Dust and Diesel in the USA

They carried welding equipment, spare tires, extra fuel, jacks, bottles of water, wrenches, zip ties, lawn chairs, engine oil, hammers, fire extinguishers, a grill, CB radio equipment, air guns and a generator. Guns N’ Roses played on the radio as the squad looked out into the khaki, sun-drenched desert, awaiting a blue dune buggy in need of fuel — one of 78 vehicles signed up with the Baja Pits, a freelance pit crew servicing all comers in the 28th Mint 400, one of the toughest off-road races in the world.

“For all intents and purposes, we’re a mercenary crew,” said John Ingold, a mechanic with Baja Pits. “You have money? We’ll pit for you.”

If you don’t have money, it’s likely they’d still pit for you.

Hailing from Inland Empire, California, the ragtag band consisted of a welder, an ex-Marine, a high school math teacher, a mechanic with a gravity-defying mohawk, an ex-Navy man and a logistics specialist with a penchant for Four Loko, a caffeinated beverage with high alcohol content. They were all volunteers, and they would help anyone who needed it.

Travis Vallo is a welder with the Baja Pits. Last year he spent two hours under just one car, pulling the vehicle back together. The driver was a wounded veteran.

“His team gave up on him,’’ Vallo said. “His team said ‘No, we’re done.’”

So Vallo went down and grabbed the truck, telling the vet “Bring it to us and I’ll weld it.’’

And he did.

The Mint was underway: 330 vehicles cleaving a path through 400 miles of the Mojave Desert for the chance to win $10,000 and big bragging rights. It’s held each year just south of Las Vegas, and fewer than half the competitors finish the race, because of wrecks, mechanical failures or, in some cases, fatigue.

“With off-road racing, once you leave that sideline, you’re committed,” said Rob Black, pit captain of the Baja Pits. “There’s not a safety crew on every corner. You’re out there on your own.”

The Mint 400 is one of the best-known off-road races in the literary and journalism world, after Hunter S. Thompson went to cover the event in 1971 and left with the beginnings of a book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”.

When Thompson went to the Mint, he stayed only briefly, then drove to Las Vegas in search of the American dream, fueled by drugs and rage. Had he stayed in the desert and finished the race, he may not have found that mainline to the American ethos, but he would have at least caught a glimpse of the American soul: For competitors, the race is more to do with conquest than triumph, as control over nature has been the American story from Plymouth Rock to the Mojave Desert.

In other words, there is nothing more American than driving a half-million-dollar, diesel-guzzling, off-road truck through the desert at ridiculously high speeds in the hopes of winning a small cash prize and a year’s worth of bragging rights.

Read more here at Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone

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