Off-road race still on, despite safety concerns

A desert off-road race from Las Vegas to Reno remains green-lighted for Friday even as the agency that regulates races across federal land reviews its safety policies after a crash that killed eight spectators during a similar event Saturday in San Bernardino County.

Officials with the Bureau of Land Management, which permits more than 100 off-road races a year on desert land it oversees, said they are confident that adequate safeguards are in place for the Nevada race.

But critics of the agency called the decision reckless, saying the bureau lacks the manpower and desire to ensure the events are safe.

“These races are unmanageable. They are almost impossible to control and enforce. So the real question is, is the [bureau] permitting far more events than they can deal with safely?” said Daniel Patterson of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group of government workers that has clashed with off-roaders. The bureau “needs to take a timeout and say, ‘Can we deal with this?’”

Eight people were killed and 10 others seriously injured in Saturday’s California 200 off-road race in Lucerne Valley after a truck lost control after a jump and plowed into the crowd gathered within feet of the racecourse.

The promoter of that event, Mojave Desert Racing of El Monte, is scheduled to host a 250-mile off-road race Sept. 25 near that same site, the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area on bureau-controlled land in the Mojave Desert. Federal officials said there are no plans to postpone the annual Lucerne 250.

Officials with Mojave Desert Racing have not responded to repeated requests for comment, but did post a statement on the firm’s website: “MDR offers its sincere condolences and prayers to all those affected by the incident in Lucerne Valley. We would like to thank all those individuals who helped at the scene.”

The off-road race promoter has come under fire from both fans and critics of the sport for allowing spectators to stand so close to the racecourse. The accident occurred at a spot known as the “rock pile,” a hill where off-roaders often go airborne and crashes are not uncommon.

The promoter for the upcoming off-road race in Nevada said his firm takes great care to ensure that spectators never get that close, and restrict spectator access to specific areas at least 50 feet from the course. Crowds also are less of a problem because of the vast territory covered by the linear Vegas-to-Reno race course, unlike the California 200 which has a 50-mile looped track where racers pass the same spot four times, said Casey Folks of the Best in the Desert Racing Assn., which is putting on the Nevada race.

“We don’t really have the spectator problems that they have in Southern California. Our racecourse is pretty much closed,” Folks said.

Even with stringent safety precautions, Folks said, promoters have a difficult time controlling irresponsible fans — especially in desert areas open to the public, including the spot where the California 200 is held. Folks watched videos of Saturday’s deadly crash and said he was astonished by some fans’ lack of common sense.

“People have to take responsibility for their own actions. What are you doing standing on both sides of a high-speed racecourse like that? You’re just waiting for a disaster to happen,” Folks said. “They went to that spot because people have crashed there. There’s rollovers, and that’s what they’re excited about.”

An official with Nevada’s Bureau of Land Management office on Tuesday said that Folks’ firm has an excellent safety record and that the agency reviewed all the safety measures after Saturday’s tragedy.

“Motorized recreation is an accepted use of public lands. And I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but we’re here as a multiuse agency to provide recreation opportunities when appropriate,” said Leo Drumm, coordinator for the Nevada office’s off-highway vehicle program. “It’s part of our mission. It’s what we do. Some people would like us to stop it all together, but that is not what we intend to do.”

However, the bureau’s lead recreation planner for last year’s Vegas-to-Reno race said she resigned in disgust after her calls for additional safety measures and environmental protections were ignored by her superiors.

“I wanted to put a temporary closure in place around the racecourse. You’ve got multiple uses going on [bureau] land. People don’t necessarily know there’s a race going on,” said Stacey Antilla, who worked for the federal agency for eight years before she left in March. “Management told me you couldn’t do it, that even if we put a temporary closure in place, there’s no way the [bureau] could enforce it.”

Because of federal privacy laws, Drumm said, bureau officials could not discuss the circumstances of Antilla’s departure. He disagreed with her concerns, but said “she’s entitled to her opinion.”

Across the western United States, the Bureau of Land Management issued 103 special recreation permits for motorized racing in the 2009 fiscal year. In some cases, multiple races were held under a single permit. Agency officials in Washington said they expect the number of permits issued this fiscal year to be close to that number.