Off-roaders worry accident may mean sport’s end
LOS ANGELES – Fans of long-distance off-roading have seen the number of federal sites where they can speed and soar over the desert dunes in Southern California dwindle to just a handful, mainly over environmental concerns.
Now, they might drop further, over safety.
Off-roaders fear a federal review announced Monday into a weekend race accident that killed eight and injured 10 more in the Mojave Desert could lead to further restrictions – or even spell the end – of their sport.
“Whatever it takes to make it better,” race promoter Lou Peralta said. “But we don’t want to lose the sport.”
At the California 200 race on Saturday, a truck went off a jump and ended up crashing through spectators who had lined the course, immediately raising questions about oversight and safety at the races on federal land.
The federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages the portion of the desert where the race was held, will review all off-road vehicle events on federal land in the California desert for safety.
It wasn’t immediately clear how a review would affect racing in other states, such as Nevada and Arizona.
BLM added 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.
BLM rules require drivers to travel 15 mph or less within 50 feet of bystanders, but the requirement appears aimed to control general traffic in the camping and race pit areas and not at competitors themselves.
MDR’s permit also allowed no more than 300 spectators for the event.
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.”
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment.
Off-roading fans, however, were abuzz Monday 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, ATVs 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.
The BLM permit allowed as many as 80 racers Saturday. It wasn’t immediately known how many were racing.
Documents for MDR’s permit indicate they pledged to have an ambulance equipped with the jaws of life on scene and had notified local hospitals of the race and had secured insurance, as required by the BLM.
They also had assigned volunteers to help BLM officials do a pre-race sweep for the desert tortoise, a fragile species in the area, before the race.
Another race promoter, Mojave Off-Road Racing Enthusiasts in Barstow, met with BLM officials Monday to discuss the status of a Sept. 11 race planned for Lucerne Valley, the same area where the accident occurred. Officials said they wouldn’t be able to tell the promoters the fate of the race until late next week, but the company is bracing for the worst, said Ron Matthews, the race director.
“This is very serious,” he said. “This is going to change a lot of things.”
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.
The BLM sets rules, such as not getting within 100 feet of the track, but they are hard to enforce with hundreds of fans strung along a course, said Peralta, the race promoter who runs Alta Vista Events in California City.
Competitors pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousands dollars to enter races, which are permitted on BLM by a lottery system each year with a few races grandfathered in, he said.
“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,” Peralta said. “But I don’t know if even God could control it.”
“People are people and they will do what they want if they think they can get away with it,” he said.
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, Peralta said.
One possible outcome of the accident, he said, 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.
“Every artery going into the course has to be either blocked off or barricaded or manned by individuals. All this costs money,” he 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.
Matthews, the race director for M.O.R.E., said he, too, would like to see more BLM presence at races because fans become rowdy and don’t respect the promoter’s private security when they are asked to stay 100 feet back.
“They don’t come out there enough,” he said of BLM agents. “I wish we’d see ’em more. We love ’em out there. If you don’t have a badge and a gun, you’re just another dog walking down the street.”
In addition to the danger to humans, Suckling said, races take a toll on the fragile desert ecosystem. 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,” he said.
– Associated Press writers Daisy Nguyen, John Antczak, Andrew Dalton and Christopher Weber contributed to this report.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User