As I'm writing this, it's barely been a week since the tragic crash at the MDR California 200 night race. The accident claimed eight lives and left many others injured. Investigations are not yet complete and some of the injured are still in the hospital. As a community of off-roaders, we're still grieving.
Each year, the MDR California 200 night race has been one of the brightest spots on the MDR (Mojave Desert Racing) schedule. Trucks and buggies leave the starting line, two at a time, right about when the hot August afternoon gives way to balmy darkness. A day race in the summer heat is pretty tough to endure for both racers and fans, so it's a welcome change to race after dark.
Racing after dark is a different game. Familiarity with the course is even more important because, even with the best off-road lights, obstacles seem to jump out of the shadows and take a bite out of your truck. The 200 miles of the race would be fought over a 50-mile loop circled four times.
Each of the 50 miles in the loop is intense in its own way, but none more so than the pinch point, jump, and whoops found at the "rock pile," which is at about race mile two. Since racers go off the line two at a time, it's a two-mile drag race to the rock pile, where trailside rocks pinch the course down to a single line. Right at the pinch point, there's a jump. It's not a huge jump, but the ground drops away on the other side of the lip. Hit it with enough speed and you'll fly a respectable distance. When you land, it's in a whoop section. No wonder the rock pile is the most popular 150 yards on the course.
Here's the rock pile jump during the 2009 MDR California 200. Note the orange snow fencing
What I Witnessed
On the drive to the race, I avoided the traffic snarls of Bear Valley Road by taking Highway 138 past Silverwood Lake.
Once in the dirt at Bessemer Mine Road, I made a beeline to the start/finish area. Trucks and buggies were lined up to start the race, but they weren't moving. It seemed odd, but not exactly a cause for alarm. Seeing a crowd in the distance at the rock pile was nothing new. Last year's fans thronged the area and it seemed like each of last year's fans had brought a friend or two this year. But something was a little weird. There wasn't any cheering or hoopla happening. Parking a little way off, I grabbed my camera and gingerly walked toward the mass of humanity in the center. At the crowd's edge, I talked with a fan: "I just got here. What happened?"
"A truck rolled into the crowd," he said.
"Oh, no," I rasped.
Stunned disbelief hung in the air. In the middle, a BLM ranger's truck and an ambulance were parked next to each other, lights flashing. A few feet away, a Ford Ranger race truck lay rubber-side up.
I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, feeling a little self-conscious about even carrying a camera at a scene like this. Nearby, a girl cried out, "Please, I just want to touch him" between sobs. "I just lost my family." Broken bodies were strewn about. Next to the inverted Ranger's left rear bedside lay a victim covered by a blanket. Only the feet were showing. A lump formed in my throat and I forced myself to confirm I was really seeing what I thought I was. Yes, someone had died here. Little did I realize that the departed victim would be joined by seven others.
Thankfully, there were several fans who had medical training, along with some off-duty law enforcement personnel. The on-duty first responders were clearly overwhelmed. The rock pile had become a triage zone. "If you're hurt, come closer in. If you're not hurt, please move away," called out a commanding voice. It was time for me to move. I walked around the scene, keeping my distance. I snapped a few photos, being careful not to zoom in on anyone in particular. We definitely will not be printing or posting them anywhere (so don't even ask). Seconds later, a P.A. system called out "If you don't need to be here, please leave. We've got a helicopter landing and we need the area cleared. Please stay off of Bessemer Mine road."