8 dead, 12 hurt at off-road race in Calif. desert

LOS ANGELES (AP) — An off-road truck plowed into a crowd and scattered “bodies everywhere” moments after sailing off a jump at a California race, killing eight people and injuring 12 others, authorities and witnesses said.

The crash came shortly after the start of the California 200, a Saturday evening race in the Mojave Desert, said San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman.

Bachman said eight people died and 12 were injured, several of them seriously. Seven ambulances and 10 emergency aircraft responded to the scene. Most of the injured were airlifted from the area to Loma Linda University Medical Center or St. Mary’s Medical Center.

“There was dust everywhere, people screaming, people running,” David Conklin, a photographer covering the event for off-road magazines, told The Associated Press.

Conklin said the Prerunner truck was among the first 20 off the line in the race, which began at about 8 p.m. It had just gone over a jump known as “the rockpile” about two miles into the race, and he said he watched the vehicle sail through the air. Then he turned to watch for other cars when he heard the commotion caused by the crash.

“When I got up to the vehicle I could tell that several people were trapped. There were just bodies everywhere,” he said. “One woman with a major head wound (was) lying in a pool of blood. Someone else was crushed beneath the car.”

The truck came to a rest upside down with its oversized wheels pointing toward the sky, dust swirling in the meek light of the setting sun. Spectators rushed to the truck and about half a dozen people flipped it upright to try to help at least one person pinned underneath.

Officials said the driver wasn’t hurt but had to flee the scene to escape angry spectators.

The 200-mile race is part of a series held in the Mojave Desert’s Soggy Dry Lake Bed near the city of Lucerne Valley, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Tens of thousands of people attend the California 200, in which a variety of off-road vehicles take jumps and other obstacles and reach speeds up to 100 mph on the 50-mile off-road course. The race had been scheduled to last through the night.

The crowd was standing within 10 feet of the track with no guard rails separating them from the speeding vehicles.

“There were no barriers at all,” Jeff Talbott, inland division chief for the California Highway Patrol, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

He said that the driver, who wasn’t named, was forced to run from the scene when the crowd grew unruly and some began throwing rocks at him. It was not clear why he lost control of the truck.

The CHP does not normally investigate crashes at organized races, but took the lead on this probe because of its scope and had set up a command center at the starting line of the race.

The federal Bureau of Land Management was assisting in the investigation.

The event was sponsored by the South El Monte-based Mojave Desert Racing. No one picked up the phone at a number listed on the group’s website early Sunday, and its message mailbox was full.

The crash was the latest in a series of race accidents that have proved deadly to spectators.

A car plowed into a crowd that had gathered to watch an illegal drag race on a suburban road in Accokeek, Maryland, 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, Tennessee, 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 probation.

The Associated Press