In 1976 off-road racing pioneer Norman T. Johnson and Gordon Grimmis wrote the essential bible of off-road racing culture titled simply “Off-Road Racer”. The book has been difficult to find because only 4,000 were made, 100 with a very special real leather cover and a personal plaque on the cover. The book immediately sold out and it has subsequently been out of print since 1979. If you are lucky enough to own one you know the treasure trove of stories it contains. Fortunately for me not only own the book but I am friends with Norm, as he is the one of the founders of The Mint 400. The book is an unabridged account of the colorful history of the birth of off-road culture, the founders, the racers, the supporters, the vehicles and the races everything that makes the culture so great.
We will be publishing excerpts from the book and eventually will re-publishing “Off-Road Racer” in it’s entirety because we think is should be accessible to the whole world!
Chapter Three: One of the Great Off-Road Races: The Stardust 7-11
Nevada has been the site of many great races, some of which still exist. One of the greatest tests of machine and man in Nevada, though, was a one-time event staged in the heat of summer: the Stardust 7-11 Off-Road Race, created by NORRA and its president, Ed Pearlman.
When the Mint Hotel in Las Vegas was planning its first “400”, NORRA was one of the first organizations contacted to help promote the event. Pearlman met with hotel officials on at least two occasions to discuss the proposed race. But eventually, negotiations broke down and Pearlman opted for his own promotion in conjunction with the Stardust Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
Leo Margolian, director of racing for the Stardust, which owned a large Gran Prix track on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and NORRA had arrived at a mutual financial arrangement to promote a giant off-road race. They would use the track itself at the start/finish and main pit area. The date of the race was announced as Wednesday, June 12, 1968.
A guaranteed purse of $25,000 was established, immediately making this the richest race in off-road history. Distance of the event was 711 miles, consisting of two 355-mile loops.
It would be a monster. Most of the course was the one designed for the Mint 400, with one main exception. In the first Mint, a 10-mile portion of the course consisted of giant rocks and was practically impossible to navigate without cheating. As a matter of record, many cars that got to that particular section of the Mint 400 were seen racing on a paved highway that skirted the rockpile. Pearlman eliminated this section by using the paved highway as part of the course, and placing a time limit between the two checkpoints on the road.
Promotion by NORRA and the Stardust was top-rate. It began before the Mint 400 ran in April, and considering the number of entries in that race, the organizers knew the 7-11 would be successful. By the time race week arrived, a total of 141 entries had been received and processed. Among those who had sent in their entries were two names new to off-road racing, actors James Garner and Steve McQueen.
The field consisted of every type of vehicle built, including some very unique cars. An example of the growing interest in off-road racing was a formidable entry from Holman-Moody and Stroppe, which consisted of five Ford Broncos.
One of the pre-race favorites, believe it or not, was McQueen. He would drive a Vic Hickey-engineered and -built, General Motors-sponsored car dubbed the “Baja Boot”. Co-driver was Bud Ekins, the first man to establish a record on a motorcycle in Baja, considered by many to be one of the greats in this new sport. The Boot was a monster of a car with an Oldsmobile V-8 engine and specially designed Goodyear tires. It literally shook the ground when the engine was revved. An engineering marvel, the Boot was beautiful in design.
Garner also was considered a favorite. His co-driver was none other than Scooter Patrick, veteran of many an oval track. They would be piloting a new, Porsche-powered, Meyers Manx two-seat buggy.
The Del Webb Corporation, owners of the Mint Hotel, entered three cars. Driving these cars would be executives from the corporation who had just finished competing in their first race, the Mint 400. These included Bud James, President of the Del Webb Nevada operations, and John Romero, Publicity Director for the Sahara Hotel, in a Porsche-powered, two-seat buggy; Earl Thompson, Executive Vice-President of the Sahara Hotel, and James Dean, Entertainment Director for the Sahara, in another Porsche buggy; and Norm Johnson, Publicity Director at the Mint and creator of the Mint 400, with Fred Sikorski, chief engineer at the Mint and a veteran dirt-bike racer, in a Burro powered by a 36-horsepower Volkswagen. It was reported reliably that the three vehicles entered by the Las Vegas drivers had a side bet of $1,000 each, to be won by the car going the farthest in the race.
Cars and motorcycles were assigned starting numbers in a drawing held at a huge press party in the Stardust Hotel a few weeks before the event. Each vehicle was given a time limit of 40 hours to complete the race.
