed us in the slow speed crash that morning. Oh Ohh! Andy buckles up, as a very exhausted Sean is helped out. Suddenly I look around and see our crew. Most of whom I didn’t know a month ago, now all working together to make sure we get out fast. Friends of mine from other worlds, other lives, covered in dust, tired but excited to see I’ve brought the car back, helping splash fuel as though they’ve been doing it their whole lives. A truly touching moment and suddenly I feel a swell of energy. I owe these people something. They came here to watch me race, not to watch me nurse a car around a hundred-mile circle. They were all here to race with me…even if they weren’t in the car and their race would end with my glory or defeat.
Andy and I gently re-entered the race; and the vibe in the car suddenly became less Wall Street and more Woodstock. Andy seems to be enjoying the ride and started calling the turns like you normally get in a rally car, which is what more accustomed to. We worked like a fighter pilot team to wiggle this 400lb Dominican hooker, though the gruel that the course had become. If my first lap was at 60%, now I was at 75%!
The GGTR’s Class 1 Buggy tearing through the desert at night. (Credit: Mint 400)
The fact that it was getting dark meant there were whole new sets of challenges. We started passing cars and this is no easy endeavor, as the closer you get to your competitor, the less you see until you are literally inches behind them and all you see is his brake lights. You just hope the road remains straight and that those brake lights, don’t suddenly veer off into a hard left turn. We sound the horn a few times and then “Nurf” him. Nurfing or giving someone a little nudge at speed is a totally acceptable way of telling someone I’m faster than you, pull over or the next tap is going to be more like a police pit maneuver you see on the evening news. We are also seeing a lot of cars crashed or broken on the course. We thrash the car through the 1st half. I watch as each mile-marker counts down to the finish line. The silt bed has managed to stop a bunch of cars, but we gallop through. Andy’s vibe is starting to make this fun.
One aspect of desert racing I find difficult to commit to is the blind driving. Trying to pass someone is often a brief and brave charge with crossed fingers; but 5 miles over a dry lake bed, in black out dust with your foot to the floor, with nothing but light brown fog is counter intuitive. Your mind and your foot conflict, between your will to live and your yearning to finally push that pedal all the way to the floor, and be ripped apart in nirvanic turbulence. The GPS keeps you close to the line but you never know if there is a stalled or crashed car, waiting in the mist. To add another level of insanity, the car likes to sway in the wind as 4ft of suspension travel, turns the car into a sidewinder snake.
I will say that you cannot let your focus go for a second. In my day-to-day I am very unfocused, I move from thought to thought like a tap dancing grasshopper, I drink too much and talk crazy; but when you have a 650 horsepower engine stuck to the bottom of your foot – everything becomes Zen. Apart from Andy’s constant navigational notes, I have neither a thought nor a care in the world.
Only for the briefest of moments, did I allow myself to take it all in and enjoy it for a brief 10-second space. I timed it for a long, straight stretch of smooth road; and literally paused the intensity to just absorb it. I was 30 miles away from being able to say I had completed the Mint 400, and I reflected on doing it with the most incredible group of guys. After the 10 seconds was up, I got my race-face back on and we got to work trying to make the twisty riverbed look easy. At one point, a much more capable trophy truck approached. Andy let me know he was there and I decided that he wasn’t having that spot from me. I started to drive more aggressively and started to feel the pressure…and then it happened. So fast it’s not possible to find words to describe the moment between “All is well and oh f*ck.”
Perhaps a scientist at the Cern Hadron Collider, could comprehend the amount of time we are talking about. Suddenly the desert floor was racing about 18 inches from the side of my helmet. We had two wheels on the ground and I was visited by my guardian angel in the form of big Mike, an instructor at Team O’Neil’s Rally School where I had recently spent time, training to master the art of car control. Two things were drummed into my head. NEVER GIVE UP when things go Looney Tunes and in the event you find yourself traveling on two wheels against your wishes, turn the wheel violently toward the ground you are about to crash into. Doing this would mean going off-course into the bushes and the unknown. An unfortunately placed boulder, would provide us entry into the very popular, “Broken Spine Club.” I jerked the steering wheel as hard as I could; the car was quickly back on 4 wheels but traveling rapidly through crazy brush. A hard right and we popped back onto the course, in front of the car that was trying to pass us. We were back in the race! The only recognition of what had just taken place was Andy’s “Nice Save” through the helmets’ intercom. We left them in our dust, as we got down to the business of our final 20 miles.
The GGTR’s Class 1 Buggy racing the Mint 400 at night. (Credit: Zachary Benge Photography)
I remember the feeling of the final 20 from the BAJA 1000. It’s so close you can taste it but there are stories of people breaking down or wrecking as we almost, just did within sight of the finish line. With a mind full of Zen and my trusted co-pilot realizing that we were about to pull this off, we danced that fat hooker all the way to the checkered flag which was dropped to us by Spanish Tony, with the whole team in attendance. And then I could breathe.
It was only two days later when I got a late night text from the race organizer Matt Martelli, that we realized how well we had done – we’d finished 7th in Class 1 and 22nd overall. I cannot describe how happy that news made me feel. 66% of the people that got up that morning and put on race suits, and fastened helmet straps failed to even finish. These races are meant to be tough but fellow racers were impressed by just how tough the 2013 Mint 400 was.
I wish I could say we had a perfect race but sadly the one thing that was missing was Craig, who worked so hard to put the car right and couldn’t join in our victory that day. He, more than anyone, deserves the accomplishment and the bottle of special edition Mint 400 Azunia Tequila each team was given at registration. At the finish line we toasted Craig and each other, shared tales from the race and allowed the exhaustion to take finally hold.
The precious Finisher’s Medal for the Mint 400. (Credit: Zachary Benge Photography)
Like Hunter’s pilgrimage to the 1971 Mint 400 for Sport Illustrated, I came to find out what this was all about and left Las Vegas feeling thrashed, but happy to be alive. Somewhere near the end of the book, he’s driving that destroyed Cadillac out of Vegas and says a prayer to God. He tells God to just let him make it to the finish line and then he can do whatever he wants to him. Oh, how I relate! Hunter didn’t just inspire me to become a writer. He confirmed the notion that growing up didn’t have to be a prerequisite to becoming a man.
I never aspired to be a desert racer and I don’t know how many more times, I will find myself behind the wheel of this type of vehicle. I came into this world as much as a stranger as I leave it. The culture of desert racing for the most part is a macho atmosphere, where people come to follow in their father’s footsteps. I never imagined I would make as many friends as I feel I made; and I know that these people will join us in future endeavors on other continents. My participation and ultimate success should be nothing more than a testament to the ability every man (and woman) has, to be stupid enough to say yes to a single question. Do you want to race the Mint 400?