Image: An off-road race truck after a crash which killed 8 people
Kris reilly  /  AP
Emergency workers look at the off-road vehicle after it barreled into a crowd of spectators during the California 200 race Saturday.
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updated 8/15/2010 9:30:39 PM ET 2010-08-16T01:30:39

The crowd at the off-road race could almost touch the trucks as they hurtled and bounced over the desert sand. They were close enough for one mistake to end eight lives.

Hundreds of thrill-seeking fans watched in horror Saturday night as one racer took a jump at high speed, hit his brakes on landing and rolled his truck sideways into spectators, sending bodies flying on a section of track that had no guardrails or anything else to keep the crowd back. Eight people were killed and 12 were injured at the California 200, a race in the Mojave Desert about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

"You could touch it if you wanted to. It's part of the excitement," said 19-year-old Niky Carmikle, who stood sobbing over a makeshift memorial on the spot of the crash Sunday. Her boyfriend, 24-year-old Zachary Freeman of Ventura, was killed in the crash. "There's always that risk factor, but you just don't expect that it will happen to you."

California Highway Patrol Officer Joaquin Zubieta said Brett M. Sloppy, 28, of San Marcos, was behind the wheel of the truck involved in the crash. Zubieta said alcohol was not a factor in the crash and there were no plans to arrest Sloppy, who the CHP estimates was going 45 to 50 mph at the time of the crash.

Zubieta said state vehicle codes don't apply because the race was a sanctioned event held with the approval of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land used for the race.

The BLM issued a statement saying safety was the responsibility of the race organizer, South El Monte-based Mojave Desert Racing. MDR's permit required racers to travel 15 mph or less when they were within 50 feet of fans, and allowed no more than 300 spectators for the event, the agency said.

BLM spokesman David Briery said the agency would cooperate with the CHP's investigation.

"We followed all our rules," he said by phone. "We don't think we did anything wrong."

Phone and e-mail messages left for MDR were not immediately returned.

Tens of thousands of people were spread out along the 50-mile track, but the site of the crash, a stretch known as the "rockpile," is one of the most popular areas to gather, witnesses said. Some witnesses said they got within 4 feet of the unmarked track, watching trucks fly over a series of jumps. Several jagged rocks jut from the sand track at the bottom of the hill.

The driver "hit the rock and just lost control and tumbled," said Matt March, 24, of Wildomar, who was standing next to the jump. "Bodies went everywhere."

March said he and several other fans lifted the truck, which came to rest with its oversized wheels pointing toward the sky, and found four people lying unconscious underneath.

John Payne, 20, of Anaheim, said he was among the first people to reach the truck. He said the victims included one person who was decapitated.

Carmikle had gone to the bathroom when the crash happened. When she came back, Freeman and his best friend, 24-year-old Dustin Malson of Ventura, were dead.

"Bodies all over the ground, people screaming, and all I wanted to do was find my boyfriend and my friends," Carmikle said.

It took rescue vehicles and helicopters more than half an hour to reach the remote location, accessible only by a rutted dirt road. Spectators said off-duty police and firefighters in the crowd joined paramedics hired by the race organizer to help the injured and place blankets over the dead.

Six people died at the scene and two others died after being taken to a hospital, authorities said. Most of the 12 injured people were airlifted to hospitals.

Paramedics brought six people — five adults and a child — to Loma Linda University Medical Center, spokesman Herbert Atienza said Sunday. He had no information on their condition.

Officials said Sloppy, the driver, wasn't hurt. It was not clear why he lost control of the truck, a white modified Ford Ranger with "Misery Motorsports" painted on the doors.

A Facebook page that appeared to belong to Sloppy and included a picture of his truck was updated Sunday with a note: "Soo incredibly lost and devistated my thoughts and prayers go out to all the familys and friends involved.. Thank you too all my friends for sticking with me even thru these tragic times I love you all."

