BARSTOW — The 1,200 riders of the annual Barstow-to-Las Vegas motorcycle race usually only face the natural obstacles a hostile desert puts in their 170-mile path--teeth-gritting dust, bone-jarring bumps, rocks, mud, cactus, dirt and the unrelenting glare of the sun.
But for Saturday's contest, would-be saboteurs--apparently angry about the idea of bikers ripping through the desert--came up with a new one: a mass of railroad ties, beams and plywood nailed together and jammed deep inside a small tunnel through which the racers must pass. The roadblock was wedged in so tight it took a winch to pull it out.
No One Hurt
No one was hurt as a result of the roadblock, but it did result in a 13-minute delay in the start of the contest. The tunnel blockage marked the first serious attempt to disrupt the race and could have caused a fatal accident if it had not been removed, according to race and federal officials.
"This was an attempt to get someone hurt. You're coming from the bright sun to a dark tunnel," said Steve Fleming, acting chief ranger for the federal Bureau of Land Management, as he inspected the tangled wreckage of the dismembered roadblock.
Race organizer Rick Hammel, who had to delay the 7:30 a.m. start of the race so the timber could be cleared, said, "I'm so mad I could cry."
The race was marred by its first fatality Saturday. John R. Underhill, 46, of Sherman Oaks, died of multiple internal injuries suffered in an accident in the first leg of the contest.
Underhill was flown by sheriff's helicopter to Barstow Community Hospital in full cardiac arrest, said San Bernardino County Deputy Coroner Andy Avery. He died at 10:25 a.m. of multiple injuries, about an hour after the accident in the Newberry Springs area, 20 miles east of Barstow, Avery said.
"It was a freak accident," said Tom Getzfrid, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Motorcycle Assn., which sanctioned the race. "Obviously with racing, there is a danger involved, but it was a lone accident--the other injuries are unrelated."
The hospital's emergency room examined seven other riders for minor injuries, said nursing supervisor Maureen Bodine, but their names weren't released.
"I think they should outlaw it myself," she said. "This facility is too small to handle this. It's a war zone."
Preliminary results released late Saturday showed the overall winner was Dan Cartwright of Los Angeles, who started at 7:40 a.m. and finished at 11:07 a.m. Three seconds behind him, in second place, was Paul Krause, and in third was Grant Polanski, about 10 seconds behind. Krause and Polanski are also from the Los Angeles area.
Official race results were scheduled to be released at 10 p.m. today, Getzfrid said.
The attempted sabotage was not the first bit of controversy to touch the race this year. In October, District 37 of the motorcyclists' association had to pay a fine of $1,800 for bulldozing smooth bumps in what is known as the East Mojave National Scenic Area before the Bureau of Land Management had granted a permit. The BLM, which imposed the fine, also barred the motorcyclists from again using a route through the area, which U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston has proposed for a national park.
After the bulldozing incident, environmentalists renewed attacks on the race, arguing that the bikers are insensitive to the damage they cause to the delicate desert ecology.
Cranston, who came to the area Saturday accompanied by representatives of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, labeled the sabotage incident "an inappropriate deed. . . . The race should not be halted."
The environmentalists with the senator, Patricia Schifferle of the Wilderness Society and Bob Hattoy of the Sierra Club, also condemned the incident, saying their organizations do not condone actions that threaten injury or loss of life.
"I have no idea who did it," said Schifferle. "I had heard that something might happen."
BLM officials said they would investigate the sabotage as a violation of park regulations. In addition, Fleming said that California law treats any attempt to interfere with a riding motorcyclist as a felony, adding that BLM officials may turn over evidence to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. BLM Ranger Wayne Stevens said, however, "To be honest, we will probably never find out who did it."
Whoever they are, the saboteurs left a calling card: roofing nails hammered into a railroad tie spelled out an obscene reference to motorcyclist Louis McKey. Stevens also said he found about a pound more of the same sort of roofing nails scattered along the course just before the tunnel entrance.