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OFF-ROAD RACING AT LAS VEGAS : In Mint Condition, by Any Name

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Go ahead, call it the Mint 400. Just about everyone here does, even the people from Nissan.

“How can you call it anything else?” asked Roger Mears, a veteran Nissan team driver who will be one of the favorites today when the Nissan 400 is flagged away from the Las Vegas International Speedway. “It’s like the Crosby golf tournament. It’ll always be the Crosby, and this will probably always be the Mint for a lot of us.”

The Mint 400 was first run in 1968 when a public relations man named Mel Larson decided that an off-road race through the Southern Nevada desert might make a good promotional vehicle for Del Webb’s Mint Hotel.

It was the Mint 400 for 22 years--until last year, when the Mint Hotel was no more and the Nissan Motor Corp., USA, undertook sponsorship of the race for the High Desert Racing Assn.

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The Mint Hotel is now Binion’s Horseshoe. Larson is executive vice president of Circus Circus Enterprises, operators of hotel/casinos in Las Vegas, Reno and Laughlin, Nev.

Mears wasn’t in that first Mint 400, but he has been in all since the early 1970s. He still rates it the toughest assignment he has faced--and he has won the Baja 1,000 three times, the Pikes Peak hill climb three times, the Baja 500 twice and driven in the Indianapolis 500.

“There may be some races with sections as tough as the Mint--er, I mean the Nissan--400, but nowhere is it as rough from start to finish as this race,” Mears said. “Most races, there are places to relax and get your breath and rest the car, but in the Mint it’s one rough haul all the way. I call it the ‘Shock Dyno of the World.’ If your shocks last here, they’ll last anywhere.”

Mears, whose younger brother, Rick, is a three-time Indy 500 winner, won his class, for two-wheel-drive mini pickups, last year. It was the first victory for the Bakersfield driver in nearly 20 years of trying here.

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“I’m really pumped up for Saturday’s race,” Mears said after testing his V-6-powered King Cab truck in Barstow. “The truck has 100 more horsepower than last year and it’s incredibly fast. It’s lost more weight than Tommy Lasorda and gained more muscle than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The new rules did a lot for Class 7, and I’m looking forward more to this race than any desert race in years.”

The HDRA increased engine size from 2,850 cubic centimeters to 3,500 and allowed major suspension changes.

Another change this year is elimination of pre-running the course. Even air reconnaissance is forbidden.

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“I’ve been one of the guys behind the new rule,” Mears said. “I was a grass-roots driver from the beginning, and it was tough for guys who worked (at other jobs) for a living to compete with full-time drivers. This makes it fair for everybody. The course is basically the same as last year, though, so we should know it.”

As usual, Mears’ chief competition will come from Manny Esquerra, the Ford Roughrider driver who won the HDRA season opener last month in his hometown of Parker, Ariz. Mears was leading after 100 miles when the crankshaft broke.

Esquerra’s Ford has won a record nine times in his class in the Mint 400.


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