FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS -- A SAVAGE JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
by Hunter S. Thompson, © 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson
Chapter 5: Covering the Story ... A Glimpse of the Press in Action ... Ugliness & Failure
The racers were ready at dawn. Fine sunrise over the desert. Very tense. But the race didn't start until nine, so we had to kill about three long hours in the casino next to the pits, and that's where the trouble started.
The bar opened at seven. There was also a "koffee & donut canteen" in the bunker, but those of us who had been up all night in places like the Circus-Circus were in no mood for coffee & donuts. We wanted strong drink. Our tempers were ugly and there were at least two hundred of us, so they opened the bar early. By eight-thirty there were big crowds around the crap-tables. The place was full of noise and drunken shouting.
A boney, middle-aged hoodlum wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt boomed up to the bar and yelled: "God damn! What day is this -- Saturday?"
"More like Sunday," somebody replied.
"Hah! That's a bitch, ain't it?" the H-D boomer shouted to nobody in particular. "Last night I was out home in Long Beach and somebody said they were runnin' the Mint 400 today, so I says to my old lady, 'Man, I'm goin'." He laughed. "So she gives me a lot of crap about it, you know ... so I started slappin' her around and the next thing I knew two guys I never even seen before got me out on the sidewalk workin' me over. Jesus! They beat me stupid."
He laughed again, talking into the crowd and not seeming to care who listened. "Hell yes!" he continued. "Then one of 'em says, 'Where you going?' And I says, 'Las Vegas, to the Mint 400.' So they gave me ten bucks and drove me down to the bus station...." He paused. "At least I think it was them....
"Well, anyway, here I am. And I tell you that was one hell of a long night, man! Seven hours on that goddamn bus! But when I woke up it was dawn and here I was in downtown Vegas and for a minute I didn't know what the hell I was doin' here. All I could think was, 'O Jesus, here we go again: Who's divorced me this time?'"
He accepted a cigarette from somebody in the crowd, still grinning as he lit up. "But then I remembered, by God! I was here for the Mint 400 ... and, man, that's all I needed to know. I tell you it's wonderful to be here, man. I don't give a damn who wins or loses. It's just wonderful to be here with you people.... "
Nobody argued with him. We all understood. In some circles, the "Mint 400" is a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one. This race attracts a very special breed, and our man in the Harley T-shirt was clearly one of them.
The correspondent from Life nodded sympathetically and screamed at the bartender: "Senzaman wazzyneeds!
"Fast up with it," I croaked. "Why not five?" I smacked the bar with my open, bleeding palm. "Hell yes! Bring us ten!"
"I'll back it!" The Life man screamed. He was losing his grip on the bar, sinking slowly to his knees, but still speaking with definite authority: "This is a magic moment in sport! It may never come again!" Then his voice seemed to break. "I once did the Triple Crown," he muttered. "But it was nothing like this."
The frog-eyed woman clawed feverishly at his belt. "Stand up!" she pleaded. "Please stand up! You'd be a very handsome man if you'd just stand up!"
He laughed distractedly. "Listen, madam," he snapped. "I'm damn near intolerably handsome down here where I am. You'd go crazy if I stood up!"
The woman kept pulling at him. She'd been mooning at his elbows for two hours, and now she was making her move. The man from Life wanted no part of it; he slumped deeper into his crouch.
I turned away. It was too horrible. We were, after all, the absolute cream of the national sporting press. 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.
But now -- even before the spectacle got under way -- there were signs that we might be losing control of the situation. Here we were on this fine Nevada morning, this cool bright dawn on the desert, hunkered down at some greasy bar in a concrete blockhouse & gambling casino called the "Mint Gun Club" about ten miles out of Vegas ... and with the race about to start, we were dangerously disorganized.
Outside, the lunatics were playing with their motorcycles, taping the headlights, topping off oil in the forks, last minute bolt-tightening (carburetor screws, manifold nuts, etc.) ... and the first ten bikes blasted off on the stroke of nine. It was extremely exciting and we all went outside to watch. The flag went down and these ten poor buggers popped their clutches and zoomed into the first turn, all together, then somebody grabbed the lead (a 405 Husquavarna, as I recall), and a cheer went up as 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."
