I Raced A Lifted Miata Against A Diesel Mercedes Sedan And It Was Brutal … For Them - The Autopian (2024)

When I crossed the finish line of the Mint 400 in Buddy, my lifted Miata, I was worried. I’d just finished 95 miles of the most brutal desert in Nevada, overalled the Gambler/HooptieX classes, and had experienced zero problems. “sh*t,” I thought. “I told The Autopian I’d write about my race but, like … nothing happened.”

Fortunately for me, Bryce Ronsonett and his co-driver Tyler Buster had a terrible race. While I gave a finish-line interview, had a celebratory beer, took a shower, a nap, and had a lovely dinner, these two champions were still out on the course, determined to make the finish line at all costs.

I Raced A Lifted Miata Against A Diesel Mercedes Sedan And It Was Brutal … For Them - The Autopian (1)

I Raced A Lifted Miata Against A Diesel Mercedes Sedan And It Was Brutal … For Them - The Autopian (2)

Now that’s a story.

The Mint 400

Made famous by Hunter S. Thompson and the much-lauded Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas novel, The Mint 400 is held every year outside Las Vegas, Nevada and has been around, albeit not continuously, since 1968. It’s currently divided into two days of racing. Limited cars– think Volkswagen Bugs, side-by-sides, and us Gambler/HooptieX cars– race on Friday. The big guys and gals take to the dirt on Saturday.

While the unlimited cars do four laps of the 95.5-mile course, other classes may do less. Gamblers only have to complete one lap. And trust me, when you’re driving a non-purpose-built car out there, one lap is enough.


What The Heck Is A Gambler Car?

I Raced A Lifted Miata Against A Diesel Mercedes Sedan And It Was Brutal … For Them - The Autopian (3)What started as a few idiots who took their regular cars out to the Oregon forests to pick up trash is now a full-fledged movement. Think LeMons but for land stewardship. In theory, cars should be less than $500 but in reality there are no rules. For the Gamblers who also like to race, there is the HooptieX race series, a run-what-you-brung event where anything from UTVs to Corollas can test their mettle on a rallycross course.

For some unknown reason, the Mint 400 decided to start Gambler/HooptieX classes at the Mint 400. Beyond safety equipment, there are literally no rules to the stock or modified Gambler class. I ran in the modified class because there was nobody else in it so all I had to do was finish to win. To be clear: I also beat those signed up in the stock class, but I was also hedging my bets. Hey, a W is a W, amirite?

[Ed note: They don’t ask how, they ask how many –MH]

Bryce Ronsonet’s Gambler Mercedes

I Raced A Lifted Miata Against A Diesel Mercedes Sedan And It Was Brutal … For Them - The Autopian (4)Bryce’s Gambler machine is a 1982 Mercedes-Benz 300sd. Its OM617 five-cylinder diesel engine is still in place, and Bryce will show it off with a bit of a coal-roll when asked. He’s added a Holset HX30 turbocharger, custom injectors, and a 7.5-millimeter injection pump, with the mill’s power arriving at the rear wheels courtesy of the stock four-speed transmission. Outside, the 300SD looks considerably more rugged than it did from the factory with its wheel openings hogged out for tire clearance, suspension lifted (but with the stock arms in place), skid plates fabbed from beefy AR400 steel, and upgraded bumpers. Rocks and whoops are soaked up by the 300SD’s stock front springs and a pair of coils lifted from a 2012 Ford F-150 in the rear, with Bilstein shocks and nitrogen bump stops providing the damping.

The Race

I Raced A Lifted Miata Against A Diesel Mercedes Sedan And It Was Brutal … For Them - The Autopian (5)That’s me and Buddy on the left (above). We took off from the starting line with Bryce and Tyler in their 300SD, and once we were out of the rallycross-style infield, I had the lead and I never saw that poor Mercedes again.


The first 20 miles or so of the Mint 400 course goes by pretty quickly. You get a few miles on a dry lakebed and plenty of quick tracks with multiple lines so faster cars can pass. There is a section called Thumpers that can really take it out of a limited car, and Buddy did not get through unscathed. I stuffed his front end into a deep whoop that broke a tab on the front skid plate and pushed back my radiator mount, but thankfully getting to the first designated pit area is fairly quick.

However, the next 35 miles are pure torture, and this is where it all started to fall apart for car #G121. The worst of it can be found in a 3-mile or so section called the Shooting Range. It’s possibly the roughest section of desert I’ve ever raced on, with sharp, embedded rocks that will shred a tire or rip off a whole wheel assembly. We had to traverse 18-inch rock ledges both up and down, wind our way through tight turns with stones that seemed taller than the car on either side and quickly decide which side of the car would take the impact when there was nothing to be done but hit a rock and pray.

Ronsonet and Buster’s prayers, however, went unanswered. The car started to bottom out. A lot. Ronsonet picked a smooth line as best he could, but believe me, there aren’t many choices in this part of the course. The only options are rough and really f*cking rough. They pulled into the second pit area and were immediately surrounded by their five pit crew members, all staring at the driver’s side front wheel. The spring was toast.

Please Sir, May I Have A Spring?

