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'Excessive Speed' Is Blamed in Accident

Baja 500: Highway patrol says O.C. driver was going too fast when he crashed, killing one spectator.

June 08, 1999|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the second time in two years, the Baja 500 has had a fatality. And for the second time in two years, Jason Baldwin was involved.

Mexican authorities said Monday that Baldwin was going too fast for conditions before crashing into spectators Saturday at the 30th Tecate SCORE Baja 500 off-road race. One man was killed and six other spectators were injured.

Baldwin also was involved in a 1998 fatality that occurred while he was pre-running the course along a two-way stretch of track. He collided head-on with a motorcyclist who was considering entering the event, according to SCORE president Sal Fish.

The Baja California state highway patrol ruled "excessive speed" was the cause of the accident that occurred shortly after the off-road race started Saturday. Baldwin's truck was traveling about 100 mph when he lost control in northern Ensenada at the Tecate Highway crossing.

"If he had slowed down, he wouldn't have lost control of the vehicle," said Oscar Ramos, an attorney for the race's sponsors, Los Angeles-based SCORE International.

Baldwin, 29, of Laguna Beach, was recovering Monday after experiencing neck and back pain, bumps and bruises, according to Baldwin Racing team manager Justin Benham.

Baldwin issued a statement by fax to The Times in which he wrote:

"I am deeply upset about the accident. I have been praying for the injured spectators and for the family of Luis Alberto Valdez who lost his life. I understand that Mt. Valdez was 29 with a wife and daughter. I too am 29 with a wife and 6-month-old girl. My heart goes out to his family and I will continue to have them and all that were injured in my prayers.

"There were many factors that contributed to this weekend's accident including heavy dust making it difficult to judge distances and a very large number of spectators on the course.

"Over the last year I have been giving a lot of thought to just how dangerous off-road desert racing has become and after this weekend's accident there is no doubt in my mind that something needs to be done to increase the safety of this sport.

"I feel very strongly that all those involved in the sport should take a very hard look at ways to make it safer for both the drivers and the spectators so accidents like this can be avoided in the future."

Baldwin's co-driver, Mike Laughlin of Irvine, was in fair condition Monday after fracturing a bone in his lower back. He is expected to be released within the week, possibly as soon as today from Mercy Hospital in San Diego, according to a hospital spokesperson.

Baldwin was competing in the the Trophy Truck class, the premier--and fastest--class of the desert racing series. His truck was the second to leave the starting line. He trailed a truck driven by his father, Jim, who did not see the accident.

Jason Baldwin's truck came off a short jump that preceded a quick left-right turn combination at a popular viewing location a few miles into the race.

Instead of negotiating the turn, Baldwin's truck went into a crowd of onlookers and flipped. It struck and killed Valdez, and injured six other spectators. The most seriously of those injured, Craig Stewart, 30, of Santee, underwent brain surgery for a blood clot at UC San Diego Medical Center. Stewart was listed in good condition on Monday and, according to a hospital spokesperson, would likely be released within the week.

Three U.S. spectators were taken to San Diego-area hospitals. Three Mexicans were treated at a hospital in Ensenada. All were expected to recover from their injuries, authorities said.

Jim Baldwin was notified of his son's accident by radio and left the race.

The Baldwins are a racing family. Jason Baldwin has a brother, Josh, and a brother-in-law, Carl Renezeder, who race in the SCORE series.

Jason Baldwin had been racing about nine years and had been driving Trophy Trucks since 1995. He and Laughlin were going to switch positions midway through the race.

Last year's accident occurred before the race. Drivers typically drive the course to learn its dangerous sections, and there was two-way traffic in that stretch of the course.

"Everyone knows they're going to be in that section, so they go out in the day and come back in the evening," Fish said Monday of the pre-run drill. "For whatever reason, Jason was testing in the evening, and the motorcycle guy was coming back in the evening; he certainly wasn't anticipating someone coming in the race vehicle."

Fish said the racing organization didn't take action against Baldwin.

SCORE's last death during a race took place three years ago, also in Baja, when a local police cruiser pulled in front of a motorcyclist.

Fish, the ruling body's president since 1974, said this was the first race-related spectator death since he has been in charge.

Jeff Lewis, a San Clemente driver who raced against Baldwin for three years in Trophy Trucks and who won the Class 7 race over the weekend, said spectators often put themselves in a dangerous position to watch the races, "not thinking what could happen."

"There was probably more fault with the spectators than with anyone involved," Lewis said. "To be able to see a race course and put yourself in a position like that, it's kind of crazy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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