The Mint 400
It's one week before the Mint 400 and Dan's ambitious plans to take on the famously difficult desert race have become severely clouded with uncertainties.
First off, given the name, you would assume that the Mint 400 is a 400-mile long race. And with that assumption in mind, a few months prior, Dan had assembled a team of three other riders that would join him in Las Vegas, Nevada for the race.
Recently, though, he had learned that its only the trophy trucks and other four-wheeled classes that run the full 400 miles. The motorcycle classes only run two eighty mile laps for a total of 160 miles. After some careful consideration, he decides that the original plan to take on the race with a team of four has to be scrapped, leaving himself as the sole rider.
Secondly, the Harley Davidson Sportster that he acquired for the race sits in his shop, still very far from race-ready. The bike he will be straddling at the starting line, again, only a week from now, still has no motor, no brakes, and the wrong wheels.
In its current state, the one thing the bike does have going for it is the Honda CRF 450 dirt bike front end that Tim Statt from Gigacycle Garage in Rochester, NY modified to fit the Sportster frame. However, the Honda front end is very tall and valved all wrong for this Frankenstein-like machine.
While the rear shock mounts have already been relocated on the swingarm to work with the thirteen inch Fox Racing shocks while also providing some more ground clearance, at the moment, those shocks are still sitting in a box on a shelf at Fox warehouse. And for now, the rear end of the bike is being held up with a set of temporary steel struts.
With time quickly running out, standing in his shop looking at an incomplete roller, Dan is wondering if he's even going to make the twelve hundred mile trip from Fort Worth, Texas all the way to Vegas.
With a ton of work still to be done on the bike, three uncomfortable phone calls to make and a twenty-hour road trip ahead, Dan is preparing for a very stressful week.
Dan had found the Sportster in his friend Chaz's backyard. The bike was owned by their mutual friend Justin James and had been pretty much left for dead a long time ago at Chaz's house. The bike was covered in dirt and leaves and certainly not in running condition. Dan was able to get the bike from Justin and begin transforming the 883 Sportster into a hooligan race bike that could, hopefully, take on the desert conditions and terrain.
He was told that the bike did have some kind of motor work done to it but nobody knew for certain just what that meant or to what extent the motor had been modified. The bike also had a nice big FXR tank on it that would hold plenty of fuel for the race. This was important as Dan's limited resources wouldn't afford him the luxury of having any crew members stationed at either of the two designated pits along the course.
After getting the bike home, his first task was to get it running again. As luck would have it, this wasn't very difficult and with the help of a Dyna S ignition setup, he quickly got the motor fired up. Unfortunately, he found a lot of metal shavings in the oil filter. With a motor rebuild not in the budget, he changed the oil, buttoned it all back up and crossed his fingers. The motor was then pulled from the frame and set aside.
The frame was sent over to Mooscraft in Denton, TX, who, as mentioned, altered the suspension mounts to provide approximately ten inches of ground clearance while making room for a three and a half-inch wide, 18" rear rim laced to a dual flange Shovelhead hub that would be wrapped with a meaty Shinko MX tire.
On the front of the bike, Dan would run the stock 21" CRF 450 wheel on the Honda fork. Which, at this point, was still in NY at Gigacycle Garage.
Nearly a week before the race, the front end finally shows up in Texas and Dan wastes no time fitting it to the Harley frame.
Even before sourcing his bike, he had spoken a lot with his friends from Biltwell about bike design and race prep. For their Frijole 883 bike that they built for the NORRA Mexican 1000, Biltwell used a smaller CRF 250R front end. Dan was using the 450 front end only because it was one that was gifted to him by a friend. To make the dirtbike forks work better on the Sportster, Dan's friends at Maximum Performance in Spring, TX installed custom springs and adjusted the valving.
Back to Dan sitting in his shop, a week before the race. Still waiting on the rest of the parts needed to finish the bike, it was time to make those phone calls.
Dan had asked his friend Brady Mclean from Go Fast, Don't Die to race with him and his team. Brady had jumped at the offer and had been spending a lot of time training and practicing for terrain that he wasn't entirely familiar with. After breaking the news to Brady that the race is shorter than expected and that he wasn't sure that he still needed a full team, he thanked him for all he had already done to prepare for the race and reluctantly let him know that he would be racing solo.
Dan had also asked his friend Carlos Sanchez to help pilot the Sportster through the desert. Now he had to call Carlos and let him know that he was no longer needed for the race. Carlos had already planned on asking Dan to transport his hooligan race bike to Vegas for him as he was planning on racing the Roland Sands Super Hooligan flat track race the day after Dan would be racing the Mint 400. So, regardless of whether or not he would be riding Dan's bike in the desert, he offered to help pit and support since he was going to be there anyway.
Last on the list of phone calls to make was to Bear Haughton, owner of Old Bike Barn and co-founder of Motorcycle Sherpa. Dan had met Bear the year prior while Bear was racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The two had again spent some time together and became even better friends, more recently, on a Motorcycle Sherpa expedition in Nepal. As it turned out, Bear was in Europe and was not going to be able to make it back to the states in time for the race. But he insisted on helping Dan as much as he could. With that, Bear decided to send me to Las Vegas to help pit and support Dan while also directly sending Dan enough money for a van, lodging and any other supplies that he would need to successfully make his bid for a finish at the Mint 400, officially making Old Bike Barn one of Dan's biggest race sponsors.