Of the 141 entered, 137 vehicles actually started the race. The first vehicle off the starting line at 11 a.m., June 12, 1968, was a 1967 Jeep from Las Cruces, New Mexico, driven by Lonnie and Donnie Beyer. First bike away from the Stardust race track was Eddie Muler with co-rider Ron Nelson. The Johnson-Sikorski entry was third off the line.
Mel Larson, who was later to become Race Director for the Mint, was behind the wheel of the Claimjumper, entered by Don Arnett. Arnett and his crew worked feverishly the night before the race to make the starting grid, only to have the car forced out of the race by fuel problems within the first 30 miles.
“Hell, I was sitting in a pool of gasoline,” Larson explained later. “There was more gas on the floor than there was in the tank.”
Such was the fate of Arnett’s first adventures in off-road racing. His Claimjumper had entered two races and covered a total of just over 50 miles.
Another interesting entry was from the Desert Inn Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. The hotel featured a “girlie” show in its main room, “Pzazz 68”, and decided to publicize this show at the race. The pit crew for the Desert Inn entry consisted of the entire chorus line from the show. It was the best looking pit crew ever assembled. Unfortunately, the car did not perform as well as the pit crew.
Naturally, the Baja Boot received a lot of attention from the hundreds of cameras stationed in the pit and at the starting line. McQueen’s wife, Neile, had taken the time to paint a little flower on the rear of the car.
“Hey, what’s the flower for?” a reporter asked.
“For good luck,” McQueen replied. “This is, too,” he added, showing a “love bead” necklace around his neck. “Neile’s taking no chances!”
The Boot did not finish the race, even with the help of the flower and “love beads”. An interesting thing did happen, however, which deserves reporting: Troubled with overheating, the two racers were forced to stop on the edge of a dry lake about 35 miles before checkpoint two, which was located at Ash Meadows. After repairing the problem, they started across the lake, only to break a ball joint on the front suspension. Hickey, back at the Stardust, received word that McQueen needed a ball joint. After hearing the announcement of the need for the part over the public address system at the track, a spectator who owned a 1967 Olds Toronado volunteered his car for parts. A complete crew of mechanics, with the borrowed parts, was transported to the broken Boot and repairs began. While the crew worked feverishly under the hot sun in the middle of the desert, other drivers swore they saw McQueen sitting under an umbrella on a sand dune, eating watermelon. Of course, this report to this day has never been confirmed or denied.
The first vehicle across the finish line after one lap was Larry Berquist aboard a 305 cc Honda. Gary Preston relieved the tired and dirty Berquist, who had taken 10 hours and 15 minutes to cover the first 355 miles.
At exactly 12:20 a.m., Larry Minor and Jack Bear entered the Stardust race track, completing lap one. Their Holman-Moody and Stroppe-prepared Bronco was performing as perfectly as the pit crew—it took only 15 minutes to change tires, refuel and make a few minor repairs before the Bronco was out on lap two.
The first dune buggy, and fourth vehicle overall, to enter the track was the Burro driven by Sikorski and Johnson in 14 hours and 12 minutes. The other two Webb entries failed to complete the first lap.
It was 10:30 a.m. the next day (Thursday) when Preston crossed the finish line and received the checkered flag. They had completed 711 miles in 22 hours and four minutes for the overall win. The first four-wheeled vehicle to cross the finish line was the Bronco driven by Minor and Bear in 27 hours, 14 minutes. Of the 137 vehicles, only 30 managed to complete the race. It turned out to be one of the toughest races ever designed by NORRA.
What happened to cancel this great race?
The Stardust Hotel, which had built and maintained the race track, was sold soon after the 7-11. New management did not want to sink any more money into operating the track, nor to sponsor any more races. Pearlman was given the option of promoting another great event, but without the full cooperation of the hotel.
“I felt it would be impossible to run a race in Nevada without the cooperation and political clout of a hotel-casino,” Pearlman explained. “Besides, the Mexican government had asked us to put on another race in Baja in conjunction with our already successful 1000.”
Thus, the Stardust 7-11, one of the great events in the early history of off-road racing, gave way to the now-famous Baja 500. Pearlman, however, did come back to Nevada a few years later with the hope of renewing the 7-11, but he met with various obstacles in obtaining permits and gave up on the idea.
It was a great one-time race and is one of the many reasons off-road racing is where it is today!