I really did not want to abandon a 2017 Kia Niro in the Nevada desert.
It was a perfectly decent car, hardly deserving of such disrespect. But there I was, confused, exhausted, emotionally broken and vowing never to go back to Las Vegas again.
This story starts at Buffalo Bill’s Resort And Casino in Primm, Nevada at around 9 p.m. on Friday, March 3.
Now Primm is not Las Vegas. Primm is where you fall if you trip over the state line, which is why a small handful of cigarette-stained gambling establishments stand there. It’s got all the soul-suckery you love about Sin City without any pesky delusions of glamour.
Primm is also where the Mint 400 starts, one of the biggest annual desert racing events on the calendar. This year I was co-driving a Class 11 stock VW Beetle, the slowest, most arduous class in the event.
Mad Media, the company that promotes and owns the race, had graciously offered to get me a hotel room there and even nicer of them: they’d found a three-layer racing suit I could borrow for the event. (One layer is the thinnest, three is the heaviest, safest and hottest you usually find.)
But I still had a lot to sort out before green flags the following day. Like, actually getting my hands on that suit.
And registering for the race. And meeting the driver I was going to entrust my life with while we raced together.
Step one: I called my guy at Mad Media. His questions didn’t bode well for my prospects of getting to sleep early. “Oh, your suit’s not there? You haven’t registered yet? You know your race starts at 6 a.m., right?”
“Of course I know that,” I lied.
The VWs and other “slow” cars in what are called the Limited classes would green early in the morning so, ideally, they’d be off the course by the afternoon when the ultrafast Unlimited beasts are let off their leashes. This way it’s less likely we’ll end up with a squashed Bug.
I fired off a flurry of texts to the guy who supposedly had my race suit—who I’d never met—and a few to my racer—who I’d only met through another guy I only knew over email.
At this point I was already sensing I might have benefitted from a little extra effort in the pre-planning department.
“You can still register last-minute if you’re there by 4:30 a.m.,” my driver told me. Ugh.
I canvassed race officials milling around the hotel as to where “there” was while I waited to hear how I was going to get my race suit.
Turned out the suit was in Vegas, about an hour’s drive away. And since the Mad Media crew had already been generous enough to let me use the thing in the first place, I concluded that I was in no position to ask them to bring it to me. So back into the Niro I went, hauling ass toward the big city lights.
By the time I had grabbed the suit from the valet at the Golden Nugget, driven back from Vegas to Primm, hauled my gear across the colossal parking lot, trudged through the tobacco cloud on the gambling floor and gone up 15 stories in a rickety faux wood-paneled elevator to my room, it was 12:30 a.m. on race day. I set an alarm for three hours later and started counting sheep.
At 3:30 a.m. I was angrily batting at my squawking iPhone and stumbling in and out of the shower before I donned my heavy fireproof race suit without much thought. I didn’t realize that it would be hours before I’d actually need it. This turned out to be a blessing and a curse.
The Kia Niro is a compact crossover, an affordable hybrid starting at $23,785 designed to get nearly 50 MPG on the highway. It is efficient. It is small. It has no need for its SUV-ish ride height. It is slow and boring, but a good value if you can disregard such things. None of that mattered—as long as it could drive me to Vegas to get the suit, I’d be fine.
At around 4:05 I made it back to the Kia, pushed the button on the door which unlocks it with the proximity key but... no welcoming beep was to be heard.
I figured I must have left the key in the hotel room, and idly dragged my rolly-bag over to the Mint’s mini city of trailers, where I’d been told to go for registration at 4:30 a.m.
The first flakes of sunlight were breaking the desert cold as 4:30 a.m. came and went, and only one trailer door I’d banged on with an increasingly frantic fist had opened up.
“Huh?”, came the voice inside. “No. Sorry man, I’m just the race tracker. They’re really still registering today?”
Now I’d sweated up my heavy racing suit, partially with running, mostly with anxiety. I still wasn’t officially in the race and was only vaguely aware of where my team was. Our VW was supposed to be lined up and ready to run in, let me see, 20 minutes. At this point, I needed to get to my team in the main pit, hoping they knew where I could find registration. But the main pit must have been half a mile away. I needed my Kia.
I full-on sprinted back to the car, carrying my rollerboard bag like it was an injured toddler out of a burning house. But, shit, I still couldn’t get in the thing or turn it on!
