Limits keep off-road fans safe but obscure viewing

Stricter rules for keeping crowds away from the racetrack are working to enhance safety following a calamitous wreck last month in San Bernardino County that killed eight spectators. But promoters also were criticized by some race fans expecting to breathe in the dust the off-road racers kicked up and feel the dry blast of wind when a racer sped by.
Bureau of Land Management officials in California and Washington, D.C., have pledged stepped up enforcement of races on federal land. Officials with SCORE, organizers of the Primm 300, made slight safety adjustments to this year's race. The company, one of the pre-eminent desert race organizers, and the BLM limited spectators to only the main pit area and start-finish line. Organizers also added speed restrictions when racers rumbled their way past pit crews and crowds.

The changes, made to prevent a deadly accident like the one at the California 200 last month, underscore what some suggest is a difference between policing of races in Nevada and California.

Hundreds of onlookers lined the Johnson Valley course, many a few feet away from the racing trucks. The spectators killed were watching the race on the downhill slope of an area called the Rock Pile, where many of the trucks leap into the air because of the hilly terrain.

Race organizers and the BLM's California Desert District were criticized after the wreck because they were unable to keep the crowd far enough away from the racetrack. Only one BLM ranger was patrolling the 188,000-acre area where the crash happened.

In Primm, a dusty Nevada casino resort stop on the California border 35 miles from the lights of Las Vegas, BLM officials and race promoters possess and wield much more control over where crowds gather, compared to California races.

Most races in Southern California are at Johnson Valley and surrounding sites, and the BLM has consistently kept the area open because it is specifically for off-road vehicle use. In Nevada, the BLM has required access roads to be shut for racing to go on.

The difference between racing in Nevada and California leads to dissension among race teams who seek out the stricter, crowd-controlled races, desert off-road enthusiasts and some race fans who think safety can be accomplished while still giving spectators a good view of the race.

Many in Primm said they want desert racing to be safe and continue to have access to appropriate federal lands, but some spectators wonder if the sport can attract crowds if it keeps people so far away.

"No one is going to drive up here to see a race through a fence," said Scott "Shorty" Qualls, 23, of Corona.

For race teams, the fans are an important part of the sport, but they can get in the way. Drivers have horror stories of fans on foot or on dirt bikes darting across the course in front of trucks trying to win. But not in Nevada, at least recently.

Ray Croll, owner of the Grove Lumber team based in Corona, said his team doesn't race in California much because Nevada seems to attract more high-caliber competition and better organizers.

"We depend on the organizers to work with the BLM to make it safe," Croll said. "They provide the security and the medical staff and ensure that nobody is where they aren't supposed to be."

SCORE places high fences and patrols all access points along the race route. Safety teams and roving volunteers in trucks are present in all three pit areas for the race, and at roads leading into the desert. Vehicles can't get by without a pass, and those that can proceed are reminded of the rules and given a trash bag to bring out any garbage. Read the complete article here...

Credits: The Press-Enterprise / Dug Begley