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."
These three had a great view of the rock pile section from atop their 4Runner last year. T
I now shared the stunned disbelief I'd seen on others. It was a surreal scene-something straight out of a movie. This couldn't be happening! It was.
As I motored away from the rock pile, a helicopter beat its way down on the scene, its light angellically floating lower and lower. Extra help had begun to arrive. For many, it was just in time. For others, it was already too late.
At the Locos Mocos pit, the news had already come in. The race was called off and they were packing up. The Locos Mocos crew had been expecting me, knowing I'd probably be taking photos at the rock pile before going to the pit. They were relieved I was okay. I've never felt more fortunate and yes, blessed, to be alive and uninjured. My heart went out to anyone involved in the accident that night.
Where Mainstream Media Gets It Wrong
It's pretty rare that anything related to off-roading makes the news, so it was a shock to hear about this crash from media outlets usually obsessed with stick-and-ball games, the BP oil spill, and the latest sacred words to fall from our president's lips.
During this media coverage, off-roaders got a firsthand view of the way outsiders see us. We also got to experience how misinformed mass media can be. KNX 1070 AM initially reported that there were 50,000 people at the race, a figure that was off by at least 47,000.
CNN's Tony Harris had no clue about the motorsport, about the equipment, or about the racers themselves. Proof of this reared its head when he used the phrase "souped up" to attempt to describe desert-racing trucks. "Souped up?" Welcome to 1977, Mr. Harris. He also wondered aloud, "Are these the illegal street racers from a few years ago? Are these the same people?"
And we saw a common media tactic of trying to create controversy where there wasn't any. Amanda Jones - best friend of victim Andrew Therrien and a friend of Brett "Sloppy," who was driving the truck - was interviewed for TV's Inside Edition. "They put me through Hell during that interview," Jones told us. "I was getting all choked up. They wanted me to say something bad about Brett, and I wouldn't. They kept asking me 'What do you think about Brett?' and 'How do you feel about Brett?'" After not getting the controversy they were apparently seeking, Inside Edition didn't run the interview. Fortunately, Jones appeared on Fox News side by side with Andrew Therrien's mother.
Most outsiders' first view of desert racing was the video of the crash. To them, it looked like an off-road jumping contest that was maybe 150 yards long. In truth, the rock pile section is only a tiny blip during a 50-mile loop.
Elements of the Perfect Storm
In my opinion, there were several elements to this tragedy.
Dust was a factor. Yes, there was a slight breeze, but there was still quite a bit of dust hanging in the air.
The race format was a factor. Racers started two at a time, side by side. Each racer knew that there was a single-line pinch point at the rock pile. The result? A two-mile drag race to the rock pile.
Law enforcement was a factor. Yes, the BLM had personnel on site, but they didn't take a stand and control the crowd. No, that wasn't the BLM's job, but critics say the BLM could have convinced MDR to not let the race start until the crowd at the rock pile was a safe distance back from the course.
The sanctioning body, MDR, was also a factor. MDR is a small organization that has limited resources and relies heavily on volunteers to staff the checkpoints and road crossings along the course. There weren't enough volunteers. Critics say the race could have been delayed until some crowd control was implemented at the rock pile.
Were the racers themselves a factor? Maybe. On one hand, hindsight says that everyone should have slowed down when they came up to the crowd at the rock pile. On the other hand, it's a race! No one showed up to drive slowly.
Andrew Therrien left behind a lot of friends. Exactly one week after they'd lost him, his
The spectators themselves were the single biggest factor. The spectators were out in force, and they were congregated mostly at the rock pile. I understand that when too many people get into one big group, a behavioral pattern known as "groupthink" or "groupness" usually takes over. I'm told that people often do things in groups that they never would by themselves. In this case, that meant standing on the very edge of the race course, rather than 100 feet away as they were supposed to.
With too many spectators standing too close to the track, no one stopping the race from proceeding, dust hanging in the air, and racers going big for their friends, it was the perfect storm. A storm that left eight dead and at least 12 seriously injured.
Insiders Set Things Straight
In the midst of the post-crash media misinformation, perhaps the brightest spots were where in-the-know off-roaders were able to go on the record and clear up some misconceptions.
Austin "Fishdood" Farner called in to The John & Ken Show on KFI AM 640, a major L.A.-area talk-radio station.
