California's two U.S. senators Wednesday called on the federal Bureau of Land Management to explain why "proper precautions" were not in place for a Mojave Desert off-road race at which eight spectators were killed in a crash.
In a letter to BLM Director Bob Abbey, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer asked the agency to explain what safety measures were required during the California 200 nighttime race, held on desert land overseen by the federal agency in the Lucerne Valley.
The senators also wanted the agency to detail how many BLM employees monitored the race and what penalties or other enforcement actions agency officials have the authority to take if safety violations occur.
"We are deeply saddened by this tragic loss of life, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families," the senators stated in the letter sent Wednesday. "What makes this accident even more troubling is that with proper precautions, it could have been prevented."
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said agency officials are reviewing the letter and "will follow up on the senators' questions."
Eight people were killed and 10 injured Saturday evening when an off-road racer lost control of his modified Ford Ranger truck after a jump and rolled into a crowd of spectators gathered within feet of the dirt racecourse.
The event promoter, Mojave Desert Racing of El Monte, has been criticized by some racers, other promoters and critics of the sport for allowing spectators to edge so close to the track — especially at a spot where crashes have occurred.
BLM granted a permit to Mojave Desert Racing to hold the race, one of more than 100 such events held annually on BLM-controlled land . A stipulation in the permit required the promoter to keep speeding racers more than 50 feet from "any social group." Saturday's crash occurred at a spot known as the "rock pile," where more than 100 fans had gathered to watch the race.
Officials with the California Highway Patrol said the truck came to rest less than 10 feet from the racecourse. The driver, Brett Sloppy of San Marcos, will not face charges related to the crash because it occurred during a "sanctioned" sporting event permitted by the BLM and did not involve public roadways, CHP officials said.
In their letter, the senators also asked the BLM director to provide information about penalties imposed on race organizers who violate their permits, whether the agency collects data on safety violations and how that information is used.
"While it is important that we continue to provide opportunities for off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation on our nation's public lands, adequate precautions must be taken to ensure that these activities are conducted safely," Boxer and Feinstein stated in the letter.
Officials with Mojave Desert Racing have not responded to repeated requests for comments. On Tuesday, the firm posted this statement on its website:
"MDR wishes to emphasize again that we were shocked and saddened by the tragedy at our race in Johnson Valley. We grieve over the fact that those who perished or were injured were part of our off-road community and family. A number of victims were our friends and we all feel a great loss. Thank you to the off-road community for all their support and prayers."