Deadly crash stirs off-road racing debate

Fans of desert racing say nothing beats the danger, dust and noise of watching 3,500-pound trucks roaring past — close enough almost to touch — and then rocketing into the air over treacherous jumps with nicknames like “the rock pile.”

The off-road derbies, which occur in remote stretches of the Mojave Desert, draw thousands and exist a world apart from the urban sprawl of Southern California. There are no guardrails, no enforced rules and no police to hold spectators back as they lean over the track with cellphones, snapping photos of oncoming trucks.

The excitement turned tragic Saturday night, when a racer at the California 200 east of Lucerne Valley lost control of his vehicle at a jump and sailed into a crowd of spectators who had edged steadily closer to the raceway. Eight people were killed as the vehicle rolled on top of them, and five others were seriously injured.

On Sunday, both avid off-roaders and opponents of the sport criticized the lack of safety precautions. Some blamed the promoter of the 200-mile nighttime race for allowing spectators to get so close, while others singled out the federal Bureau of Land Management for sanctioning such events and fostering a “Mad Max” environment that was bound to turn deadly.

“Tons of people were there, and you always want to get close,” said a tearful Niky Carmikle, 19, whose boyfriend died in the crash. “That’s part of the rush, part of the excitement. They should have had fences up, though.”

The driver of the modified Ford Ranger, identified as Brett M. Sloppy, 28, of San Marcos, “got airborne and, when he landed, rolled over straight into the spectators,” said Officer Joaquin Zubieta of the California Highway Patrol.

Witnesses described a chaotic scene where the victims had no time to flee.

“All I saw was the dust, and then I saw about 30 people on the ground. It was just brutal,” said Jeff Musgrave, a 43-year-old off-roader from Orange County. “The problem is the crowd was just too close. I don’t think the [racer] did anything stupid. He just hit it way too hard.”

Six fans died at the scene. Nine others were airlifted to local hospitals, where two of them died later in the evening, Zubieta said.

The San Bernardino County coroner’s office identified seven of the dead: Zachary Freeman, 24, of Ventura; Brian Wolfin, 27, of Escondido; Anthony Sanchez, 23, of Escondido; Aaron Farkas, 25, of Escondido; Andrew Therrin, 22, of Riverside; Dustin C. Malson, 24, of Ventura; and Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas.

Carmikle said her boyfriend, Freeman, a pipe welder, was just feet from the track when the driver lost control of his truck around 7:40 p.m. She had walked away from the spot just moments before.

“I remember giving him a big kiss and saying I’ll be right back,” said Carmikle, who spent Sunday in the 100-degree heat at the crash site to recover Freeman’s off-road truck.

According to authorities, Sloppy lost control of his truck after racing up a hilly spot known as the “rock pile,” which attracts throngs of spectators every year. He was not arrested, and alcohol was not a factor in the crash, authorities said. However, officers had to escort Sloppy from the scene after spectators started “getting rowdy” and shouted at the racer, Zubieta said.

Investigators hope to review footage from a camera attached to Sloppy’s truck, Zubieta said.

Sloppy could not be reached Sunday, but he did express sorrow on his Facebook page the morning after the crash.

“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,” his statement read.

The race, held at desolate Soggy Dry Lake in the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area on federal land northeast of the San Bernardino Mountains, was organized by Mojave Desert Racing of South El Monte and was part of a seven-race circuit. Off-roaders navigate the 50-mile-long loop four times, reaching speeds of 60 mph or more.

On Sunday, empty beer and water bottles littered the area.

Officials at Mojave Desert Racing declined to comment.

Environmental groups said they have long complained that the Bureau of Land Management, which issued permits for Saturday’s race, lacks the staff and ability to regulate off-road events that attract large crowds.

“The feds have allowed a ‘Mad Max’ atmosphere to develop with too many people and too many machines crammed into too little space,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental protection group that has had previous clashes with off-road enthusiasts. “The feds don’t have the resources, and apparently not the interest, to regulate off-road vehicles properly.”

Saturday’s crash was tragic but inevitable, Suckling said.

“You can’t put these huge crowds together with fast and powerful machines and not expect these kinds of accidents,” he said. “Our collective failure to rein in excessive off-road vehicle use is not only destroying the ecosystem but killing people. The federal government clearly does not have the manpower to sufficiently organize and regulate these events, and if you don’t have the manpower to do it safely, you shouldn’t be doing it at all.”

The Bureau of Land Management issued a statement saying the special-event permit for the race held Mojave Desert Racing responsible for the safety of up to 300 spectators and up to 80 drivers in the race.

Some spectators estimated that more than 1,000 people were at the race.

The federal permit required race vehicles to travel at 15 mph or less when passing within 50 feet of any group, the agency said. And it held the event organizer responsible for keeping the vehicles on the race course.

“We will go over the permit with a fine-tooth comb and make sure that they complied with everything and whether the application needs to be modified in the future,” said David Briery, a BLM spokesman. “Obviously, we don’t want anything like this to ever happen again.”

The bureau charged the company a $95 fee for Saturday’s race, plus $5 for each participating driver. The race sponsor has been staging events on federally owned stretches of the Mojave Desert for at least 11 years, holding six races each year, Briery said.

The event organizer promised to keep a private ambulance during the race and carry an insurance policy of up to $2 million, federal officials said.

Bryant Layton of Orange County, an off-road racer and friend of Sloppy, said off-road desert racing is a well-regulated sport with inherent hazards, and he blamed the promoter for allowing crowds to gather within feet of speeding trucks. Crashes happen, he said, but usually in remote areas of the course far from spectators.

“In my opinion, the finger points to the promoter. There should have been fences up,” Layton said. “The crowds at the rock pile have been getting progressively worse every year. It’s known to be out of control, with lots of people drinking.”

He described Sloppy as distraught, saying that one of those killed was a close friend he had spoken to just before the race started.

Wayne Nosala, who serves on the board of the nonprofit California Off-Road Vehicle Assn., said spectators should remain at least 100 feet from a race course. But that suggestion isn’t always followed, and the companies that stage the races don’t have the staff to keep crowds at a distance, he said.

“I don’t think there are any written rules that spectators should be 100 feet back. It’s just a suggestion. The promoters say, ‘Look, this should just be common sense,’ ” said Nosala, who serves as one of the group’s volunteer lobbyists.

The group has worked to rebuff efforts by environmental groups to reduce or eliminate the number of off-road races on desert lands. Nosala expects Saturday’s crash to dramatically change the way off-road racing permits are regulated.

As part of those changes, he said, the Bureau of Land Management will need to be more involved in race safety.

“They probably had 10 rangers out there last night, but it’s hard to manage a 50-mile course,” he added. “In hindsight, they should have been over by the rock pile, because that’s where most of the people were.”

Times staff writers Carla Rivera and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.