Thompson’s job that weekend was essentially the same as my job now: visit race venue, watch motorcycles hurtling this way and that, talk to some riders and mechanics, eat, drink and make merry, dream up a story, hammer out some words and sell them to the highest bidder.
This is one of many reasons I feel a certain affinity for Thompson, although I would never dare suggest I’m good enough to deserve even a sniff of his Tippex bottle.
The Mint 400 is still going today, indeed the 2021 race takes place this Saturday. Last year’s was won by Dalton Shirey on a Husqvarna FC450 four-stroke enduro bike. When Thompson covered the race the hottest tools for the event, which took riders through the Nevada desert, skirting Death Valley along the way, were Husky and Yamaha two-strokes. Even Steve McQueen had a go at the Mint, usually riding under the pseudonym Harvey Mushman.
Thompson starts Fear and Loathing, during the drive from Los Angeles to Vegas, with these immortal words…
‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.’
And the book continues in that vein for several hundred pages.
These were the days when journalists were looked after properly. Sports Illustrated ensured Thompson had everything he needed to cover the event to the highest standards. They gave him and his attorney (yes, his attorney) a soundproofed suite in the Mint hotel, owned by the race promoter, and a huge, bright-red Chevrolet rent-a-car. And expenses, of course.
‘The sporting editors had given me $300 in cash [about $2000 now], most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab…’
Thompson and his attorney were high through most of the assignment but somehow managed to go about their business, arriving at the Mint 400 starting line, just north of Vegas.
‘Here were about a hundred bikers, mechanics and assorted motorsport types milling around in the pit area, signing in for tomorrow’s race, idly sipping beers and appraising each other’s machinery.
‘I bought a beer and watched the bikes checking in. Many 405 Husquavarnas [sic], high-tuned Swedish fireballs, also many Yamahas, Kawasakis, a few 500 Triumphs, Maicos, here and there a CZ, a Pursang. All very fast, super-light dirt bikes. No Hogs [Harleys] in this league, that would be like entering our Great Red Shark [the Chevrolet] in the dune buggy competition.
‘Maybe I should do that, I thought. Sign my attorney up as the driver, then send him out to the starting line with a head full of ether and acid. How would they handle that?”
“His words were “aggressively rejected” but later published by Rolling Stone and expanded into a novel, one of the finest creations in the history of counterculture.”
Finally the race got underway.
‘The flag went down and these poor buggers popped their clutches and zoomed into the first turn… then somebody grabbed the lead (a 405 Husquavarna [sic], as I recall), and a cheer went up and the rider screwed it on and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
“Well, that’s that,” somebody said. “They’ll be back around in an hour or so. Let’s go back to the bar.’
And this is where – inevitably – Thompson’s assignment began to unravel.
‘The race was like trying to keep track of a swimming meet in an Olympic-sized pool filled with talcum powder instead of water,” he wrote.
‘I began to drink heavily, think heavily and make many heavy notes.’
Drink, drugs and gambling – ‘emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino’ – took a heavy toll on Johnson and his sidekick.
‘I didn’t even know who had won the race. Maybe nobody. For all I knew, the whole spectacle had been aborted by a terrible riot – an orgy of senseless violence, kicked off by drunken hoodlums who refused to abide by the rules.
‘I wanted to plug this gap in my knowledge at the earliest opportunity: Pick up the L.A. Times and score the sports section for a Mint 400 story. Get the details. Cover myself.’
As much as I admire Thompson I hereby solemnly promise that I’ve never resorted to reading the local newspaper to find the results of any race I’ve covered over the last 35 years or so.
From this moment Fear and Loathing drifts into another world. Thompson forgot all about the Mint 400 and moved onto his next assignment – oh, the irony – covering the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in Vegas for Rolling Stone. You don’t need me to tell you how that gig ended.