(I want to take a brief moment here and, on Dan's behalf, express his regret with making the decision to break up his team. He wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea in the first place and it wasn't an easy decision for him to ultimately make. After racing in the Mint 400, and facing the difficulties, first hand, of such a race, he has told me that he realizes that he should have kept the team intact and that next year, not only will he be back, but he will be back with his team.)
After making his phone calls, the rest of the parts started to show up and everything else began to fall into place.
The motor was re-installed and everything from the rear shocks, tires, risers, handlebars, bark busters, Alto clutch plates, brakes and more were all installed. A few last-minute mods like the addition of a set of rearward mounted pegs were made and with the help of many friends, the bike was wired and finished up the day before he was scheduled to leave Texas.
The morning he left for Nevada, he pulled the bike out of the shop and fired it up. He ripped around his property for a minute and loaded it straight into the van. That was his first and only test ride.
Twenty-something hours later and Dan is in Vegas. After spending some time at his friend Majik Mike's shop taking care of a few more last-minute repairs and mods, he found himself on Freemont Street sharing a tent with Biltwell. In the days leading up to the race, Freemont Street was closed off for a few blocks, specifically for the Mint 400. Race teams and vendors lined the street while trophy trucks, buggies, and race bikes idled up and down the street for fans to admire.
After throwing his bike together at the last minute, Dan was a little worried about the tech inspection process. Luckily, there were no major issues with his bike and he passed the inspection, registered and got his race number and GPS transponder.
I met Dan for the first time, on Freemont Street, right after inspection and registration. We hung out at the Biltwell tent long enough to meet up with Carlos and the three of us went to lunch. Shortly after that, while a lot of teams decided to stay and enjoy the festivities on Freemont and maybe hit the town a little bit later, Dan was eager to get to the course and set up our pit. He still had a few minor tweaks he wanted to make to the bike and he just really wanted to be fresh and ready for the 7am start in the morning.
The course itself is located about 45 minutes outside of Las Vegas in Primm, Nevada. After arriving and setting up our canopy, table, and tools, Carlos and Dan made those last few bike repairs. Worried about the sand, they also decided to wrap the air filter with a shop rag and then a bandana as well. With the bike now as race-ready as it was going to get, Dan could finally relax.
Even with a hotel within walking distance from the pits, we chose to rough it and sleep in the van that night. The weather in the desert, in the middle of March, couldn't have been better. But it sure got cold at night. While sleeping in an uninsulated van with only a few blankets and yoga mats might have been the cheaper option, it certainly wasn't very comfortable.
None of that bothered Dan, though. He was up at four-thirty in the morning, ready to go. Coffee was brewed and the bike was warmed up. As the sun rose over the desert mountains, the pits came to life. Two and four-stroke dirtbikes idled perfectly in tune alongside the potato-potato-potato of a handful of Harley Davidson Hooligan bikes.
By 6:30, Dan was geared up and eagerly pacing the pits. He wore a backpack with a hydration bladder; and inside of the bag, besides the water, he had nothing more than some beef jerky, a few zip ties, a pair of snips and a pair of pliers. He had mounted a GoPro to his chest and had it connected to his Cardo Systems Bluetooth headset. He had already started recording some audio for his Danger Dan's Talk Shop Podcast and as he paced back and forth, swinging his arms, stretching and talking to himself in his helmet, he looked just as insane as anyone has to be to want to race a Harley Davidson with dirtbike forks 160 miles through the desert.
At some point, he started the bike and got on it while it was still propped up in the rear wheel stand. Figuring we were about to head over to the starting line, I started to gather my camera gear. Without warning, Dan dropped the bike into gear, twisted the throttle and popped the clutch, sending the bike stand flying into the table and toolboxes on the other side of our pit. He had psyched himself up and was ready to race.
The hooligan class was last on the grid. While waiting for Dan's turn to race, Carlos and I put some tape over Dan's oil cap after realizing that the cap was likely to fall out of the oil tank during the race.
For the next half hour, line after line of racers launched into the desert until the hooligan racers were the only ones still lined up. The pit crews cleared the starting line and the racers were left alone sitting on their bikes, with the motors turned off.
Right on cue, the racers all started their bikes, slammed them into gear and took off. The race begins with a short run on an MX style track before opening up into the desert. As Dan launched from the starting line and made his way around the MX track, his bike had very little power. Quickly realizing that the shop rag and bandana that they had wrapped around his air filter was restricting too much air, he fumbled, trying not to stop or slow down too much, and worked to rip the restrictive materials from the air filter.
Unfortunately, he had lost a lot of momentum and found himself pretty far behind the rest of the pack. As he reached the first long hardpack section of the race, he was able to open it up and really get moving. However, the excitement of effortlessly flying across the hardpack was shortlived as the sand eventually got softer and deeper.