Fish talked about off-road racing's general pattern over the years: "Off-road racing has been around for a very long time. Nothing has changed recently to make spectators stand closer than they ever have before."
Fish also explained the race's format: "It's a marked course. There are markers along the course that are pounded into the ground with stakes and markers. Plus, everyone nowadays has a GPS, and before the race, we're all given the GPS file."
One of the biggest misconceptions was that racers were purported to be subject to a 15-mph speed limit whenever there were spectators around. Again, Fish cleared that up: "There's no speed limit for the racers in numbered vehicles on the course. It's a race. That speed limit is for the spectators."
Talk radio has a fairly wide audience, but television reaches even further. Marty Fiolka, editor of Dirt Sports magazine, had the opportunity to be on Fox News to give an insider's point of view. For some reason, Fiolka was joined by the Sierra Club Desert Committee's Tom Budlong as a counterpoint speaker.
Like Fish, Marty Fiolka gave some background information. "This was a sanctioned event on a marked course in an OHV park that we pay for with our green-sticker fees." He continued: "The Sierra Club has done a great job of protecting areas that need to be protected. We don't want to go racing through Joshua Tree or the Grand Canyon."
Mr. Budlong declared, "The desert is a quiet and a serene place, so we feel that these races are in conflict with what the desert is." When posed the question as to where off-roaders can go to race, he stated ,"They can go on private land, because we (the Sierra Club) can't do anything about that. They can also go to arenas where the audience can be protected from the race vehicles."
Side note: If you didn't understand the Sierra Club's point of view before, you now have a glimpse into its line of thinking. The Sierra Club wants people kept in the city. Should humans choose to venture outside urban areas, they need to be hiking or on horseback. Can you cross the desert backcountry, with its vast waterless expanses, on foot? Most of us can't.
Marty also spoke for all off-roaders when he said, "I love the desert. I really do." He further clarified: "These races take place in an area that the BLM has asked us to be in."
Thanks go out to Fox News for giving the off-road community the chance to properly represent itself. Fox's Carlos Amezcua and Christine Devine were very gracious, and treated both Marty and Tom with hospitality. Most media outlets chose to report the news from an uninformed outsider's point of view.
At the crash site a pair of makeshift memorials bear silent witness to the loss. The white
In addition to the input by Farner and Fiolka, other off-road insiders were interviewed for TV news. The list includes the parents of crash victim Andrew Therrien as well as Amanda Jones, Therrien's best friend. Ryan "Bonzen" Lewis, Pat Dailey, and Ivan "Ironman" Stewart were also interviewed. Farner's week was a busy one because on top of his radio interview he also appeared with Lewis and Dailey.
We're Pulling For...
Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this accident, but we want to especially mention our support for the truck's driver, Brett "Sloppy," 28 of San Marcos, California. We know that this was an unintentional accident and can't begin to imagine what he's going through. Stay strong, Brett.
What We Can Learn
Where do we go from here? How can such an accident be prevented in the future? There has been a number of ideas suggested.
More volunteers at the races. We're as guilty of not volunteering as the next fan. However it's clear that more of us need to take the time to help at the races.
Better self-policing by the spectators. As spectators, we need to develop new race-watching habits while this tragedy's memory is still fresh.
Crowd control at key course locations. This could be handled by volunteers. Off-roaders are in the habit of helping themselves instead of waiting for others to do it for them.
Spectator's safety patrol. This could also be a group of volunteers that works with the race promoter and the BLM.
A Final Thought
Please, everyone, learn from this and keep yourself and your loved ones safe. We want to see each and every one of you at the races and in the dirt, month after month and year after year.
You can help the victims and injured survivors of the MDR California 200 tragedy by donating to Fast-Aid. Fast-Aid is an organization dedicated to helping those involved in off-road racing accidents. Please make a note of "California 200" with your donation. Fast-Aid's web address is www.fast-aid.org. Donations are tax-deductible.
Who We Lost
Andrew Therrien; 22; Riverside, CA
Brad Wolfin; 27; Escondido, CA
Anthony Sanchez; 23; Escondido, CA
Aaron Farkas; 25; Escondido, CA
Danica Frantzich; 20; Las Vegas, NV
Zachary Freeman; 24; Fillmore, CA
Dustin Malson; 24; Ventura, CA
Michael Dickinson; 34; Spring Valley, CA