Off-road desert racing has brought adventure enthusiasts and thrill-seekers together since the 1920s. Barren, open deserts allow racers of various vehicle classes to test their speed, while technical, unforgiving terrain challenges even the most skilled of drivers. Whether the vehicle of choice is a vintage race car or stock mini truck, dune buggy, or modified Volkswagen Beetle, there is something for everyone in these famous off-road desert races spanning from the southwestern states of America down through Central America.
Find out what makes these four offroad races top-notch and why this North American sport continues to grow in popularity. Additionally, we’ll offer tips for preparing to navigate these extreme courses where you’ll be spending long hours out in the middle of nowhere.
Best Off-Road Desert Races in North America
1. The Mint 400
“The Great American Off-Road Race”
Created in 1968 by Norm Johnson of The Mint Hotel and Casino, the Mint 400 is the oldest off-road race in America, still running today. Since its inception, its continued to hold the title of the most challenging and most spectacular off-road race in America.
When: Held Annually in March
Where: Starts and Finishes in Primm, Nevada, behind Buffalo Bill’s Hotel and Casino; the course is a 120-mile loop that extends from the edge of Las Vegas to the California-Nevada state line
Length: Four 107-mile laps are completed over two days
Size: over 550 race teams of more than 65,000 off-road enthusiasts from around the world
Classes: 80+ classes compete
Claim to Fame: Some of its most well-known racers have included rock musician Ted Nugent, astronaut Gordon Cooper, actor Steve McQueen, and even Jay Leno. You can also see the race featured in the 1998 cult film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
History of the Mint 400
What started as a public relations event promoting the Mint Hotel’s annual deer hunt (weird, but true!) quickly became one of the most well-known and legit off-road racing desert races. Racers from around the world came to try their hand at a coveted title and the significant prize purse winnings. The race continued to grow in popularity brought financial gain to the Mint Hotel and Casino and the City of Las Vegas until 1989. But new ownership changed the tides and the Mint 400 wouldn’t operate for nearly 20 years.
The Mint 400 Today
But the epic 428-mile off-road race wouldn’t stay away forever. It’s a race that is described as “desolate, punishing, and treacherous,” but it’s that kind of challenge that brings so many racers to the event each year. Even though over half of its participants won’t finish the course, the prestige obtained from finishing is reason enough to make the attempt. Nowadays, you’ll see a lot more off-road technological advancements (and thank goodness for satellite phones, along with a Vegas landscape that’s changed quite a bit, but the Mint 400 prides itself on its classic elements that have always made it great in the world of desert racing.
2. Baja 1000
Knowing the terrain of a grueling days-long off-road race can be the key to success, and sometimes, even survival. But what if a course is ever-changing, making it close to impossible to know what you’re getting into? What may sound crazy to many sounds perfect to those who come back year after year to the Baja 1000. Beauty and danger come together in this south of the border off-road desert race.
When: Annually, in November
Where: The Baja 1000 always starts in the same vicinity (Ensenada, Tijuana, Mexicali), but doesn’t have a fixed location like most of the other off-road races. It may be point-to-point, and other times a loop course is used.
Length: The course does not consist of an exact 1,000-mile route. Instead, it changes from year to year and maybe closer to 800 miles or upwards of 1,100 miles. 21 – 25 hours is the average finish time, but many factors contribute to the overall time on the course.
Size: 100s of race teams come to compete in the Baja 1000.
Vehicle Classes: Dozens of classes, including trucks, motorbikes, buggies, UTVs, ATVs, and Volkswagen Beetles
Claim to Fame: The Baja 1000 can be seen in the 1982 film Timerider; Documentaries Dust to Glory and Dust to Glory 2 follow racers of the Baja 1000 in 2005 and 2016, respectively.
History of the Baja 1000
The Baja 1000 was founded in 1967 by Ed Pearlman, under the original name of the NORRA Mexican 1000 Rally. With its beautiful coastline and backdrop of mountains (and not to mention miles and miles of desolate, craggy earth), Baja California made for the perfect place to hold this 1,000-mile race. After the Mexican government gave SCORE International exclusive rights to have Baja races, the transfer took place, and the race was renamed the Baja 1000.
The Baja 1000 Today
What continues to make the Baja 1000 unique is its ever-changing course. This means that racers can never truly predict what kind of obstacles they’ll be presented with, having to keep every reflex at the ready for whatever may come their way. On top of that, you don’t need any exceptional credentials to compete – those with an eligible car and the entry fee can race. But know your risks, as there are other dangers lurking on this course that you won’t encounter on others. According to a racer who wrote for Wired, Spectators “famously set booby traps—pits, rock stashes—to cause racers to crash. It’s not uncommon for teams and crews to be robbed on the road or lightly extorted by people posing as armed military.”
To learn more, read “The Baja 1000 and How to Communicate During the Race.”
“The Happiest Race On Earth”
Since I just told you that the NORRA Mexican 1000 was renamed the Baja 1000 when it changed hands, you might be a bit confused. The truth is that race is an entirely different race than today’s NORRA Mexican 1000. Mike Pearlman, son of Ed Pearlman (who started the original Mexican 1000), wanted to carry on his father’s legacy by bringing back an off-road desert race under the same name. But instead of making it all about competition and racing to be number one, the NORRA Mexican 1000 places a significant emphasis on fun.
