U.S. agency suspends off-road events organized by promoter of deadly race

The federal Bureau of Land Management on Thursday suspended all off-road racing events organized by Mojave Desert Racing Productions, the promoter in charge of the race where eight spectators were killed last weekend.

A spokesman for the federal agency said the suspension will remain in place while federal officials investigate the tragedy at the California 200 off-road race in San Bernardino County’s Lucerne Valley.

“The BLM is continuing to cooperate with state and local law enforcement agencies in the ongoing investigation into Saturday night’s tragic accident at Johnson Valley Open Area,” Stephen Razo, spokesman for the agency’s California’s desert district office, said in a statement. “BLM has suspended any future permitted events of MDR Productions while the investigation is underway.”

Officials with Mojave Desert Racing, based in South El Monte, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Other upcoming off-road races permitted by the BLM across the country will be reviewed on a “case-by-case basis,” BLM officials said. That includes an upcoming motorcycle race in Lucerne Valley on Sept. 25.

Eight spectators were killed and 10 others injured when a truck in the California 200 nighttime off-road race lost control and rolled into a crowd that had gathered beside the dirt track.

Both Mojave Desert Racing and the BLM, which permitted the race on federal desert land, have since been criticized for allowing spectators to gather so close to a high-speed race.

After the deadly crash, the agency launched an investigation into the incident, assisted by the California Highway Patrol, and ordered a review of the agency’s safety regulations for off-road events held on BLM land.

In the most recent fiscal year, the BLM issued permits for more than 100 off-road races on federal desert land across the western United States that the agency oversees.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer called on BLM Director Bob Abbey to explain why “proper precautions” were not in place during Saturday’s deadly race in the Mojave Desert.

Off-road racers and supporters of the sport called the crash a terrible tragedy but described it as an anomaly in a sport that’s been going on for decades without a major incident. Already, much of the desert has been put off limits to off-roaders because of pressure by environmental groups and politicians such as Feinstein and Boxer, they said.

“All of a sudden, there’s one major accident and all of the government regulators and politicians are stepping in,” said Sherri Kukla of S&S Off Road Magazine in northern San Diego County, one of the sponsors of Mojave Desert Racing events. “Everyone is always looking for someone else to blame.”

The crash occurred at a spot known as the “rock pile,” where racers often go airborne and where crashes are not uncommon. Spectators and racers said some race fans were gathered a few feet from the dirt course when the driver of a modified Ford Ranger rolled into the crowd.

Mojave Desert Racing holds seven major races a year, and planned another event — the Lucerne 250 — next month in the same off-road area.

Off-road recreation “is a popular activity in the California desert enjoyed by families and responsible organized groups. BLM’s ongoing review will be aimed at ensuring the public safety remains our first priority,” Razo said.

One of the permits being reviewed is for a motorcycle race in the BLM’s Johnson Valley recreation area this weekend hosted by the American Motorcyclist Assn. One of the organizers said Thursday that he’s been in constant contact with the BLM and expects the race to go forward.

“We support the BLM in their decisions on what they have to do,” said Jerry Grabow, president of the association’s Southern California district. “It would only be appropriate, in the aftermath of the tragedy Saturday night, that they make sure everything goes smoothly.”

As the investigation continues into the crash, memorials for those killed have begun. On Thursday evening, a viewing was held for Aaron Farkas, 25, of Escondido, at the Broadway Baptist Church, with his funeral scheduled for Friday. Services for the remaining seven killed in the crash are expected over the next week.

Others killed were Michael James Dickinson, 34, of San Diego County; Andrew Therrin, 22, of Riverside; Brian Wolfin, 27, and Anthony Sanchez, 23, both of Escondido; Zachary Freeman, 24, and Dustin C. Malson, 24, both of Ventura; and Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas.

The father of Sanchez said his son’s death has been difficult to grasp, and made even more so when he and his wife attended Farkas’ memorial Thursday night.

“That was kind of hard, seeing the other parents,” said Armando Sanchez.

Anthony, 23, recently became engaged. The family has not told Anthony’s 3-year-old son.

Armando Sanchez agrees that the spectators at the race had some responsibility to stay back from the track, but says the race organizers should have taken safety precautions.

“People should have known better, but you know how kids are, even adults. People are going to do what they let them do,” Armando Sanchez said. “If the promoter wouldn’t have let them get that close, the crowds would have stayed back.”

Still, he said, he doesn’t want to see the races banned.

“Anthony was an adventurous kid. He wouldn’t want that,” he said.