"Have you ever seen Mad Men?" asks David Whitehead. "It was like that," he says of his 20 years on Wall Street. "The girls, the drinking. I look back and wonder how I survived."
For two decades, Whitehead, 45, traded aluminum and minor metals—titanium, manganese, magnesium—for various companies and his own account. In 2003, he invested in a titanium recycling company, called Jamegy, that he restructured and sold in 2006 for a profit. Nagged by the feeling that his days of big scores were coming to an end, Whitehead cashed out at 41 and moved to Las Vegas, to be in the Western deserts where he grew up.
While in Vegas, Whitehead rediscovered his childhood pastime of off-road dirt-bike racing. After helping friends launch an off-road motorcycle tour business in 2007, he saw the potential in Nevada for off-road adventure excursions on four wheels. The problem was finding cars tough enough for the trails.
His curiosity led him to California-based adventure-travel company Wide Open Baja, which has run cars in the famous Baja 1000 race for over a decade. Wide Open had everything Whitehead needed: a fleet of cars, a known brand, and a marketing operation. In 2009, Whitehead began negotiating a deal to license the Wide Open name and have them handle sales for his startup. He also spent $1 million of his own money to buy 11 open-cockpit off-road race cars.
Whitehead spent another $1 million on support vehicles, spare parts, chow wagons, and desert accommodations for tourists. After a year of negotiating with Nevada's Bureau of Land Management over permits, Whitehead says he agreed to pay the agency three percent of his gross. He also assumed responsibility for maintaining the trails he uses, which eats up another two to three percent.
In January, Wide Open Nevada opened for business offering two- to six-day packages. In the past nine months, 100 customers have paid about $2,000 a day for tours crisscrossing the public land north of Area 51. "My typical customer is bored stiff of going on golf weekends with the guys," says Whitehead, "I send them home with something to talk about."
PEDALLING THE METAL
$7,000: Approximate cost of a four-day tour through Nevada's ghost towns and rangeland
500: Number of miles covered in a typical driving tour with Wide Open Nevada
$6,000: The typical cost of repairing an off-road vehicle after a customer rolls it
175: Horsepower of the engine in an open-cockpit, off-road Baja 1000 race car
Data: Wide Open Nevada