Off-road desert racing rules could tighten in wake of deadly California 200 crash

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Francis Specker/AP Photo

Workers push an overturned off-road race truck upright Sunday after it went out of control and plowed into a crowd of spectators during a race earlier in Lucerne Valley, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010. At least eight people were killed during the incident about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

Authorities continue to investigate Saturday’s deadly crash at an off-road race in the Mojave Desert. Eight people were killed and nearly a dozen others seriously injured. The tragedy is fueling debate over rules that regulate off-road desert races in California. Some veteran off-road racers think regulations are too lax.

What sets California desert races apart from those in other states like Nevada or Arizona is the close proximity of spectators. At some points along the 50-mile course of Saturday’s “California 200” race, fans clustered to the very edge of the roadway - with no barrier to shield them from the burly all-terrain trucks that barreled past.

Temecula off-road racer Patrick Dailey says having fans that close can be thrilling – but also nerve-racking.

“It definitely affects the way you drive," Dailey says. "When I see a big group of people I tend to slow down and be extra cautious. It’s defiantly harrowing and I’ve talked to some of these other trophy truck drivers and it makes them nervous as well. But its also a testament of their skill that this hasn’t happened before.”

Dailey is also a co-founder of Fast-Aid, a non-profit group that raises money for injured off-road racers and their families. It’s now raising money for victims of Saturday’s deadly crash. It’s already received about $25,000 in donations for victims’ families and injured crash survivors.

“And also the driver and co-driver,” says Dailey. “I can’t imagine what they (the drivers) are feeling right now. Their state of mind is probably really messed up right now so we wanna try to jump in and hopefully get them to go to some counseling sessions. We’re a very small family so when one of us gets hurt it affects us all, you know.”

Amateur video of Saturday’s deadly crash posted shows people crowded right up to the lip of the rutted course. When driver Brent Sloppy lost control of his truck, it plowed into spectators and flipped over pinning several people underneath.

Sloppy walked away from the wreck without injury. Authorities do not at this time plan on filing charges against him. The California Highway Patrol is still investigating the circumstances of Saturday's crash.

Dailey says it’s about time for California to adopt off-road racing rules similar to those in Arizona and Nevada – where Dailey and a lot of his colleagues prefer to race.

“California is wide open desert, anybody and everybody can come and go anywhere on the course,” says Dailey. “But in Nevada and Arizona you are limited to the places where you can go where there is actually crowd control, specific spectator areas set up well off the course and controlled pit areas, where California is just wide open. And I have a feeling that’s gonna be changing.”

The federal permit issued for Saturday’s race by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management required drivers slow to 15 mph or less when coming within 50-feet of spectators.

By some estimates, the truck that plowed into fans during the California 200 was going more than three times that speed. The BLM says safety was ultimately the responsibility of race organizers. The federal agency is now reviewing safety regulations for all off-road vehicle events held on California desert land.

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