Nearly 40 friends responded with messages of support by Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Talbott, inland division chief for the highway patrol, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that the driver was forced to run from the scene when the crowd grew unruly and some began throwing rocks at him. Several witnesses, however, said they didn't see anyone throwing rocks at the driver.

The race is part of a series held in the Mojave Desert's Soggy Dry Lake Bed, about an hour's drive from the nearest city, Lucerne Valley.

A small cross and a circle of rocks were placed Sunday near the ruts in the ground left by the truck. Bags of victims' clothing, some of it bloody, sat nearby.

There were no barriers at the site of the crash. Fans said these races rarely have any kind of safety guards.

"That's desert racing for you," Payne said. "You're at your own risk out here. You are in the middle off the desert. People were way too close and they should have known. You can't really hold anyone at fault. It's just a horrible, horrible accident."

Briery said he didn't know if the BLM would conduct an internal investigation, and he added it was too early to say if the agency would change its permit rules to ensure stricter enforcement of safety requirements.

The BLM is required by Congress to make public lands accessible to reasonable requests, and the area used Saturday is one of the few available to off-road enthusiasts, he said.

The course winds through empty desert dotted only with rocky outcroppings and desert shrubs. Several families were still camping Sunday on a dried-up lake bed below the crash site. Buggies and dirtbikes zoomed back and forth, kicking up dust that could be seen for miles.

Racing in the Mojave "has been going on forever," March said, but he expects that to change because of the crash. "I think they're going to do away with open desert racing for awhile. We were all talking about it at the camp," he said.

The CHP does not normally investigate crashes at organized events, but took the lead on this probe because of its scope. It set up a command center at the starting line of the race. The federal Bureau of Land Management was assisting in the investigation.

Aside from Freeman and Malson, those killed included Brian Wolfin, 27, Anthony Sanchez, 23, and Aaron Farkas, 25, all of Escondido; Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas; and Andrew Therrin, 22, of Riverside. The name of the eighth victim, a 34-year-old man from Spring Valley, had not been released Sunday afternoon.

"He just loved his friends and loved excitement, and I'm gonna miss him," Therrien's father, Robert Therrien, told Los Angeles broadcaster KABC-TV outside his house in Riverside.

The crash was the latest in a series of race accidents that have killed spectators.

A car plowed into a crowd that had gathered to watch an illegal drag race on a suburban road in Accokeek, Md., in February 2008, killing eight people and injuring five. The two racers were charged with vehicular manslaughter. Darren Bullock, 22, was sentenced to 15 years in prison; Tavon Taylor, 20, is awaiting trial.

In Chandler, Ariz., in February, a female spectator was killed by a tire that flew off a crashing dragster at Chandler's Firebird International Raceway for the NHRA Arizona Nationals.

In Selmer, Tenn., a dragster went out of control and smashed into spectators during a fundraising festival in June 2007, killing six people and injuring 22. Driver Troy Critchley, 38, was convicted of misdemeanor reckless assault charges and sentenced to 18 months of probation.

___

Dalton and Associated Press writer Christopher Weber reported from Los Angeles. AP Radio correspondent Shirley Smith in Washington contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Race crash witness: Driver took jump too fast

  1. Closed captioning of: Race crash witness: Driver took jump too fast

    >> half hour with a tragic crash in the mojave desert .

    >> reporter: the investigation into what caused saturday's deadly accident continues today with officials planning to interview some of the injured recovering at air hospitals. this as we learn more about some of those killed in that crash, avid racing fans, almost all in their 20s. a makeshift memorial in the desert marks the spot where 24-year-old zachary freeman was tragically killed. he was one of thousands who gathered in a dry lake bed for an offroad truck race, and then in an understand stand, spectators became victims, an out of control truck slammed into the crowd, many standing just feet away, killing eight, scattering their bodies on the ground. freeman's girlfriend of two years said she would almost certainly be among the dead when he went to the bathroom. while she was gone, the man she hoped to marry was killed.

    >> our favorite thing to do was get out and go to the desert. that was all he wanted to do. and it ended up like this.