The key had to be in the hotel room, right?
I tore full-tilt back across the parking lot, through the casino, up the elevator and booted open the door to my room. I ripped that place apart like an FBI agent raiding a Volkswagen office.
Blankets came off. Tables got tipped. I channeled my frustration into moving the furniture and actually almost relaxed for a moment.
I found some old shorts, a scrunchie, plenty of pens, a few French fries, and what I really hoped was a cylindrical rubber dog toy from the room’s previous tenants. But no Kia key.
With minutes to go until race staging, I had no car, no registration and a very strong sense of panic. Panic that I screamed out, then swallowed, before coming up with another plan:
I’d have to hitchhike to the starting line.
Ditching the luggage, I bombed back to the elevator where a group sleepy-eyed people were standing in black t-shirts marked with off-road product brands.
“You guys going to main pit,” I huffed. They weren’t.
I was running again, out the elevator again, through the casino, and this time to the front of the building where crews and support trucks were lumbering out into the open. I grabbed anybody and everybody wearing a black t-shirt and a flat brimmed hat.
“Heading to main pit?” No. “You driving to main pit per chance?” The second person wasn’t either. Finally, I knocked on the pitch-black tinted glass of a lifted F-250 idling at the end of the valet line.
The window rolled down about three inches; “Yeah?”
“Hey, uh, guys I really gotta get to main pit, any chance I could hop in with you if you’re heading that way?”
The driver looked at his rear seats, full of cargo and cardboard boxes, “We’re headin’ there, kinda full though…”
I was already vaulting a 37-inch rear tire into the cargo bed. “I’m okay back here! Let’s go!”
The driver shrugged and we shoved off. You can get away with anything when you’re wearing a race suit.
The streets of Primm were already waking up with support trucks hauling equipment and lost racers, and at about 4:58 a.m., I’d made it to main pit.
“Stop the truck,” I squawked. Tap tap tap. “Stop here please!”
The driver rolled his window down and peeked my way: “Hey man, where do you want to get out?”
I pointed to the dirt and combat-rolled off the gunwale, running toward a little tent and grabbed the nearest orange vest by the shoulders. “Where. Is. Registration?!”
He didn’t know, of course, but the large group of people in matching safety clothes over there probably would. I’d finally found the officials who had some authority. They had the waiver. They had my wristband.
I was in the race!
With my life signed away to the Best In The Desert racing organization I only had one more small task: find my race car.
I texted Johnson, who dropped a pin for me and sent his position via Glympse. The GPS in my phone wasn’t having it. I tried Apple Maps, and my little blue ball bounced all over the Primm parking lot. Google Maps was sharper, but still couldn’t decide which direction I was heading as I dodged from space to space checking out every team’s pit area trying to get to my own.
“We’re pitting with 91,” Johnson finally texted me, sounding increasingly exacerbated with my knuckleheaded ass while he was trying to get a race program off the ground.
Okay, 91. I saw 80…81…I bolted up pit row as fast as my worn-out off-roading boots would move after a day’s worth of frustration and panic before sunrise.
“I’m looking for Robert Johnson?” I said to the first person I could find at the numbered pit; a college-aged girl in a hooded sweatshirt. She laughed and pointed to her father.
“Oh, you made it,” Johnson said, far less fazed than I’d expected.
Johnson’s friend was at the wheel of the car and his son was sitting starboard to navigate. They’d take the first lap, then at Race Mile 116 Johnson and I would jump in the car. This is typical for the Mint, running in stages like this.
As the VW made its way to staging, I introduced myself to Johnson’s family. “You’ll be fine. All you have to do is not fuck up. Don’t fuck up,” his daughter told me. She was kidding. I think.
“Right,” I said, sweating again, thinking about how my morning had already gone.
Our race car, #4701, left the starting line at exactly 7:03 a.m.
At 7:22 a.m. our car was already bogged. A spindle, a part that holds the front wheels to the car, had broken in deep sand. The race car had a spare onboard, but the repair would take some time. Johnson teased his teammates for taking too long to fix his car over the radio. I was mostly glad I was standing in the shade, instead of pushing a VW out of a silt bed.
Speed in off-road racing can be dangerous, but far more so are repairs and recovery. Any time when your soft squishy body is outside of the car’s protective shell and in the path of other vehicles has the potential to turn disastrous. So our guys didn’t rush and got the hell out of the way every time they heard another car coming.
