The Mint 400 is a mosh pit, an earthquake, and an ongoing car accident all rolled into one – a 400-mile sprint in a souped-up dune buggy across the forbidding desert moonscape south of Las Vegas. When Hunter S. Thompson covered the race in 1971, the experience wound up spawning Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – which makes a perfect kind of sense.

The race has long been off-limits to those unwilling to shell out at least $100,000 for a race-worthy vehicle of their own. But the Mint 400 recently introduced a new "arrive and drive" program, which puts novices behind the wheel of a Mad Max-looking two-seat machine, through an outfitter called Zero One Odysseys. One of the six arrive-and-drive cars this year was sponsored by Red Bull, which offered me a chance to drive one of the race's 100-mile legs. I was on my way to Vegas faster than you can say "Norm Johnson" – who organized the first Mint 400 Off-Road Rally in 1967 as a publicity stunt for Las Vegas's Mint Hotel.

The vehicle will be shared with three other drivers and a Special Forces soldier riding shotgun to navigate and deal with any mechanical problems. The race starts in the predawn dark with one of my teammates at the wheel. The idea is that he and the other driver will split the first 100-mile lap, I'll drive the entire second lap, and we'll see who's still standing for the third. I never get to meet the soldier/copilot; he quits at the first pit stop after injuring himself in the first hour. Three hours later, when the vehicle returns, off-road veteran Jim Hancock is suiting up to ride with me. "I drew the short straw," he says.

Heeding advice from the experienced racers, I try to moderate my pace, leaving some speed on the table until the adrenaline boils down. It's not easy. Once you put on that race suit and full-face helmet, you feel duty-bound to act the part of a hard-driving race hero. What's more, the first few miles take you past hundreds of fans demanding a spectacle, urging you to go faster, dig deeper, get bigger air. When we arrive at a corner packed with photographers, I stab the gas and kick it sideways – a move that looks cool but also exposes the sidewalls to sharp rocks. "Easy," Hancock says. "I don't want to have to get out and watch you change a tire."

By the 20-mile marker, I understand why a half-lap might be enough. In some sections you're dancing across the sand at 80 mph. Then you hit something like King Kong Wash, where the scarred earth sledgehammers an arrhythmic beat at 25 mph. If you were on a plane and felt these kinds of G-forces, you'd grab an oxygen mask and start praying. When faster buggies come up behind you, they announce their arrival by ramming your rear bumper. Perhaps that's poor sportsmanship, but what are you gonna do, complain to the ref? There is no ref.

You're not just driving flat-out while avoiding boulders the size of pumpkins. You're watching out for blind corners, dangerous drops, and wrecked cars stuck in the middle of the course. You're willing your right foot to stay down even though you feel like you've spent an hour inside a Home Depot paint shaker. You're gritting your teeth – literally, because there's sand in your mouth – and upshifting into fourth gear despite the fact that the trail is barely visible through the swirling miasma of dust. And you're having the best time of your life.

Two hours and 29 minutes after I start, my 100 miles is up. Masekela and Ware have cleared out – apparently one lap was plenty. Hancock takes over for the final lap and we finish third in our class. I later learn that of the 330 vehicles that started the race, only 163 finished. We've scored a podium finish in a race where it's a challenge to finish at all.

More information: If you want to drive in the Mint 400, you can. You're just going to have to write a check. For $19,500, you get a Zero One race buggy, a lesson on how to drive it, and three laps around the course, complete with pit support. Each team can have as many as six members, which means you and your buddies can do it for less than $4,000 each. If that price still seems too high, remember that you're in Vegas, where it's awfully easy to spend a lot more and get a lot less.