The biggest motorcycle racing story ever told


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has sold three million copies – no other book that (kind of) tells the story of a motorcycle race has sold so well

Ralph Steadman Fear and Loathing illustration

Thompson and his attorney speeding towards the start of the Mint 400 desert race


Fifty years ago this month an important event in the history of motorcycle racing journalism took place: the publication of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The book – subtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream – is infamous for telling a harrowing yet hilarious tale of drug-crazed decadence, so what the hell has it got to do with bike racing?


Thompson would never have written the book if he hadn’t been hired by Sports Illustrated magazine in the spring of 1971 to write a story about the Mint 400, a desert race that took place outside Las Vegas.

‘We were after all, the absolute cream of the national sporting press,” Thompson wrote. “And we were gathered here in Las Vegas for a very special assignment: to cover the fourth annual Mint 400… and when it comes to things like this, you don’t fool around…’

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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.

Mint 400 race

Mint 400 riders on Husqvarna two-strokes, the riders that Thompson had come to write about, until other temptations got in the way

Las Vegas News Bureau

‘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.’


Thompson sub-titled his most famous book, ‘A savage journey into the heart of the American dream’


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.

From the archive

Despite his haziness about the race results Thompson duly submitted his Mint 400 story to Sports Illustrated. Perhaps unsurprisingly his words were “aggressively rejected” but later published by Rolling Stone magazine and finally expanded into a full-length novel, one of the finest creations in the history of counterculture.

Thompson loved motorcycles, just like he loved anything dangerous: drink, drugs, guns, politics…

As far as I’m concerned, only one writer has written better about the joys of riding motorcycles than Thompson, and that’s TE Lawrence: author, First World War hero and talented rider of Brough Superiors.

This is Thompson writing in Generation of Swine: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist.

“We would scream and drink whiskey and light our joints with Zippos as we zoomed through the darkness like rats, leaning crazily into the long curves around the lakes and the polo field . . . just a gang of nice guys and athletes, out for a ride in the weather.”

And in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “Wow! What a Ride!’”

And in his first book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs

“With the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right… and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms.”

And in Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century.

“On my tombstone they will carve, ‘IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME.”

Thompson KTM

Thompson rode motorcycles on the road and on the dirt. This is a Penton GS6 enduro, designed in the USA, built by KTM

Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

Thompson’s most famous motorcycle story was published in Cycle World in 1995. The magazine’s features editor – in a moment of inspired insanity – decided it would be a good idea to get Thompson to road test a Ducati 900 Supersport.

At that time journalist Corey Seymour was Thompson’s handler at Rolling Stone, which in layman’s terms means he was there to make sure he was happy, but not too happy.

Seymour played his part in the long-drawn-out negotiations that took place between Thompson, Cycle World and Ducati.

“The details are dim,” recalls Seymour, who currently works for Vogue. “But I had some involvement with getting a bike to Hunter in Florida, where he ran up a $50,000 hotel bill in ten days or so while [not] writing Polo Is My Life for Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas cover“I just remember literally months of contacts with Ducati, which all came down to a bike being delivered to HST at the Breakers [a luxury resort in Palm Beach, Florida, where Thompson was staying]. HST hadn’t slept in days…

“His early attempts at riding the Ducati in the parking lot, uh… did not inspire confidence in the poor Ducati dealer who had delivered the machine to a seemingly addled shell of a man. . . but I guess the later month-long loaner in Colorado [Thompson’s home] was more the gist of his story for Cycle World.”

Thompson’s 900 Supersport road test is the stuff of legend, especially among motorcycle journalists who appreciate writers that stay away from the highways of life and instead take their pleasure in the dirty, oily backroads of existence.

The story was titled Song of the Sausage Creature and announced on the magazine’s cover thus: Fear and Loathing on a Ducati: Hunter S Thompson rides again.

The author may have been addled and carpark challenged but he rose to the occasion like only he knew how.

His motorcycle friends suggested they take the big red Duke to a racetrack but he was having nothing of it.

‘Never mind the track,” he wrote. “The track is for punks. We are Road People. We are Cafe Racers.

‘The Cafe Racer is a different breed, and we have our own situations… A thoroughbred Cafe Racer will ride all night through a fog storm in freeway traffic to put himself into what somebody told him was the ugliest and tightest decreasing-radius turn since Genghis Khan invented the corkscrew.’

Original artwork from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is used with permission and available to buy from the Ralph Steadman art collection