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Eight spectators killed, 12 injured in California desert race crash

Posted Thursday, January 1, 1970 - 5:08 pm

A contestant in a night-time desert race in California lost control of his pick-up truck and plowed into a group of spectators, killing eight and injuring at least 12, officials said Sunday.

The horrific accident occurred at about 7:40 pm Saturday during the California 200, an annual event held in Soggy Dry Lake Bed near the city of Lucerne Valley in the Mojave Desert.

At least four of the injured were in serious condition and were taken by air ambulance to nearby trauma centers, fire department supervisor Tim Franke told reporters.

NBC news reported that those killed were all in their twenties or thirties, while an unspecified number of minors were among the injured.

Police did not identify the driver involved in the accident. Local reports said he needed to be escorted away from the area when spectators threatened him and began throwing rocks.

“He got airborne and when he landed, rolled over straight into the spectators,” CHP officer Joaquin Zubieta said in the Los Angeles Times. “People didn’t have much of a chance… to get out of the way.”

According to Los Angeles broadcaster KCAL 9, the accident occurred near the start of the race, when one of the drivers failed to negotiate a jump and veered off the track into the crowd.

News footage showed the vehicle, a white pick-up truck plastered with sponsorship decals, flipped on its roof, with at least one body under a white sheet next to the vehicle.

The dry lake is located about 100 miles (165 kilometers) northeast of Los Angeles. Drivers race four times around a 50-mile loop, at speeds that top 60 miles per hour, and the race typically ends before dawn the next day.

Video from last year’s California 200 posted on the web shows off-road cars and pick-up trucks roaring past spectators just a few feet (meters) away on the sandy, washboard river bed, with nothing more than a rope or thin plastic sheeting between them.

“They had people lined up right along the track — inches from the track,” an unidentified spectator told NBC after Saturday night’s crash. “People are way too close.”

The tragedy is being investigated by the California Highway Patrol (CHP), which sent its major accident investigation team to the scene.

The race is organized each year by Mojave Desert Racing (MDR), a Southern California corporation headquartered in South El Monte.

MDR says on its website it organizes 12 desert car races per year for 20 different classes of vehicles, and provided “an exciting, rewarding, and safe environment for off-road racing in four locations: Barstow, Lucerne Valley, Ridgecrest, and Plaster City.”

A flyer listed on a site indicated that fees to enter the race ranged from 200 dollars to 440 dollars.

A total of 87 drivers were registered to take part in Saturday’s race, The Times said, adding that hundreds of spectators had gathered around the site where the pick-up truck landed.

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