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Federal agency to probe deadly accident at California 200

The Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land where the race was held, is looking into whether the promoter, Mojave Desert Racing of El Monte, adhered to safety rules set forth in its contract.

August 16, 2010|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times

In company safety rules, the promoter of the California 200 off-road race where eight spectators died says that fans must stay at least 100 feet away from the course. But videos of Saturday's crash and the promoter's other races show crowds regularly lining the track, just feet away from speeding off-roaders.

Mojave Desert Racing of El Monte also failed to adhere to a requirement in its contract with the Bureau of Land Management to keep spectators 50 feet away from the racing vehicles. The firm did not return calls seeking comment.

The federal agency Monday said it had launched an "official national review" of the accident and BLM safety policies for permitted off-road races on federal land under its jurisdiction. Along with the current investigation by the California Highway Patrol, federal law enforcement investigators will join the inquiry, said Jan Bedrosian, BLM's spokeswoman in California.

Eight spectators were killed and 10 seriously injured when driver Brett Sloppy of San Marcos lost control of his modified Ford Ranger pickup after going airborne on a crowd-pleasing hill known as the "rock pile." The truck rolled into the crowd, which had crept within a few feet of the track, just minutes after the race began.

An off-road promoter not involved in the California 200 race said the spectators never should have been allowed to be that close and that the organizer of the race should have known the potential for disaster.

"It's an extreme sport, so people want to get close. But people gravitating to a corner? Dude, are you kidding me? Why don't you just let your kid play on the freeway,'' said Don Wall, president of Snore Racing in Las Vegas. "I would have stopped the race."

Wall said at his off-road races, including the Battle of Primm in Nevada and the Midnight Special in Ridgecrest, his crew puts up fences, posts do-not-enter signs and in some cases installs K-rail to keep crowds away from hazardous spots on the course. He also tries to funnel crowds to straight-aways, where crashes are less likely.

"You have to do that. But even then, people will drive through a fence to get to an area," Wall said. "People just believe on public land, it's mine, I'll do what I want. No. There are rules, and why do we have rules? Because people will get wiped off the face of the planet."

Mojave Desert Racing in its BLM permit stated that it had two men responsible for coordinating a response to a medical emergency. Yet when contacted by The Times, one of those officials said he was not assigned to any emergency or medical tasks at Saturday's race.

Permit documents identified Arcadia resident Dave Hatcher, a self-described volunteer for Mojave Desert Racing, as one of two contacts in case of a medical emergency at the race. Hatcher said he had filled such a role at previous events but was responsible Saturday for managing a 30-mile race checkpoint.

"I didn't remember that I was listed on there," Hatcher said when asked about the permit.

The other Mojave Desert Racing official listed as an emergency response contact on the permit was Jim Williams of MDR Productions. He could not be reached for comment.

Patricia Williams, the primary contact for MDR Productions on the federal permit, would not comment when approached by a reporter for The Times on the night of the race. Officials at the company did not respond to repeated telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment Sunday and Monday.

Videos shot of previous MDR races, posted on youtube.com and other websites, show off-road racers flying by spectators standing within feet of the course. A video shot of the California 200 in 2008 near the site of Saturday's deadly crash showed fans were kept away from the track by plastic fences.

No fences were put up for this year's race, law enforcement authorities and fans said.

MDR Productions paid the Bureau of Land Management a $95 fee to stage the race on federal land, plus $5 for each participating competitor. The promoter's permit allowed for 200 to 300 spectators, although participants and fans at the event said there were more than 1,000 people who had come to watch the race.

One of the stipulations that Mojave Desert Racing agreed to was to restrict spectator access to areas near speeding racers: "All persons involved in, and all spectators of, this event are to travel 15 mph, or less, when passing within 50 feet of any social group, picnic area or camping area."

The truck that crashed into the crowd appeared to come to rest less than 10 feet from the dirt course.

The deadly crash at the California 200 race was inside the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, a state-run recreation area about 60 miles northeast of Riverside, and just off California 247.

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