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Off-Road Racing Accident Kills Eight: So Who's Responsible?

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The horrific racing accident which took place this past weekend in the desert of Southern California now ranks among the top 10 racing disasters of all time.

Eight people were killed when a fully-outfitted off-road race truck took a jump at, more or less, 60mph, then, for some reason, lost control. The driver was not injured but he knew some of the people he and his truck killed.

My first thought when hearing of the crash was, "Well, this was only a matter of time. Now it's actually happened."

First a few facts: The race was run on Federal land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. It was sanctioned and approved by all the necessary parties. The promoter, an outfit called Mojave Desert Racing (MDR) is, understandably, circling the wagons and getting ready for fines and lawsuits which will almost certainly put them out of business. Unless they have a $100 million insurance policy to cover themselves.

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Authorities investigate the scene of the crash which killed eight spectators

Their contract with the BLM calls for trucks (88 were entered in the event) and other race vehicles to go no more than 15mph when spectators are nearby.

And spectators were not to be allowed close to the race vehicles during the event; yet another rule not followed. If you saw the video of the crash occurring, you know that edict was not at all in practice. Now we find out that the truck itself has an on-board video camera, and the Feds, now in charge of the investigation, are seeing if tape was rolling when the crash occurred. Boy, that'll be a gift to TV around the world. "Next at 11, what the driver saw when he ran into a crowd of people and eight died!"

But when all the news accounts I've seen are missing is that the way the spectators were acting, close enough to speeding race vehicles to touch them, is commonplace at off-road events. Watch any video of the Baja 500 or 1,000 and it seems there's a game played between the spectators to see how close they can get to the cars and trucks. I mean literally close enough to touch.

It's a wonder this didn't happen decades ago.

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Spectators work to get the killer pickup upright

Why do I speak so authoritatively? Because I have more off-roading experience than the average racer. In 1979 I was an editor at Petersen's 4Wheel Off-Road monthly magazine, just when the off-road craze was just getting started in Southern California (and plenty of places throughout the nation). And well before the term "SUV" came into common useage.

I worked directly for Mickey Thompson and did much of the PR for his first off-road race in the Los Angeles Coliseum ... the first event of its kind anywhere.

I covered the Barstow-to-Vegas race when it really was from Barstow to Las Vegas, and spent more hours at off-road motorcycle events than any normal person should.

So I have a pretty good background on the sport and it has always been a mystery to me why spectators were not getting killed left and right as they meandered as close to the race cars and trucks and bikes as they possibly could.

Besides the Mickey Thompson race in the Coliseum, he also staged much more serious off-road events at Riverside raceway (now a shopping mall) and I was always there. Covered one of the events for Cycle World magazine and said some nasty things about MT ... and he never mentioned that or held it against me.

Oh, and I also flew down the huge Peristyle jump at the Coliseum as a passenger in Walker Evans' Dodge race truck. I go back to when Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe were racing their Big Oly Ford and winning the top races. When Ivan "Ironman" Stewart was still just earning his nickname (and what an amazingly nice guy he is).

This crash, though, wasn't the fault of the truck's driver. Authorities are saying the sanctioning body, MDR, is completely at fault for not having their participants follow the rules.

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On its wheels, the truck doesn't look like a potential killer, but it certainly was.

But it's not just the promoter's problem. I contend it's the BLM's problem, too. There have been hundreds of races like this one in the same area as this one ... and apparently the BLM never took the time to visit the race circuit and see how things were really happening on the ground.

I've yet to go to an off-road race, any off-road event, where spectators have not been way too close to the cars, trucks and bikes racing to the finish. And some of these vehicles hit speeds of well over 100mph on a regular basis and do so for an hour or more. Tough vehicles driven by tough women and men.

So if the BLM must approve the application for a race, especially for a promoter like MDR, which has run perhaps hundreds of races in the Southern California desert, how could the BLM never take the reality of off-road racing into account when making their decision to "approve," or not? Doesn't that make the BLM a little more than derelict in their duty? Can you say, "criminal negligence?"

Sure, the BLM seems to have all the time and money to make the desert continually smaller to protect flora, fauna, ancient Indian grounds and the like. And plenty of people hate the BLM and the Federal government for constantly taking away bits of their race tracks. But I say: Good for the BLM! Someone needs to protect the desert ... God knows there's a lot of it!

I don't see how the BLM can claim to never factor the realities of races into their approval of applications to stage events. I'd love to get the head person from the BLM on the witness stand, and see if he or she would cop to whether or not their agency expected, eventually, for this kind of wreck and injuries and deaths. And if not, why not? It's not as if this kind of crash never happened before.

If they expected something like this, knowing spectators are regularly too terribly close to the race vehicles and that the racers themselves guffaw at the idea of slowing to 15mph because there are some people too close to them, then the BLM must be held accountable as well as MDR.

And if they say that BLM never saw the possibility of this type of horror, and never took proactive action to slow down the racers around people and getting spectators out of the racers' way, then they're flat-out telling big lies.

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Map shows location of where eight people were killed in a Bureau of Land Management sanctioned, approved race

You, me and everyone else think it's right and proper that the sanctioning committee, Mojave Desert Racing, should be held properly accountable for, in essence, creating an atmosphere which made this kind of crash inevitable.

The Feds should go after MDR like pit bulls in heat. But someone has to say this: authorities must contend that the BLM is mutually culpable with MDR for creating the circumstances which led to the unnecessary and untimely deaths of 8 people. And they must consider the long-lasting effects of the rest of that crowd who saw this happen. Kids, especially, who are rampant at off-road events (it is really a family sport, after all) will all have levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which they'll deal with, many for the rest of their lives.

So, yes, MDR is responsible. But I'm here to say that in the real world, the Federal Bureau of Land Management holds just as much, if not more, blame.

Photo credit: (AP Photo/VVDailyPress.com, Kris Reilly)

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