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

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.

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.

There were at least 1,000 people at the free admission event, and eyewitness accounts indicated the truck was going much faster than 15 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.

Huge crowds gather 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 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.

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.

Promoters setup in-house 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.

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.