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April 17, 2014

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Mint 400 revival gives former racer chance to wax nostalgic

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Sam Morris

Among Mel Larson’s collection of 20 cars in his Henderson garage are a few he raced, as well as a Daytona 500 pace car and the pace car from the 1972 Indianapolis 500. Larson came to Southern Nevada in 1968 for the Mint 400, and has lived here ever since.

Mel Larson’s journey toward Las Vegas lore began in an elevator in Phoenix.

One afternoon he bumped into Del Webb in the office building where they worked in the 1960s.

Larson was a hustler and promoter, to use his words, with some fame as an early NASCAR driver.

Webb had recently sold the New York Yankees, built his first Sun City (the original, outside Phoenix) and bought the Mint Hotel in downtown Las Vegas.

“Them fellers in Las Vegas want you to do some race,” Webb said.

Norm Johnson, promotions director at the Mint and creator of the Mint 400, wanted drivers for the inaugural off-road race.

Sounded fun to Larson.

It was 1968. Larson came to Las Vegas and tested his dune buggy in the desert north of Sahara Avenue.

On race day he ended up stuck in the sand.

He didn’t finish the next year either, when he was co-driver in a Ford Bronco with Rodger Ward, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner.

“I learned a lesson,” Larson, 79, says. “I wasn’t too good off-road. I was used to driving on the pavement.”

So Larson followed a different calling and became the race promoter, his first big Las Vegas job.

It led to a job as marketing director at the Mint and another as vice president of marketing at Circus Circus, further rooting him in Las Vegas.

When the MGM Grand erupted in flames in 1980, Larson flew his helicopter onto the rooftop to rescue guests.

And still the promoter, he found investors for the creation of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1996.

The Mint 400 — the setting for Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” — started it all.

It was a huge race for its time, with a $15,000 purse, drawing thousands of race fans downtown to see the cars being inspected the day before the race.

But that was then.

The race fell dormant in 1988.

Larson, long retired from Circus Circus, has been living for more than 30 years in a quiet Henderson neighborhood, on a street that carries his name, Larson Lane.

The house is remarkable for its blue roof, helipad and huge garages where he maintains his collection of 20 cars, three buses and three helicopters.

But today the action is back downtown, and Larson will be there.

A local volunteer group, Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts, revived the Mint 400 last year.

The race runs again this weekend and, yep, the cars will line up on Fremont Street today in an homage to the old days.

So Larson will be there, visiting old friends and telling stories.

“It was the Mint 400 that brought me to Las Vegas,” he says. “I’m still thankful for that race.”

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