    >> reporter: the truck was one of more than 80 taking part in the annual race known as the california 200 on saturday evening. photographer dave conklin captured the moments leading up to the tragic accident.

    >> dust everywhere, lots of people starting to run to the scene. people yelling, people screaming.

    >> reporter: the driver wasn't injured, but is clearly in pain, posting on his facebook page, so incredibly lost and devastated. my thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends involved. sloppy has not been charged with a crime.

    >> reporter: organizers often let fans stand right on the sidelines with no barriers whatsoever.

    >> you cannot prevent spectators from getting right on the court unless you put barriers along the whole course and some of these courses are 200 miles long. the spectators have to take some responsibility for themselves.

    >> reporter: a fast moving thrill that quickly led to tragedy. now in terms of the investigation, the bureau of land management issues permits for these offroad races. the permit for this particular event stated that the organizer is responsible for safety, but also noted the vehicles should be moving no faster than 15 miles an hour when traveling within 50 feet of clouds, a regulation that clearly was not enforced.

    >> all right, thank you so much. keith cardi witnessed the accident when his long-time friend was among those who were killed. keith , your condolences to you.

    >> thank you.

    >> this was supposed to be a buddy's weekend, you've been friends with brian for 10 years. as a friend and a witness, how would you describe what you saw?

    >> there was devastate just carnage, shoes, hats, keys, wallets, bodies just spread out all over the desert. never seen anything like that before.

    >> you saw brian and you know him to be a man so full of life that you didn't believe he actually had died, is that right?

    >> yeah, no, i saw him there, but i didn't think that it was him. and so i left, and about 30 seconds after i left, a friend called and said, hey, brian 's down here, you got to come and identify the body, he didn't make it. and so i went back down and i looked real close and it was definitely him and i checked for a pulse, but you could tell he wasn't with us anymore. even before i checked for the pulse. so it was really obvious what had happened.

    >> and given that you've lost a friend and yet you love this sport, do you have any second thoughts about the safety questions that this accident has raised? do you believe now there should be guardrails given what's happened?

    >> that would be completely impossible and we wouldn't want that as a spectator or as anybody in the sport. the most important part in this whole deal is you have to have common sense . granted the spectators are a little bit close, but as i have said in past interviews, you know, it's nobody's fault and that's because the spectators have to use common sense , obviously, but so do the drivers, if there's a huge jump coming up and lines of people on either side, you have no business doing 80 to 100 miles an hour through there. so it's kind of a washout. you have to -- you can't just throw common sense out the window because you're racing. you have to -- you know, it's the drivers' responsibility to make sure that he's driving in a safe manner when there's spectators around. once he gets through the spectators, go ahead and put it to the floor.

    >> do you mean that the driver was not driving in a responsible manner.

    >> i took that jump at least 20 or 30 times that day just for the fun of it. and there's no way -- and that was with no people around. there's no way i would go 80, 90 miles an hour through that jump. i was pulling 40 to 60 miles an hour and that was just on the edge of control and that was with no people around, and now bring people around and put a truck right in front of you and, you know, this is what happens. granted, the people were obviously close, but the driver has a responsibility to drive responsibly around those people. it's nobody's fault, yet it's both parties', you know.

    >> i don't want to interrupt you, i just want to give you a chance to speak about why you're speaking out this morning, i know you want to race money for brian 's family, he's left behind two small children, 5-year-old seth and 1-year-old sarah, what would you like for them to remember about their father who was lost in this accident?

    >> well, he was a very good family man. him and his family is the reason that i'm even on the air right now. i'm not here to -- for any other reason. i want to make sure -- the first thing i thought about when i saw brian laying there is that now seth doesn't have a dad and so what's he going to do? what's his 1-year-old girl going to do? she doesn't have a dad either. we have started a memorial fund, brian wolfen.com. and if you have any donations, even if it's just a dollar, we would happily take it, it's going to go directly to brian 's wife.

    >> keith cardi, thank you so

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