GLENDALE — When George Pondella first heard the news that there had been a serious accident involving spectator fatalities at the California 200 off-road desert race in the Lucerne Valley on Saturday evening, his thoughts immediately went to the group of his loved ones that were lining his own race team's pit area miles away from where he and dozens of fellow racers were being held up at a checkpoint waiting for more information.
"We had seven people who went up there to watch and take pictures and all I could think about were them," said Pondella, owner of Glendale-based Pondella Motorsports, whose own 800-horespower Duralast trophy truck was speeding along about 25 miles down the course from where a horrific scene of pandemonium was breaking out. "I had chills down my spine when I heard people were hurt and there was no way to radio out."
After an agonizing wait of about two hours, Pondella enlisted the assistance of a ham-radio operator to make contact with his pit and got confirmation no one in his party was among the eight killed and 10 more injured when the modified Ford Ranger pickup driven by Brett Sloppy of San Marcos careened out of control over a rock formation, off the race course and into a crowd of nearby onlookers.
"You can breathe a sigh of relief there; at least nobody in your direct family or pits got hurt out there," said Pondella, a Glendale resident. "It's just scary, it was just hard.
"We had a bunch of people that went up [to the scene of the accident] and helped push the car over and were traumatized and came back to camp and were white in the face and sick."
Pondella has competed in events promoted by Mojave Desert Racing, which staged Saturday's California 200, since 2009 and is often accompanied at the nighttime races by members of his family — his own daughters, who are in their 20s, have taken the wheel of his truck for laps in similar races — not to mention the large pit crew that consists of some of his closest friends.
Saturday's race was an especially heavily attended one for the series, Pondella said, because, in addition to the unlimited-modification 100 class of which Pondella's vehicle is part of, it was also open to smaller, lighter horsepower 1400 and 1450-class vehicles like the one driven by Sloppy.
Inexact reports of the estimated attendance have ranged from several thousand to over 10,000, while Pondella estimated the total attendance between pit-crew personnel and spectators numbered close to 20,000.
"The night races always seem to gather large crowds because it's cooler at night and people can party all day and watch the races at night," said Art Savedra, who has been the Technical and Safety Director for MDR, in charge of pre-race vehicle inspection, for over 15 years. "The rocks are always dangerous and you've gotta realize that anything can happen at any speed."
(Editor's note: Savedra is not in charge of pre-race course inspection as had been previously reported. He is only in charge of vehicle inspection, according to him.)
Pondella recalls passing through the popular spectator point known as the "rockpile" not more than 10 minutes before the accident occurred at the same spot. Described by Pondella as a sharp, 90-degree left-hand turn with two abutments in the track of rock outcroppings that form small jumps, Sloppy reportedly went through the area and over a jump at 45-50 mph, according to California Highway Patrol estimates, hit his brakes upon landing and rolled sideways into onlookers positioned as close as five feet from the edge of the track, which is essentially unmarked and unprotected by any kind of barrier or guardrail.
"Everybody congregates at the 'rockpile,'" Pondella said. "I went through it and I saw all of the flashes of the camera. [The fans] are on their bellies with the cameras up in the air taking pictures of the underside of the truck as we glide over the top of the jumps."
Driver Mike Bilek was at the front of the pack when the accident occurred and also recalls a swell of fans gathered by the "rockpile" in dangerously close proximity to the race course.
"We went through there, the first thing I noticed was that people were extremely close," said Bilek, who, like Pondella did, compared the scene to one that might be seen at a race in Baja, Mexico, where spectators often risk their safety to get an up-close view. "We actually had to reduce our speed to 30 mph during that section and normally we can travel through there at 55 or 60, so it was extremely narrow.
"Some of the people were literally five feet from my car, it was just a situation where you see that in racing and just kind of wonder how can these people not think [of the danger] and they have their kids with them and our cars are 5,000-lb., 600-horespower machines and we're racing in dirt roads that are bumpy. …That was a big, crazy thing. That is totally unusual."
Pondella said the sobering reality began to sink in for him and the other drivers held up at the checkpoint as the full scope of the tragedy became apparent.
"At checkpoint two, they stopped us. They just said there had been an accident on the track and they needed to stop the race for a little while," Pondella said. "After a while, a ham-radio guy came cruising by and he dialed in and we listened and it was awful.
"Just the mood changed and it was just hard, scary, sad. What's weird is that 10 minutes before that, I passed those people and they were alive. …It's just wrong, it's just sad."
The CHP said alcohol was not a factor in the crash and that Sloppy would not face criminal charges because the event was sanctioned by a permit from the Bureau of Land Management. Federal authorities have joined a CHP investigation of the accident, which is ongoing with the cooperation of the BLM.
Mojave Desert Racing has not commented publicly on the accident, issuing only a brief statement on it'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."
Rules for spectators posted on the MDR's website advise a distance of at least 100 feet from the race course and there was reportedly a requirement in the MDR's contract with the BLM to keep spectators at least 50 feet away.
Savedra said that Saturday's crowd was younger, with many large groups of peole in their 20s, and that many spectators were consuming alcohol.
"With the crowd the way it was, if anyone goes out there without a badge or a gun or some authority, you're not gonna get anywhere [as far as crowd control]," said Savedra, who noted that while the MDR is required to obtain a permit to stage an event, spectators are essentially free to congregate on public land. "That we cannot control."
Bilek agreed that it's not always easy to force compliance with crowd-safety guidelines in an arena as expansive and difficult to regulate as the California desert.
"This race course is 50 miles long, it's not like a 1-mile oval track," Bilek said. "You can't just set up cement barriers out in the desert, the Bureau of Land Management won't let you do it, plus it would be impossible to do for 50 miles of course or even some of the course.
"You can tell people with a car with a PA system to move back 100 feet, but after that car leaves, they would just go back and, with a couple thousand people in this one area alone, you would have to have at least 100 guys to say move back. The problem is there's not that kind of budget in this type of racing, so it's kind of impossible to have somebody actually enforce. The only thing you can usually rely on is people's brain power to say, 'Hey, these are fast, heavy machines with high horsepower racing in the dirt and we've gotta be at least a certain amount [of feet] back.'"
Savedra said that one solution could be to take dangerous areas of the course out of play altogether, noting that another racing body, the Mojave Offroad Racing Enthusiasts series, uses the same course for races, but uses the "rockpile as a start/finish point rather than a midrace jump point.
He noted that a similar piece of topography on the course, known as the "anthill" is restricted to the general public during races and said that he hoped BLM officers or park rangers could help enforce the designation of areas such as the rockpile as off-limits to spectators in the future.
"There's always a real fear in the back of my head [of the rockpile]," he said.
Pondella said MDR has a good track record with the BLM and that the group in charge of vehicle regulations and course rules for its events, All-Race Tech & Safety, of which Savedra is part of, is on par with any in the industry. But he also acknowledged the need for changes if the league is to survive this black eye.
"I think it should be run like the SCORE Series and the Best of the Desert Series," Pondella said, citing two more established, better-funded desert series. "[There should] be more participation from the drivers at the driver meetings. I think that the drivers should understand and tell their pits that spectators should be at least 150 feet away from the track. I think that maybe the race organizers need to follow BLM's rules a little stricter, like in high-traffic areas, putting more caution zones away from the track.
"Bureau of Land Management is out there and they do the best they can with the resources they have, but I think BLM, because they're part of this scene, should be out there as well. I know that it costs money, but if it increases the cost and people are safe and we're not gonna see death and we all get to go out there and race then it's worth it."