BLM confident of oversight of big Nevada off-road race even as California tragedy investigated

By John Antczak, AP
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nevada off-road race going forward on BLM land

LOS ANGELES — Plans for a major off-road vehicle race across federal wilderness in Nevada moved forward Tuesday even as critics charged that last weekend’s racing tragedy on Bureau of Land Management territory in California shows the agency is unable to enforce safety conditions at such events.

“There’s a big difference between what’s on paper and what happens in reality out on the desert, too often,” said Daniel Patterson, Southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “That’s becoming very evident in the deaths at the race in Southern California on Saturday night.”

The organizer of this Friday’s TSCO Vegas to Reno race countered that the chaotic scene in videos of the Mojave Desert race where a truck killed eight spectators and injured 10 others will not be found in Nevada.

“We set the standards for safety in off-road racing,” Casey Folks, owner of Best in the Desert Racing Association, said in a telephone interview from Las Vegas.

Leo Drumm, the BLM official who oversees off-highway vehicle racing in Nevada, also expressed confidence in the agency’s oversight of the 534-mile TSCO Vegas to Reno endurance race.

“We took a look at what our stipulations were and our permit and how we manage crowds and spectators and we’re comfortable with what we have in place,” Drumm said.

Across the state line, the BLM is reviewing all off-road racing in its California desert district following the deaths during a 200-mile race on a 50-mile circuit in the Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles.

Videos of the accident showed spectators crowding the edge of the single-lane track as competitors sped over a jump. One truck went out of control and slammed into the crowd and overturned.

Documents provided by the BLM, which issued permits for the California 200 race, show that spectator safety was the responsibility of promoter Mojave Desert Racing, based in South El Monte. However, the spectators were within feet of the speeding vehicles, not 100 feet away as MDR’s own rules require.

Mojave Desert Racing, known as MDR, has not returned calls and e-mails from The Associated Press since the accident.

The video shows “the ingredients for a tragedy,” said Folks.

“You’ll see a lot of young people. You’ll see a lot of people with beers in their hands. You’ll see people on both sides of the race course which is extremely dangerous,” he said. “I’m not going to throw the promoter under the bus or the BLM under the bus — I wasn’t there — but it looks to me like it was an unsafe atmosphere.”

Relatives of the dead, meanwhile, continued to question the handling of the emergency.

Melinda Sanchez said she learned her son, Anthony Sanchez, 23, of Escondido, was conscious and talking after he was struck but died by the time ambulances arrived. It took rescue vehicles and helicopters more than a half hour to reach the remote location.

Having enough paramedics at the race “would have made a difference, maybe not for my son but for others,” Sanchez said.

Anthony Sanchez went to root for a friend, Brett Sloppy, 28, driver of the truck that crashed, his mother said. She said another friend, Aaron Farkas, 25, also was killed.

“I know they had rules at the race that are probably difficult to enforce,” she said. “It would have been good if they attempted to enforce those rules.”

Janet Dickinson was visiting family in Michigan when friends called to say her husband, Mike, 34, of Spring Valley, was hurt. She said she was told he suffered a few broken limbs but was otherwise in good spirits. He was among the last to be airlifted because his injuries were not considered life-threatening, she said, but when he arrived at Desert Regional Medical Center he went into cardiac arrest and died.

“If he had gotten there quicker it would have been a different story,” she said. “Time is of the essence, why did he have to wait so long?”

A friend said that because of the shortage of ambulances Dickinson told paramedics to treat victims with more urgent needs first.

“It was Mike being too strong for his own good,” Rob Anderson said.

Anderson said he had raced in the California 200 five times and the crowd Saturday was bigger than usual.

“It was a freak accident,” he said. “People were telling the crowd to keep back, but the crowd didn’t listen.”

Folks said the atmosphere at his annual Nevada race is completely different, with aggressive measures to prevent people from being near the course.

Spectators are kept in specific areas 50 feet from the track and policed by captains who forbid alcohol, Folks said. More than 420 volunteers help his staff run the event across the state.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, however, contends the Nevada race has a high danger risk for participants and spectators, and will harm the landscape and such species as tortoises.

Environmentalists have long been opposed to off-road races that tear up the desert floor.

Patterson, the group’s Southwest director, charged that the government puts too much trust in promoters to police themselves and spectators, and whether the BLM can fully monitor the events.

“What we want BLM to do is take a real hard and honest look at what they can reasonably manage given their resources and their staff,” he said.

The BLM’s Drumm said the TSCO Vegas to Reno is very different than the California event because it is a point-to-point race over hundreds of miles rather than a circuit where fans can gather in a spot to see racers repeatedly pass by.

“In this race the vehicles drive by a point and they’re gone and they’re not coming back,” he said.

The best places to see the race are at the start and end, he said.

“We don’t have large congregations of spectators,” he said. “It’s in the middle of the Nevada desert.”

The BLM staff is in radio contact with the participants, according to agency officials.

“If a situation develops somewhere out in the middle of nowhere where people start congregating and could potentially lead to interfering with the race … any driver or the promoter can be in touch with the BLM and we can go deal with that situation,” said JoLynn Worley, a BLM spokeswoman.

Associated Press writers Kevin Freking in Washington, D.C., and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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