(NOTE: Tim Carolan recounted his experience driving a 2.0L Ford EcoBoost-powered Class 2400 truck in the recent Mint 400, where he and teammates Nick Carolan, and Shane and Eric Pavolka won the overall title in the 3-lap event.)
The first couple miles of The Mint were unlike anything I have ever driven during a desert race.
It was the infield in Primm, Nevada; the track was wet down so much that the car seemed to slip into every turn, making setting up for each corner not only easier because it would pitch the rear end of the car, but a blast. I have a cutting brake in the car for infield-type turns, but it wasn’t needed as long as I kept my brake timing in sync with the corner ahead.
My co-driver, Erick Pavolka, and I came to the bridge, a 25 mph zone that stretches for about 3 or 4 miles. It seems like eternity in a race car, but you have watch your GPS carefully not to exceed the speed limit and avoid a penalty. When you’re finally through it’s a graded road, and time to let loose.
Finally a chance to take your car through all five gears. The Tatum hit a 90-degree right hand sweeper, slam the brake, shift down to third gear, back on the gas before the apex of the turn, and you’re off again — back up to fifth.
This isn’t a nice, smooth graded road anymore; it may be wide enough, but you wouldn’t drive your pickup through it at more than 40 mph. The ground was hard-packed with lots of exposed rock similar to the infamous “thumper section” rolling three-foot peaks and valleys. The Tatum was tuned for this kind of terrain; we were in fifth gear pinned wide open, and the suspension was soaking up everything and felt completely stable at 90 mph. We took a left at the fence line and into the tight, twisting wash section.
There were rocks the size of footballs everywhere, but this is what we built our car for. It’s lightweight and has the torque in between shifts that gives us an advantage in the sand. I caught my first car, gave him a polite bump in the back and he moved over.
It wasn’t a mile later, and another Class 2400 was in front of me, and it looked like he was having trouble, I knew I only had to be patient before I could get by him. When he did pull over there was another car directly in front of him that he was chasing down; it was one of the new single-seat cars. They’re also very fast in these sections, probably why he didn’t want to pull over to let me pass.
I hit him three times, and he still wouldn’t move. I followed him until we were all the way out of the wash. We’re now on hard-packed, but the course was still twisty. I used his lead to my advantage.
In desert racing, you never know what’s around the next corner, and your course knowledge limits you to a fine line between carrying a lot of speed through the turn or lifting and covering the brake in case there’s something on the other side of that corner. With him in front of me, I knew whether to stay full throttle or lift. In most cases I stayed on it.
I pretty much used that tactic for the whole race to get around the entire field; catching every car at the same spot, the back of every corner. They went down to third when I was still at the top of fourth. I went up on two wheels more often than usual, but it worked.
By time we got to the first rocky section of the course, it was literally littered with class 10’s; sometimes they were on both sides of the track. It was crazy, but if you saw what we had to drive through you would never for a second even question what happened to them. There where sharp rocks everywhere. A lot of them you couldn’t avoid and had to pick to less of two evils. I had caught another car, but I wouldn’t ever dare to hang one wheel off the side of the track because it’s inevitable at that point, you’ll rip off an arm, break a spindle or catch a flat. So passes in this section had to be patient.
I followed 1053 on his bumper all the way through the pits. Meanwhile, he was close behind another car, H2Khaos 1003. B.I.T.D rules: you can’t pass in the pits with a 25 mph speed zone. As soon as we cleared the pits, 1053 pulled over, and it didn’t take very long till I gave the other car a bump to move over.
A few miles later I came up on 1044; our other car. They pulled over immediately so I barely had to slow down. Then I had a pretty good gap. I could drive my pace and not have to deal with any traffic, but the day was warming up and so was the course. What was a clear morning was now turning into a dusty afternoon.
I had to make a few more passes including the black-and-orange Sober Services 1055 and single seat 1056, but I finally got to the finish line where our main pit was. We filled up with gas while other members check the various parts of the car, then off for Lap 2.
We hit the jump in front of all the spectators and we learned the hard way not to do that again because we landed on a 90-degree right turn in the infield, which threw off our next two corners. I decided to reel the Tatum back in and start to drive a bit more conservatively.
I had clear air for a while until I hit one of the more famous sections towards the end of Tthe Mint 400, the rock garden. Who do I meet in there, but none other the No. 1071, one of the more well-known and faster Class10 cars.
Since we were doing the course backward, it was a lot rougher than usual with more dangers than I remember. We’re in the rock garden again which is littered with trash along the step 4-foot hills in succession. You definitely had to check your speed at the door if you wanted to finish this race.
With the No. 1071 in front of me I could use my gas pedal more like an on-and-off switch again, either full on gas or fully on brakes locking up tires. Needles to say we got right on his bumper.
He was taking care of his equipment until he heard our horn. He tried to take off, but he didn’t have the power that I did with the 2.0L Ford EcoBoost. I could definitely tell a difference between him and the other Class 10 cars. We got around him and we could see a dust cloud in the distance; time to chase down the next one.
It took about 15 to 20 minutes to reel in the dust cloud until we met him on the pavement section. We gained a little bit on him, hitting 114 mph but still couldn’t make out who it was. When the car turned hard right, Pavolka and I both started to giggle.
It was No. 1067, the fastest Class 10 car that beat everyone by more than 20 minutes in the last race. At that point, we knew we were onto something special. I caught him right as we enter the rock quarry, which is loaded with spectators. We didn’t know it at the time, but man were those spectators lucky.