He felt that his bike was geared too high for the deep sand and giant whoops and was struggling to keep it afloat and under control. All he could do was try to keep the throttle pinned and stand as far back on the bike as possible to keep the front end from diving into the sand. The arm pump had already set in and his legs were already on fire; he knew he was in for a very long and difficult day.
He eventually caught up with some other hooligan racers at the bottom of a steep climb. A lot of riders had stopped at the bottom of the climb to wait for the single-track route up the mountain to clear before pushing on. Dan didn't want to stop. He picked the best line he could find that ran closest to the marked course and went for it. At the top of the climb, he now faced a tough descent down a steep, narrow and rocky incline. The terrain continued to change from rocky single track to deep sand with big whoops and back to single track again.
He had not even reached the first pit yet and knew that he hadn't trained nearly enough for this race.
He had later told us that there was nothing easy about this race and that it just kept getting harder and harder with every mile.
By the time he finally reached the first pit, the motor was making a hell of a racket. At first, he thought it had something to do with those metal shavings he had found in the oil filter. But, the crew from Heat Wave Visuals had pointed out that his oil cap, that we had taped on, was missing. Assuming that a lot of oil had likely splashed out of the oil tank since the cap was lost, Dan felt he knew why the motor sounded so rough. The Heat Wave Visuals crew fashioned a new oil cap for his bike using a Gatorade bottle and Dan got back on track.
He continued over more of the same terrain and after another thirty miles or so after the first pit, he reached pit number two. Here, again, the crew from Heat Wave Visuals helped him out with water, gas and some repair work. Though eager to finish at least this first lap, Dan was secretly hoping that after sitting in the second pit for a few minutes, the bike wouldn't start back up and that he could just call it quits.
But the bike fired up. Knocking and loud as hell, the bike was ready for more abuse and Dan had no choice but to jump on and take the ride.
Dan was back on course and making progress. His exhaust was loose and black smoke was pouring out of the rear head while the bike was overheating, backfiring and losing power. But he continued pushing the Harley as hard as he could.
Lap traffic had begun coming up from behind and passing him. He couldn't believe how fast these guys were. Already on their second lap. Or was it just that he was that slow? It didn't matter. He might have been exhausted and his bike might have been breathing its last few breaths but, he was having fun and loving every single difficult moment.
Around sixty-five miles into the first lap, he looked down and saw that the custom made Gatorade oil cap was missing. In a moment of lapsed concentration, an oh-shit moment, if you will, he chopped the throttle and let his weight fall too far forward. The front end dove into the sand and he went over the bars.
While trying to get himself and his bike off of the ground, a racer from one of the dirt bike classes crashed nearby. Dan went over to help him up and back onto his bike while his Harley laid on its right side in the desert, losing all of what little oil might have remained.
He sat there for a while thinking that it was probably time to call it quits. He made a few phone calls to discuss the situation with a few friends and eventually with Carlos back in the pits. Determined to keep going, he fashioned yet another oil cap out of the beef jerky packaging and a zip tie, fired up the tired bike and continued.
He didn't make it too much farther before the bike had just had enough. Making no more power at all, the bike had decided the race for him. He pulled off the course, propped the bike up on a rock and found some shade.
Up to this point, it had taken Dan over three hours to ride 65 miles through the desert. He didn't know it at the time but, he would spend another three hours sitting there waiting for assistance and rescue.
The GPS transponder that was given to him at registration never worked. From the very beginning of the race, we had no way of knowing his location. Other race teams were able to use the official race app on their phones to track their riders. Dan was lost to us from the get-go.
We talked to dan on the phone and knew the situation he was in. He needed to get out of there. We tracked down the proper race officials and let them know that he was stuck out in the desert and that his GPS was not working.
Finding him was one thing. Getting him out was another. A course worker on a KTM found him and attempted to tow him to a safer spot. That failed miserably. Another course worker and his son showed up in a Jeep and attempted a second tow. With the bike flailing and repeatedly falling over, Dan called it off.
Except for the motor issues, the bike had faired quite well during the race. Being towed and dropped numerous times while behind the jeep, was doing more harm to the bike than good. Dan talked them into letting me and Carlos onto the course to pick him up in the van. The two of us ended up jumping in the rental van and meeting a course worker at an intersection in the next town over from Primm.
We followed him and his wife in their pickup truck down multiple service roads through the desert in a Sprinter van that was not designed for such extreme conditions. It was hilarious.
We eventually reached Dan, who came walking through the desert wearing the biggest grin on his face. I know he was happy to see us and that he was happy to finally be getting out of the dessert but I also feel like he was actually still just having fun.
We returned to Primm and loaded up the van. All of the other Hooligan racers had packed up and taken off. We wasted no time in returning to Vegas where we had a room and comfortable beds for the night.
Dan had never planned on winning the Mint 400. He just wanted to ride and have a good time. He faced a lot of difficulties and mishaps during his first desert race and he graciously took them all in stride. He learned a lot and is already planning on returning next year better prepared for the realities of difficult desert racing.