Off-roaders worry desert race crash could lead to more restrictions, end of their sport

By Gillian Flaccus, AP
Monday, August 16, 2010

Off-roaders worry accident may mean sport’s end

LOS ANGELES — Off-road racing director Ron Matthews has been preparing for his company’s long-distance desert race for weeks, but after more than a half-dozen people were killed by an out-of-control truck at a similar competition, he realizes his event might not happen at all.

Eight bystanders at the California 200 were crushed Saturday when a truck skidded while landing from a jump and flipped into the crowd, which had pressed to within feet of the sand track. Ten others were injured at the event on Bureau of Land Management property.

Now, race promoters are awaiting the outcome of a BLM probe and a review of all off-road events planned on federal land in the California desert. The agency told Matthews and his co-workers in a meeting Monday that they won’t know the fate of the sport until late next week, just two weeks before his company’s planned race on Sept. 11.

Matthews said they asked officials point-blank if they were thinking of shutting down desert racing.

“They wouldn’t give us an answer. They said, ‘We’re leaning that way but we can’t give you an information. They have to review everything,” he said. “We’re all in shock over this thing.”

The BLM declined to answer questions outside of a printed statement Monday announcing the review of off-road racing and the accident. The agency earlier said that the race organizer, South El Monte, Calif.-based Mojave Desert Racing, was responsible for safety.

No one appeared home Monday at the address listed for MDR. Calls and e-mails seeking comment were not returned.

MDR’s permit allowed no more than 300 spectators for the event and up to 80 racers. It wasn’t immediately known how many were racing.

There were at least 1,000 people at the free admission event, and the California Highway Patrol estimated the truck was going 45 to 50 mph when it careened off the sand track.

BLM spokesman David Briery declined to comment in detail on steps the agency may be taking to ensure the safety of spectators in the accident’s aftermath or whether there was a possibility that criminal charges could be filed.

The agency said it was open to “all options that would increase the safety of spectators.”

Off-roading fans, however, have been abuzz with what the accident could mean for a sport that draws thousands every year to the Mojave, northeast of Los Angeles, to ride dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles and buggies across the sand.

For the weekend race, huge crowds gathered to watch dozens of competitors race their trucks along a 50-mile track through the desert, circling the course four times in a bid for the fastest time. The event was part of the seven-race California Series staged near the Mojave cities of Lucerne Valley, Barstow and Ridgecrest.

In recent years, environmental protections, including the 1994 federal California Desert Protection Act, have reduced the areas for long-distance off-road racing in Southern California to just two or three, off-roaders said.

Off-roading is available on state land, too, but the federal desert land is best suited to the hours-long races.

Wayne Nosala of the California Off-Highway Vehicle Association said fewer areas to race have led to shorter, more compact courses and ultimately bunching spectators.

“Some of our courses used to be up to 100 miles in length and now we’re lucky if we get a 50-mile course. It spreads the people out, it spreads the racers out and it makes it more safe” when there’s more room, he said.

Nosala said he’s resigned himself to the possibility of additional BLM regulations, including requiring spectators to stay a certain distance from the course, if it means the sport can survive.

“We have to tighten our belt and adjust a few things to save our sport,” he said.

Race promoters defended the competitions, too, as worry mounted that the accident would curtail their sport.

“There’s no way you can fence it up with guardrails. You put out information … to stay away from the course at least 100 feet, not to turn your back, to not drink,” said Lou Peralta, a race promoter who runs Alta Vista Events in California City. “But I don’t know if even God could control it.”

At some races, the BLM will close the course to spectators or allow people to watch from only three or four designated areas that can be patrolled more closely, said Peralta, who himself always stays at least 70 feet from the track.

One possible outcome of the accident could be that the BLM will close the track to all spectators during races — something that could push grassroots operators like MDR out of business entirely, he said..

“Every artery going into the course has to be either blocked off or barricaded or manned by individuals. All this costs money,” Peralta said. “And it doesn’t keep people out entirely.”

Environmental groups say they’ve been warning for years about the need for more closely controlled events, sparring constantly with the BLM over lax permitting and oversight.

“People die up there every year, not usually eight at a time, but usually one at a time. This happens every year,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

In addition to the danger to humans, races take a toll on the fragile desert ecosystem, he said. His organization has three lawsuits against the BLM pending in federal court over off-road racing issues.

“I think the BLM has still not fully turned the corner to recognize what a damaging activity this is,” Suckling said.

Associated Press writers Daisy Nguyen, John Antczak, Andrew Dalton and Christopher Weber contributed to this report.

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