Earlier this month, more than 65,000 spectators flocked to Las Vegas and the surrounding area to witness the 2020 BFGoodrich Tires Mint 400. Started back in 1968, the annual off-road race was initially created to help promote the now-defunct Mint Hotel and Casino and features 428 grueling miles of desert, enough to obliterate even the toughest of vehicles. But when the dust settled and the sun set, one driver claimed the victory – and it was a very familiar name in off-road racing.
With just one lap remaining, the Mint 400 quickly evolved into a three truck race, as two-time winner Bryce Menzies battled it out with both Ryan Arciero and Luke McMillin. But with a reliable truck, an impeccable relationship with his co-driver and a little determination, it was McMillin who crossed the finish line first, 32 years after his father, Mark, won the exact same race.
“I’m ecstatic, you know,” McMillin said. “We’ve been after this my whole life!”
McMillin is a member of off-road racing royalty. He’s the third generation to get behind the wheel and race competitively. It started with his late grandfather, Corky McMillin, who won the Baja 1000 and earned a spot in the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. Not only did his grandfather prove to be a whiz behind the wheel but he knew the mechanics of the vehicle. McMillin is often reminded of his family’s background and while he’s definitely proud of his name, he’s also trying to carve out his own legacy, both behind the wheel and under the hood – like his grandfather.
“I’m not really a driver that shows up and just races,” McMillin admitted. “I’m involved with this truck. I’ve been developing this truck, along with the team, for six years. And that really reflects my Grandpa Corky because he was, out of my entire family, the guy that was hands-on with his vehicles. That was my role in the family, the mechanic side of things, and I struggled for years and years with it but we finally made it work, so to be relevant with my grandpa is really cool.”
Built in 2014, McMillin’s truck was among the oldest in this year’s Mint 400. That can create a wealth of problems and, according to McMillin, the vehicle struggled for most of the last six years. He knew there were trucks entering the event that were faster than his truck, which is equipped with a 454 Ford Small Block motor, so McMillin knew it would take a clean race to earn a podium spot. But with the amount of time and testing he put in the truck, reliability was the least of his worries.
“There’s definitely trucks up there that are faster than us, there’s trucks up there with bigger motors, but you can’t focus on that,” McMillin added. “I know it’s old, everyone knows it’s a little bit slower and a little bit older, but it’s just a warhorse and, the thing is, it’s really reliable, so we have to drive it really hard all day to keep up with those guys – but we can.”
Running the truck hard was important but there were plenty of other factors that went into the victory, one of which was his co-driver, Jason Duncan. Much like a caddie in golf, co-drivers are essential to driving off-road for a number of different reasons, ensuring the truck and driver are both in sync. Whether it’s following the GPS, monitoring the truck’s oil temps or fixing a flat tire, Duncan has to remain just as focused as McMillin, all while yelling commands into his helmet. Unlike some drivers, McMillin doesn’t listen to the radio during races, so it’s up to Duncan to sift through some of that noise. All of these attributes can prove extremely significant over the course of an almost seven hour event like the Mint 400.
Working well together is a relationship that’s formed over time. It’s a bond between the driver and co-driver, one that McMillin knows helps him from going completely nuts behind the wheel.
“[Duncan] plays as important a role as I do. I have sat in the right seat before – and that is tough. He has an incredibly important job because we get in that focus, in that zone, and you can only imagine after seven hours of that it’s easy to get dyslexic on that. On top of that, he does a great job of keeping me level-headed, feeding me the information I need to know and then blocking out the information I don’t need to know.”
Seven hours in a vehicle might not seem like much but we’re not talking about a joyride on the interstate, we’re talking about one of the United States’ most difficult off-road endeavors. Every second, every mile, McMillin and Duncan need to be laser-focused, avoiding obstacles in their path that could do serious damage – from basketball-sized rocks to fallen fire extinguishers. It would be a challenge for anyone but it’s a little worse for McMillin who has what he calls “crazy ADHD.” For the Mint 400, and all of McMillin’s races, he goes through moments where he zones out, so finding a happy place or repeating the beat to a song over and over can often prove valuable.
And there are any number of things that can grab his attention in almost an instant, not to mention the fact that this year’s race was 28 miles longer than in previous years.
“I can tell you there’s been races where I struggle and lose focus on things,” McMillin said. “You’re kind of just in this no man’s land where you’re focused and the longer you can stay there, the better you’re going to do. You break concentration for this reason, or that reason, or you get excited, or frustrated, or mad over a flat tire or whatever and it is like, ‘Hey, put your head back on your shoulders and get back in that zone!’ “It’s tough but maintaining my focus is definitely key.”
It was focus, and maybe a little bit of luck, that helped McMillin claim his first Mint 400 win but he admits he had to curb his excitement during the last lap, when things broke his way. For McMillin, and the other drivers, Lap 1, 2 and 3 don’t really matter, it’s when they get to Lap 4 that the race is either won or lost – and that’s exactly how things played out this year. Ultimately holding off Menzies en route to the finish line, it wasn’t until McMillin noticed the current leader, Arciero, suffered a flat tire that he began to get excited, as Arciero quickly appeared in his rearview mirror. Then his focus switched to one thing, the only thing that could stop him – the uncertain terrain.
“Sure enough, we come around a turn, we see the lights of Ryan and I go, ‘I think that was them’ and in my head I’m thinking, ‘That looks like Ryan Arciero! That looks like Ryan Arciero!’ We passed them and I still didn’t believe it, I go, ‘Oh my God, that was Ryan Arciero!’ [Duncan] gets all excited at that point and I was like don’t get excited, because I got excited for a second. I focused turn-for-turn, bump-for-bump and I told myself that I have one job right now and it’s not to go fast, it’s not to do anything crazy – one job, and that’s to not hit a rock,” he remembered.
At that point, McMillin put his faith in a set of 40-inch all-terrain BFGoodrich tires to ensure the win and help validate years of hard work.
“The only thing between the truck and the ground is that tire, so they go from 10 mph sections at night where the tire will cool down and then 140 mph and heat all the way up and all of those different scenarios – that’s pretty amazing. We could not do it without BFGoodrich on our side.”