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California 200 and other races foster dangerous 'Mad Max' atmosphere, critics say

August 15, 2010 |  2:42 pm

Environmental groups Sunday faulted federal authorities for allegedly failing to monitor the safety of Mojave Desert events such as the California 200 –- an off-road race in which eight people died when a vehicle crashed into onlookers.

Environmental groups said they have long complained that the Bureau of Land Management, which issued permits for the race in the Lucerne Valley area Saturday, lacks the adequate staff and ability to regulate off-roading events that attract large crowds.

“The feds have allowed a 'Mad Max' atmosphere to develop with too many people and too many machines crammed into too little space,” said Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental protection group.  “The feds don't have the resources, and apparently not the interest, to regulate off-road vehicles properly.”

Saturday’s crash was tragic, but inevitable, Suckling said.

“You can’t put these huge crowds together with fast and powerful machines and not expect these kinds of accidents,” he said.  “Our collective failure to rein in excessive off-road vehicle use is not only destroying the ecosystem but killing people. The federal government clearly does not have the manpower to sufficiently organize and regulate these events, and if you don’t have the manpower to do it safely, you shouldn’t be doing it at all.”

 Saturday’s accident occurred just after dusk, as a crowd of onlookers pushed to the edge of the racing route at the bottom of “the rock pile,” a jump along the twisting race route. According to the California Highway Patrol, driver Brett M. Sloppy, 28, lost control of his modified 2000 Ford Ranger while he was driving 45 to 50 miles per hour, and collided with spectators.

The 200-mile race is one in a series of such competitions in the Soggy Dry Lake area of the Mojave Desert, roughly 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The Bureau of Land Management did not respond to criticism from environmentalists Sunday. But the agency said the Mojave Desert Racing Assn., which received the permit to stage the race, promised to have a private ambulance service on the scene and warned Barstow Community Hospital in advance that it planned to hold the event. The event was insured for up to $2 million.

“We will go over the permit with a fine-tooth comb and make sure that they complied with everything and see whether the application needs to be modified in the future,” said David Briery, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management. “Obviously, we don’t want anything like this to ever happen again.”

The bureau charged the company a $95 fee for Saturday’s race, plus an additional $5 for each spectator. The sponsor of the race has been staging events on federally owned stretches of the Mojave Desert for at least 11 years, holding six races each year, Briery said.

Tom Budlong, a member of the Sierra Club’s desert committee in Los Angeles, said federal authorities, particularly the Bureau of Land Management, failed to properly control events in the face of aggressive off-roading proponents.

“They just haven’t shown the fortitude,” Budlong said. “Off-roaders have a lot of clout, there are a lot of them and they like to do what they like to do.”

Budlong said Saturday’s accident should prompt a review and increased regulation.

“There needs to be a better permitting system, an educational component and drivers need to be licensed for off-roading events so that repeat offenders can be fined. There needs to be basic population control whenever these activities occur.”

-- Carla Rivera and David Zahniser


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