But not yet. No. There were something like a hundred and ninety more bikes waiting to start. They went off ten at a time, every two minutes. At first it was possible to watch them out to a distance of some two hundred yards from the starting line. But this visibility didn't last long. The third brace of ten disappeared into the dust about a hundred yards from where we stood ... and by the time they'd sent off the first hundred (with still another hundred to go), our visibility was down to something like fifty feet. We could see as far as the hay-bales at the end of the pits....
Beyond that point the incredible dustcloud that would hang over this part of the desert for the next two days was already formed up solid. None of us realized, at the time, that this was the last we would see of the "Fabulous Mint 400" --
By noon it was hard to see the pit area from the bar/casino, one hundred feet away in the blazing sun. The idea of trying to "cover this race" in any conventional press-sense was absurd: It was like trying to keep track of a swimming meet in an Olympic-sized pool filled with talcum powder instead of water. The Ford Motor Company had come through, as promised, with a "press Bronco" and a driver, but after a few savage runs across the desert -- looking for motorcycles and occasionally finding one -- I abandoned this vehicle to the photographers and went back to the bar.
It was time, I felt, for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene. The race was definitely under way. I had witnessed the start; I was sure of that much. But what now'? Rent a helicopter? Get back in that stinking Bronco? Wander out on that goddamn desert and watch these fools race past the checkpoints? One every thirteen minutes....?
By ten they were spread out all over the course. It was no longer a "race"; now it was an Endurance Contest. The only visible action was at the start/finish line, where every few minutes some geek would come speeding out of the dustcloud and stagger off his bike, while his pit crew would gas it up and then launch it back onto the track with a fresh driver ... for another fifty-mile lap, another brutal hour of kidney-killing madness out there in that terrible dust-blind limbo.
Somewhere around eleven, I made another tour in the press-vehicle, but all we found were two dune-buggies full of what looked like retired petty-officers from San Diego. They cut us off in a dry-wash and demanded, "Where is the damn thing?"
"Beats me," I said. "We're just good patriotic Americans like yourselves." Both of their buggies were covered with ominous symbols: Screaming Eagles carrying American Flags in their claws, a slant-eyed snake being chopped to bits by a buzz-saw made of stars & stripes, and one of the vehicles had what looked like a machine-gun mount on the passenger side.
They were having a bang-up time -- just crashing around the desert at top speed and hassling anybody they met. "What outfit you fellas with?" one of them shouted. The engines were all roaring; we could barely hear each other.
"The sporting press," I yelled. "We're friendlies -- hired geeks."
"If you want a good chase," I shouted, "you should get after that skunk from CBS News up ahead in the big black jeep. He's the man responsible for The Selling of the Pentagon."
"Hot damn!" two of them screamed at once. "A black jeep, you say?"
They roared off, and so did we. Bouncing across the rocks & scrub oak/cactus like iron tumbleweeds. The beer in my hand flew up and hit the top, then fell in my lap and soaked my crotch with warm foam.
"You're fired," I said to the driver. "Take me back to the pits."
It was time, I felt, to get grounded -- to ponder this rotten assignment and figure out how to cope with it. Lacerda insisted on Total Coverage. He wanted to go back out in the dust storm and keep trying for some rare combination of film and lens that might penetrate the awful stuff.
"Joe," our driver, was willing. His name was not really "Joe," but that's what we'd been instructed to call him. I had talked to the FoMoCo boss the night before, and when he mentioned the driver he was assigning to us he said, "His real name is Steve, but you should call him Joe."
"Why not?" I said. "We'll call him anything he wants. How about 'Zoom'?"
"No dice," said the Ford man. "It has to be 'Joe.'"
Lacerda agreed, and sometime around noon he went out on the desert, again, in the company of our driver, Joe. I went back to the blockhouse bar/casino that was actually the Mint Gun Club -- where I began to drink heavily, think heavily, and make many heavy notes....