LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — The crowd at the off-road race could almost touch the trucks as they hurtled and bounced over the desert sand. They were close enough for one mistake to end eight lives.
Hundreds of thrill-seeking fans watched in horror Saturday night as one racer took a jump at high speed, hit his brakes on landing and rolled his truck sideways into spectators, sending bodies flying on a section of track that had no guardrails or anything else to keep the crowd back. Eight people were killed and 12 were injured at the California 200, a race in the Mojave Desert about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
“You could touch it if you wanted to. It’s part of the excitement,” said 19-year-old Niky Carmikle, who stood sobbing over a makeshift memorial on the spot of the crash Sunday. Her boyfriend, 24-year-old Zachary Freeman of Ventura, was killed in the crash. “There’s always that risk factor, but you just don’t expect that it will happen to you.”
California Highway Patrol Officer Joaquin Zubieta said Brett M. Sloppy, 28, of San Marcos, was behind the wheel of the truck involved in the crash. Zubieta said alcohol was not a factor in the crash and there were no plans to arrest Sloppy, who the CHP estimates was going 45 to 50 mph at the time of the crash.
Zubieta said state vehicle codes don’t apply because the race was a sanctioned event held with the approval of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land used for the race.
The BLM issued a statement saying safety was the responsibility of the race organizer, South El Monte-based Mojave Desert Racing. MDR’s permit required racers to travel 15 mph or less when they were within 50 feet of fans, and allowed no more than 300 spectators for the event, the agency said.
BLM spokesman David Briery said the agency would cooperate with the CHP’s investigation.
“We followed all our rules,” he said by phone. “We don’t think we did anything wrong.”
Phone and e-mail messages left for MDR were not immediately returned.
Tens of thousands of people were spread out along the 50-mile track, but the site of the crash, a stretch known as the “rockpile,” is one of the most popular areas to gather, witnesses said. Some witnesses said they got within 4 feet of the unmarked track, watching trucks fly over a series of jumps. Several jagged rocks jut from the sand track at the bottom of the hill.
The driver “hit the rock and just lost control and tumbled,” said Matt March, 24, of Wildomar, who was standing next to the jump. “Bodies went everywhere.”
March said he and several other fans lifted the truck, which came to rest with its oversized wheels pointing toward the sky, and found four people lying unconscious underneath.
John Payne, 20, of Anaheim, said he was among the first people to reach the truck. He said the victims included one person who was decapitated.
Carmikle had gone to the bathroom when the crash happened. When she came back, Freeman and his best friend, 24-year-old Dustin Malson of Ventura, were dead.
“Bodies all over the ground, people screaming, and all I wanted to do was find my boyfriend and my friends,” Carmikle said.
It took rescue vehicles and helicopters more than half an hour to reach the remote location, accessible only by a rutted dirt road. Spectators said off-duty police and firefighters in the crowd joined paramedics hired by the race organizer to help the injured and place blankets over the dead.
Six people died at the scene and two others died after being taken to a hospital, authorities said. Most of the 12 injured people were airlifted to hospitals.
Paramedics brought six people — five adults and a child — to Loma Linda University Medical Center, spokesman Herbert Atienza said Sunday. He had no information on their condition.
Officials said Sloppy, the driver, wasn’t hurt. It was not clear why he lost control of the truck, a white modified Ford Ranger with “Misery Motorsports” painted on the doors.
A Facebook page that appeared to belong to Sloppy and included a picture of his truck was updated Sunday with a note: “Soo incredibly lost and devistated my thoughts and prayers go out to all the familys and friends involved.. Thank you too all my friends for sticking with me even thru these tragic times I love you all.”
Nearly 40 friends responded with messages of support by Sunday afternoon.
Jeff Talbott, inland division chief for the highway patrol, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that the driver was forced to run from the scene when the crowd grew unruly and some began throwing rocks at him. Several witnesses, however, said they didn’t see anyone throwing rocks at the driver.
The race is part of a series held in the Mojave Desert’s Soggy Dry Lake Bed, about an hour’s drive from the nearest city, Lucerne Valley.
A small cross and a circle of rocks were placed Sunday near the ruts in the ground left by the truck. Bags of victims’ clothing, some of it bloody, sat nearby.
There were no barriers at the site of the crash. Fans said these races rarely have any kind of safety guards.
“That’s desert racing for you,” Payne said. “You’re at your own risk out here. You are in the middle off the desert. People were way too close and they should have known. You can’t really hold anyone at fault. It’s just a horrible, horrible accident.”
Briery said he didn’t know if the BLM would conduct an internal investigation, and he added it was too early to say if the agency would change its permit rules to ensure stricter enforcement of safety requirements.
The BLM is required by Congress to make public lands accessible to reasonable requests, and the area used Saturday is one of the few available to off-road enthusiasts, he said.
The course winds through empty desert dotted only with rocky outcroppings and desert shrubs. Several families were still camping Sunday on a dried-up lake bed below the crash site. Buggies and dirtbikes zoomed back and forth, kicking up dust that could be seen for miles.
Racing in the Mojave “has been going on forever,” March said, but he expects that to change because of the crash. “I think they’re going to do away with open desert racing for awhile. We were all talking about it at the camp,” he said.
The CHP does not normally investigate crashes at organized events, but took the lead on this probe because of its scope. It set up a command center at the starting line of the race. The federal Bureau of Land Management was assisting in the investigation.
Aside from Freeman and Malson, those killed included Brian Wolfin, 27, Anthony Sanchez, 23, and Aaron Farkas, 25, all of Escondido; Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas; and Andrew Therrin, 22, of Riverside. The name of the eighth victim, a 34-year-old man from Spring Valley, had not been released Sunday afternoon.
“He just loved his friends and loved excitement, and I’m gonna miss him,” Therrien’s father, Robert Therrien, told Los Angeles broadcaster KABC-TV outside his house in Riverside.
The crash was the latest in a series of race accidents that have killed spectators.
A car plowed into a crowd that had gathered to watch an illegal drag race on a suburban road in Accokeek, Md., in February 2008, killing eight people and injuring five. The two racers were charged with vehicular manslaughter. Darren Bullock, 22, was sentenced to 15 years in prison; Tavon Taylor, 20, is awaiting trial.
In Chandler, Ariz., in February, a female spectator was killed by a tire that flew off a crashing dragster at Chandler’s Firebird International Raceway for the NHRA Arizona Nationals.
In Selmer, Tenn., a dragster went out of control and smashed into spectators during a fundraising festival in June 2007, killing six people and injuring 22. Driver Troy Critchley, 38, was convicted of misdemeanor reckless assault charges and sentenced to 18 months of probation.
Dalton and Associated Press writer Christopher Weber reported from Los Angeles. AP Radio correspondent Shirley Smith in Washington contributed to this report.