I Raced A Lifted Miata Against A Diesel Mercedes Sedan And It Was Brutal … For Them - The Autopian (6)

The team fanned out among the other pits, desperately looking for another spring. With over 200 competitors out on course, there were nearly as many pit crews in the area, either actively working on their race vehicles or waiting for their rig to come in. Off-road racers are a generous bunch, offering what they had to our heroes, but the springs were either the wrong diameter or didn’t have a high enough rate to support the heavy diesel engine.


It’s not against the rules to buy a new part in the middle of the race, so two pit crew members were dispatched to the race start in Primm, Nevada to source something. Hyperco was happy to help, sending back a 3-inch diameter spring.

Except they needed a 3.5-inch spring. In all the confusion, the crew misheard the specs. They had wasted an hour running through all the pits, and an hour and a half going to Primm and back. Now they would spend even more time on another round trip.

“I could see the discouragement in Bryce and I was starting to feel it too,” said co-driver Tyler Buster. “It’s not my car but I’ve always dreamed of running the Mint 400 and at this point it looked really grim.”

However, Gamblers do not give up. Ever. The erring pit crew sped back to Primm and got the right diameter spring, arriving back at the pits around 4:00 pm.

The Mercedes takes an 18-inch spring, but without a spring compressor, the team worried they wouldn’t be able to actually McGyver a spring that long into the perch. Fortunately, the shocks and the springs are separate in the Mercedes so they didn’t have to completely disassemble everything. When the 14-inch spring arrived, they used ratchet straps to squeeze it into place on the 3.5-inch perch, breaking four straps in the process. They only had four inches of ground clearance, but the front was supported well enough for them to attempt the last 37 miles.


“I just came here to finish and have fun,” thought Ronsonet as he drove out of the pits. “But the fun left with my coil spring.”

They pulled over a few times to check on the spring, once hammering the adjuster to add as much preload as possible. As the sun set behind the mountains to the west, the Benz had one more giant hill to climb: Beer Bottle Pass.

It’s not very long, maybe a few miles, but Beer Bottle Pass is steep with a sheer drop-off on one side. The Mercedes wasn’t steering very well as the front tires would get caught up on the fenders. I assumed this would have been the worst part for the men, but both told me it was the easiest.

I Raced A Lifted Miata Against A Diesel Mercedes Sedan And It Was Brutal … For Them - The Autopian (7)

“The car started to overheat at the bottom of the pass, but the fan relay had just come out,” said Ronsonet. “It was just laying there on the skid plate. I plugged it back in, the fans came on and we were back at it.”


“We kept it at 10 miles per hour or so up the pass and it was easy,” said Buster.

There were still plenty of rocks and rough stuff to get through, with their KC HiLites piercing the dark night. It felt like a continuous car crash with every impact coming into the chassis and through their spines. The two did little talking over the intercom on the last part of the course. They were just dealing with the pain.

Their torture became elation when they finally hit a smooth section, with a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. While most teams had to slow down to avoid a penalty, Ronsonet actually got to speed up on the gravel road.

“Holy f*ck we are actually gonna make this,” thought Ronsonet. “We beat the sh*t out of ourselves and we are going to do it!”

Not so fast, kids. The water truck had been across the track before the finish line, leaving a veritable mud pit as one last obstacle. Ronsonet floored it, the turbo spooled up and with the tires slinging mud behind the German beast, the Benz crossed the finish line 10 hours, 25 minutes, and 53 seconds after starting, earning a second-place trophy in the Gambler/HooptieX stock class and true Lejund status in Gambler lore.


“I always grew up dreaming of being in some sort of off-road desert race,” said Buster. “It’s what I watched as a kid. To be able to be there is something that is still kind of unbelievable to me. And we did it the hardest way possible.”

So, What Happened To Buddy?

I Raced A Lifted Miata Against A Diesel Mercedes Sedan And It Was Brutal … For Them - The Autopian (8)As for Buddy, we had a clean race and took home the first-place trophy in the modified Gambler class. We beat the first-place stock Gambler rig, a vintage Nissan Hardbody truck, by about 40 minutes and I averaged 25 miles per hour this year, 5 miles per hour more than in 2023. I drove the car onto the trailer at the end of the race and toddled home in the Sierra 2500 AT4X that GMC loaned me, massaging seats on full blast for the whole drive. I’m bougie like that.

A post-race inspection found that the supercharger belt is starting to shred, the rear skid plates are a hot mangled mess and the front hoop that supports the skid plate and radiator is cracked. There are some wiring issues to sort out, but in all Buddy doesn’t look too bad. Of course, that might change once I start taking apart the front end and really looking at things, but hot damn Buddy the Off-Road Miata did pretty freaking good!

The Mint 400 is hard. It’s hard to raise the money to enter, it’s hard to prep the car, it’s hard to organize a pit crew and it’s hard to survive a single lap. Then again, if it were easy, every Mercedes, and Miata, would do it. So kudos to you Ronsonet and Buster. You two are the spirit of the Mint 400.

(Photo credits: Daniel Curiel, Emme Hall, Bryce Ronsonet, Tyler Buster, Mad Media)


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