In NASCAR, the Daytona 500 is the premiere event, the pièce de résistance of the cup series and the race every driver looks to. For off-road racers, such as Hood River resident Todd Walter, the Mint 400 is held to the same prestige.
Hosted in the Las Vegas desert, “The Great American Desert Race” began in 1967 as a way to advertise the Mint Hotel, owned by race organizer Norm Johnson.
After a nearly 20-yearhiatus, the Mint 400 was resurrected in 2008 by General Tire and the Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts group.
This year, Walter looked to finally enter the race after years of trying.
“The first year I couldn’t get the truck to start after a year and a half of building it in my spare time,” said Walter, a full-time UPS driver. “The second year I was ready, as was the truck. The entry list was posted and I saw my name wasn’t on it, despite having sent my entry in a month beforehand. Well, my entry form was lost in the mail—so I got put on the wait list.”
As the March race date approached this year, it seemed the Mint 400 would elude his grasp again. At first, the reasons were simply unfortunate; his long-time pit crew members had personal conflicts that kept them from attending, his co-drivers couldn’t make the dates work.
Walter was down to a skeleton crew — his wife Melisa, his close friend and co-driver Josh Fullenwider and Josh’s wife Jessica.
Without a crew though, Walter’s entry may as well have been lost again.
“So I get on the phone with friends from California that I’ve met through social media and get three guys, Danny, Carey and Jordan, to come and help,” said Walter. “I could feel my Mint 400 curse creeping in, but I’ve won races before with only one pit guy so I’m okay with it.”
With his crew in tow, entry verified and truck ready, Walter was set to head for Vegas on March 4, with the race occurring on March 9.
The curse was broken, all paths led to glory—then he gets a call.
“The Friday before we leave, I’m working my last day and I get a phone call that my dad is really sick and we need to get to Texas ASAP,” said Walter. “So my brother and his wife book us tickets and we fly to Texas that night. My dad passes away the next day with his mom, dad and his two boys by his side.”
With a heavy heart, Walter returned home Sunday and debated whether or not to compete in the race he’s pined to compete in for years.
Walter decided to attend. He and Melisa are set to leave when Melisa slips on the ice and is unable to walk.
“I drive her up to the ER and they do x-rays,” said Walter. “Her foot’s broken, she needs surgery. I tell her I’m calling it off and not going to the race. She disagreed and tells me I am going. So the next morning I get up at 2 a.m. after a few hours of sleep and head to Vegas myself, picking up Josh in Idaho along the way.”
With his wife’s foot wrapped in a cast at home, the loss of his father on his heart and mind and a new pit crew to support him, Walter heads for his dream race. He’s entered in the 7100 Sportsman class, and wins emphatically with a time of 5:16:18.715. nearly an hour ahead of second place.
In every other race class, racers were within minutes of each other.
“The win felt amazing along with beating my Mint 400 curse,” said Walter. “I dedicated that race to my dad and my wife.”
With his win, Walter enjoyed the rest of the event and celebrated with his friends and crew. He’d accomplished a goal after years of effort; joining the biggest race of the sport loves and winning his class despite the emotion and logistical challenges. Despite the curse and its grip on him.
Yet Walter isn’t going to let it stop there.
“I’m planning on running the season in BITD (Best In The Desert) this year in the Class 7100 Mini-Truck Challenge Championship,” said Walter. “It consists of three races — the Mint 400, Silver State 300 on May 4 and Vegas to Reno on Aug. 16.”
Walter is sponsored by The Dalles Iron Works, MCP, Rage Graphix, Perez Collision, Down South Motorsports, Camburg, BFGoodrich and Rugged Radios.