When: Typically held in April each year
Where: The party starts in Ensanada, continues on to different checkpoints each day, with the finish line at San Jose del Cabo.
Length: This 1,000-mile race is completed over the course of 4 days, where competitors stay in accommodations overnight.
Size: Over 240 race vehicles compete
Vehicle Classes: There are categories for Vintage and Modern Vehicles, Rally Cars, Motorcycles, and ATVs of all ages and types; NORRA events are held on terrain selected with vintage cars in mind to help minimize the stress put on them.
Claim to Fame: A small portion of the Mexican 1000 can be viewed in the motorcycling film, On Any Sunday.
History of the NORRA Mexican 1000
Mike Pearlman’s goal was to recreate a race that would pay homage to his father and the race’s humble beginnings. The inaugural race of 2009 proved to be a success as this 4-day racing event continues to bring fans and spectators back every year.
The NORRA Mexican Today
The NORRA Mexican 1000 is like no other off-road race. In contrast, other competitions can become places where nerves and stress run high – where every second counts, the NORRA Mexican 1000 is proud of the festival-like culture it created. Racers no doubt prepare to compete, but at the end of the day (literally), everyone immerses themselves in food, drink, and the beauty of Baja where camaraderie continues to remain number one.
To learn more, read “Racing the NORRA Mexican 1000: Where Fun Comes First.“
4. Vegas to Reno
“The Longest Off-Road Race in the United States”
Vegas to Reno, put on by the Best in the Desert Racing Association, touts itself as both the longest and the most challenging off-road race in America.
When: Takes place annually in August
Where: Point-to-point course starts near Las Vegas in Beatty, NV and ends near Reno in Dayton, NV.
Length: 550 Miles over the course of one day – this makes it the longest off-road racecourse in the United States.
Size: In 2020, according to Race Dezert, “383 competitors lined up to take the challenge.”
Vehicle Classes: Several classes in the following categories: motorcycle, quad, UTV, truck, and car – specific requirements can be found here.
Claim to Fame: Watch professional drift racer Matt Field go back to his roots as a co-driver with his dad in an episode of his TV Series Losing Traction.
History of Vegas to Reno
The inaugural Vegas to Reno took place in 1996 as Best in the Desert introduced four-wheel vehicles for the first time. But this wasn’t the first time racers would complete the 500+ mile course across the Nevada desert. TRaces inspired the BITD Vegas to Reno race before it including the Frontier 500 and the Nevada 500 put on by the High Desert Racing Association. The event was resurrected by Casey Folks – hailing a new course that would include deep sand, dry lake beds, technical trails, and fast speedways.
Vegas to Reno Today
Vegas to Reno truly is a “must-do” for the world’s most dedicated off-road desert racers. Racers can expect extreme elevation, a whole lot of dust (it’s in the middle of a dry and barren desert after all), and terrain that even the most experienced drivers find challenging to safely and successfully navigate. For those looking for the ultimate test of agility as well as physical and mental endurance in off-road racing, Vegas to Reno doesn’t disappoint.
Top Tips for Navigating the Top 5 Desert Races
A lot of planning and practice goes into preparing for any of these grueling and lengthy races. Even if you’re doing it for fun and aren’t attempting to place it, lack of preparation can quickly turn excitement into danger. We recommend using top tips to ensure that you have a successful race that leads to an experience you’ll want to return to
Tip #1: Build or Buy the Proper Vehicle
Determining the right vehicle is vital. The range of accepted cars for most of these off-road desert races is quite vast, which means there is something for everyone. Whatever you choose, safety and reliability are of utmost importance to get you through your race.
Tip #2: Improve Your Driving Technique Through Practice
These 1,000-mile plus races require both physical and mental strength. The only way to truly prepare is to practice in a way that will get you ready for race day. Reaching out to and working with experienced riders and drivers is a great to hone your skills.
Tip #3: Save up Your Money
These desert off-road races aren’t cheap. Once you decide you want to compete in one of these top races, you’ll need to consider everything you’ll have to pay for. Other than the cost to build or purchase your vehicle of choice, some charges you’ll have to factor in include:
- entry fee
- spare parts
- travel expenses
Be sure you do your research ahead of time to find out what kind of costs you’ll incur so that you don’t get in over your head.
Tip #3: Have the Right Gear to Stay Safe
- Satellite Phone – It’s essential to understand that many of these races are held in areas without cell service. Having a satellite phone to be able to communicate should any need arise – your safety may depend on it. If you’re not ready to purchase, you can also rent a satellite phone. We recommend the ruggedly built Iridium 9555 or dust-tight ICOM Radio is the best satellite phone.
- Race Suit and Gloves
- Water Pack – Having water readily available at all times is imperative for these hours/days-long races.
- Easy to Grab Snacks
- Tools – Expect the expected with tools available to complete any necessary fix to your vehicle that might come your way.
- Necessary Documents – this includes items such as drivers’ license and insurance card/documents and passport and tourist card if competing internationally.
Tip #4: Arrive in Advance
As we discussed, preparing well can make or break your off-road desert race. In a race such as the Baja 1000, when you don’t know precisely what the racecourse holds, it’s imperative that you arrive early to scope out the course. Knowing where the biggest obstacles are will be to your advantage, no matter which race you’ll be doing.