The Beetle didn’t move again until 8:44 a.m., and at 9:06, 17 miles from the starting line, we got another call from the pilot over the radio:
“We’re out. Blown motor.”
How do you–
It was a debilitating, emotional blow, but there was really no point in getting upset. No temper tantrums or prayer or MacGyver moves were going to make that thing run again.
Johnson put his face in his palm for a second, breathed deeply, and started coordinating the rescue.
By 10:12 a.m. a Ford Raptor had a line on our Beetle. The truck dragging it out of the desert to a spot we could safely winch it onto our trailer. By 10:59, the corpse of a car was being dragged back to the hotel parking lot.
As much as it sucked to bow out so early, situations like this are a reality of racing, especially in the desert. Johnson was as apologetic about the failure as I’d been about my tardiness.
But at the end of the day, when you ask a 40-year-old German economy car with modifications to go off-road racing, it’s likely things will break. I knew that. Everyone in the program knew that.
Back at the main pit I bid my new friends adieu. I’d spent as much time running around trying to get into the race as I’d spent entered in it, and even then I’d never even gotten into a car. Still, it felt weird to switch gears to my next problem: getting that Kia unlocked and online.
The hike back to the hotel wasn’t so bad once I’d ditched the sweltering race suit, but my day of degradation was not over.
In the room I took one more cursory glance around, then dug in for a precise square-foot-by-square-foot grid search of the entire space. I ate a Cliff Bar for lunch and did it over again. The Kia key was, definitively, not in the room.
I asked a few maids if they’d seen a key on the floor. Nope. I called their office, none had been turned in. They sent me to the lost and found, at Buffalo Bill’s security HQ. My mind went to a naked bulb hanging over a chair and Mafiosos beating the blood out of suspected card counters.
I was actually met by a sympathetic round-faced man with large glasses.
“Happens all the time. Leave ‘em at the bar?”
I wish! ‘I was wasted’ seems like a better excuse than ‘I’m a dingus who can’t keep track of his property.’ Either way, he didn’t have my key.
I left my phone number and a description of the keys, “says ‘KIA’ on them,” thanked the guy and continued my own search.
My next target was the parking lot. On hands and knees, I crawled through broken glass, discarded Carl’s Jr. bags and little plastic vials that legal marijuana is sold in along the path between the hotel door and the Kia. No luck in two hours of that. A last-ditch troll across the casino floor quickly became futile. (You could lose a dog in those carpets, forget about a key.) I was tired, I was dejected, I was debased. I had no choice but to deem my search a lost cause.
I have to be honest—I may have lost a little bit of my mind right then.
I was filled with frustration over my failed race, and anxiety at the prospect of pissing off the nice people who loan me press cars like the Kia. Also, there was a sickening feeling in my chest, expecting to be stuck in Primm like some kind of Stephen King victim.
I lingered a few seconds of insanity before informing Kia’s agents that they would not be getting their car back on Tuesday as planned.
I made the call.
“You really checked everywhere?”
Indeed. Twice and thrice.
“You’re totally sure it’s lost?”
The damn key may as well have been in another dimension, man.
“Well, then I guess you’ll have to get yourself home and we’ll figure out how to get the car. Thanks for letting us know. At least we’re not dealing with a wrecked car or injuries.”
If I’d owned the car, I could have paid a Kia dealer or AAA to help me out. If it’d been a rental, Avis or Enterprise or whatever would have had extra keys. But in this case, I was pretty much boned.
I thought I’d be too exhausted to be embarrassed by that point, but rest assured that was not the case. I’d officially become the kind of entitled asshole who makes messes like “abandoning a press car in the desert” that somebody else would have to clean up.
At least a one-way plane ticket was only slightly more expensive than a bus ride, so I booked a flight, called a Lyft to Las Vegas and shuffled into an airplane at around 9 p.m. That airplane turned out to be broken, so I got to sit on the tarmac for an hour before returning to the terminal, deplaning and reboarding onto another flight ninety minutes later. I can’t rule out that there was some kind of karma at play for my total lack of prep for the race, walloped by its mental strain.
I’d been in motion for just shy of a full 24 hours by the time I got back to my office/apartment on west side LA.
When I woke up I had a voicemail from a number I didn’t recognize. Nevada.
“We found the key to your Kia, Mr. Collins. Come on by the security office and pick it up. Thanks!”