“This is like the world’s largest collection of people I wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with,” says my friend Andrew. He’s a British photographer, and we’re in Las Vegas for the Mint 400 off-road race, the event that spawned Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Every writer who goes to Vegas wants to be Thompson, but my gonzo proclivities are hemmed in by two factors. One, I’ll be driving a buggy in the race, and the wakeup call is at 4 am. Perhaps even more significantly, this is my third Vegas trip in six months. And if Thompson went to Vegas three times in six months, Fear and Loathing would’ve been all about the existential struggle of boarding in Group C on Southwest.
There’s a certain trajectory for enthusiasm about Vegas. The first time you go, it’s all euphoric expectation: We’re going to Vegas! We’re not sleeping all weekend yeeee-hawwww! Then, Vegas the second time: OK, I could go for some blackjack and a nice steak. Vegas the third time: Hey, do we really have to go to Vegas? You know, there are other places with nice pools but less stench of desperation.
Because of its proximity to the Mint registration, I stay at the D Casino Hotel downtown. The D is the kind of joint where the maid’s daily punch list includes peeking under the mattress for corpses. I know I’m in a classy establishment from the moment I arrive at check-in and spy one of my fellow D guests ashing his cigarette on the floor and carrying his cell phone in a snazzy camouflage holster clipped to his jorts. Over at the casino, I momentarily think that the go-go dancers are making an ironic commentary on the normcore trend, but it turns out they’re just dumpy. Eventually, I retreat to the quiet sophistication of the Golden Nugget.
Downtown Vegas is supposed to be making a comeback, and I suppose I might prefer its shabby glitz to the synthetic, overwrought carnival of the Strip, but that’s sort of like saying that I suppose I prefer gonorrhea to syphilis. I do find one cool bar that has great food, a long beer list and a subtle wit to its decor. Naturally, it’s always empty because nice things don’t appeal to the shuffling, dead-eyed trolls out prowling the sidewalks of downtown Las Vegas.
They say Vegas makes for great people-watching, and that’s especially true if you’re a fan of The Walking Dead and want to see it in person. At around 10:30 am one morning, I watch a guy stagger past while dumping a bottle of water on his head. That might be normal if he just finished a marathon, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t any marathons sponsored by meth. A short while later, I overhear a guy say, “I make a lot of money, but I spend more than I make. I got a couple bills coming up that I don’t know how I’m gonna handle.” Well, I’m no financial expert, but if you’ve got money problems, the first thing you should do is go to Vegas. One more overheard snippet features a corpulent Texan exclaiming, “They tried to give me a Corolla at the rental place. Can you imagine, me in a Corolla?” Dude, I can’t imagine you in a library. But I can certainly imagine you in a Corolla.
Fortunately, my ultimate destination is not Vegas itself but the Mint 400 starting line, about 30 miles south. Our three-man team was assembled by Red Bull and also includes action-sports TV host Sal Masekela and Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who I hope will love racing so much that he becomes a pro desert racer and abandons any plans he might have about leveling Tom Brady. Masekela and Ware split the first 100-mile lap, and I take over for the second one.
Within the Las Vegas city limits, the edgy, debauched town described in Fear and Loathing is gone, replaced by corporate conferences at the Mandarin Oriental and prepackaged cruise-ship adventures for the hordes on the Strip. But at the Mint the peril is as real and immediate as it was in Thompson’s day—less than 50 percent of the entrants even finish the race. When you’re out in the scrubby, rock-strewn vastness of the desert, bounding along at 80 mph across the barest suggestion of a road, you get a different perspective on Vegas. Any city that supports an event where lunatics drive door-to-door at 130 mph across a dry lake—well, that place can’t be all bad.
Still, when I pull around to hand the car back to Ware, we find that he’s already split town. I can’t say I blame him.