I rode on No. 1067’s bumper through the entire section looking for a place to pass. He trashed every corner and spit rock and dirt all over us. He carried more speed going in to the corner being a lighter single-seat car, but I carried more speed out of it with the Ford motor.
I knew if he beat me out of the quarry he would be gone, being a long, dusty, whooped-out section, but I just couldn’t pass him. Once he made the turn, the wind was blowing right at us, the dust was too thick, and I had to let him go.
There was a whole lap to go, so I hoped my dad, Tim Carolan, would catch him in the tight twisty sections where I got everyone else. We hit one more spectator zone before coming in for last pit and driver change. The No. 1067 had managed to pass a Jeep Speed before the zone, and I was stuck behind him for the entire zone. You aren’t allowed to pass in this section. We probably lost 30 seconds, but it felt like 4 or 5 minutes.
My team came in over the radio and notified us that we were changing up our team’s strategy because the race was to close for a driver change. To me this was good news and bad news.
After 200 some miles, you want nothing more than to get out of this blender of a car, let alone The Mint. That’s why our plan was to change in a fresh driver/co-driver to finish off the last lap to avoid mistakes due to fatigue. My lower back was really sore and my head was throbbing, but that didn’t matter, I knew I had a chance to win The Mint 400.
I pulled into my pit and they where some new faces from the Mills team helping us out; obviously we were gaining some attention if a trophy truck team is assisting us. Our pits all day had been prefect as we practiced, taking less than 30 seconds.
As they dumped the second fuel can, the No. 1071 drove by. I’m a little nervous at this point. It’s about to be a battle for the last 100 miles between first, second and third.
Luckily, the No. 1071 had to pit, too. I pass him back in the pits before we even start our last lap, but his didn’t take long either. I drove out with him on my back bumper. I put on a few seconds on him until the long 25 mph bridge section. I stared at him in my rearview mirror until I hit the graded road again. I’m now in the tight twisty wash again, and lap traffic is everywhere. UTVs, Jeep Speeds and Baja bugs will really slow you down if you don’t pass them quickly.
Luckily, I caught them all at good spots with room to pass and they didn’t slow me down much. However, the track was almost covered with broken race cars. Most were pulled off the road, but there were a lot of alternate routes to get around people stuck or rolled over on the course.
We were almost through the twisty section when I came around a corner and found No. 1067 again. This time he doesn’t have a chance; I got right on top of him and give him a good nerf. He pulls over and I’m gone. I’m now running first place.
Pavolka is in my ear the entire time “all you can do at this point is lose,” reminding me to stay clear of trouble. We’ve had an absolutely flawless race until this point. When I say “to this point” I mean we hadn’t had a flat tire. Until now.
I probably deserved 15 flats, but the BFGoodrich tires are the best. Pavolka hops out to change it. In the five minutes, he took to change it, No. 1067, No. 1071, a UTV and a Jeep Speed pass us by. I was freaking out! Those five minutes felt like an hour as I sat there with nothing to do but watch them go by.
Only 40 miles left in the race and they’re gone again. It didn’t take long to pass the UTV and then the Jeep Speed, but I never saw the two Class 10 trucks again. We can see the finish line off in the distance and I start to get excited. I came up over a hill doing close to 100 MPH and there is another 10 car on the side of the road, this time the No. 1090, another fast guy.
“He’s up here, too!?!?”
I saw his exhaust kick out black smoke; he had just started his engine. Meanwhile, I’m coming down this hill at top speed. He pulls on the course without even looking, and I had to slam the brakes, locking up the tires. I couldn’t stop completely smashing into the back of him. One second later, and we both could have been taken out of the race. Luckily, no one was hurt. He moved over faster than I’ve ever seen anyone move, and we drove to the finish together.
When we crossed the line, I knew I had won my class. We started behind 32 Class 10 cars and four Class 2400 cars, passed them all in the course of the race and never saw them again. I didn’t even think about the overall title, as No. 1067 and No. 1071 beat me to the line, and who knew if anyone was in front of them like No. 1090 was?
Our team ran at a dead sprint to us, screaming “You did it! We won OVERALL!” We didn’t believe them.
I started in the very back so it couldn’t have been true, but I was so beat up and out of it I didn’t even care. Just get me out of this car! It wasn’t until the next day it actually hit me. “Oh my gosh, I won the Overall of The Mint 400!”
Looking back at it now, I realize how lucky I was. The night before the race a storm came to wet down the entire course. This allowed me to run wide open the entire first lap. The absence of dust gave me the advantage to watch each car in front of me. It wasn’t until the second lap when the weather dried up and everybody behind me was now stuck in my dust.
My car was on top of its game thanks to a perfect prep by my co-driver, Erick Pavolka. Our pit strategy worked out perfectly, and if it wasn’t for my dads call to keep me in the car, we would’ve lost five minutes to a driver change.
Most of all, it was the mentality of our program. We are a budget-restricted race team and we don’t have the ability to buy the best-of-the-best parts for our car. I knew my weak points before the race even started, so I babied my equipment in the ruff areas, the same sections that took out half the competition.
The stars aligned for us to have a perfect race. We have two wins in a row and five wins in the last nine races, so the team is feeling really good as we gear up to take on Laughlin in seven weeks.