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Clark County officials hesitant to regulate ‘extreme’ attractions because of cost, lack of expertise

Updated March 18, 2017 - 11:54 pm

Las Vegas has long been a magnet for high-risk thrill-seekers, and the valley’s list of adrenaline-producing attractions gets wilder and wilder every year.

Visitors can fire a machine gun, throw an ax or drive a high-performance car in excess of 100 mph. Yet despite dangers, little oversight of these experiences exists.

Clark County officials are at a loss. They say they see a need for regulation of some of the safety aspects of thrill attractions such as SpeedVegas, where two people died in an accident last month.

But elected officials may be reluctant to draft specific regulations, County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said.

Sisolak said the county does not have the expertise or resources to regulate and monitor attractions like SpeedVegas and its Southern Nevada rivals, Exotics Racing and Dream Racing, which have operations at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In addition, there are not many examples nationwide of oversight for what Sisolak calls “extreme” attractions.

“Right now at the county, we have plenty of people who can tell you if you built a parking garage up to standard, or a hotel and that the fire sprinklers are good,” he said. “But we don’t have anybody who specializes in racetracks and that kind of stuff. We just don’t. I don’t even know if those people even exist.”

Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, who also sits on the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board of directors, said that after the Feb. 12 accident at SpeedVegas, commissioners began conversations about regulating and permitting extreme entertainment-type attractions.

“Similar-type activities pose a potential risk,” Brown said. “That’s what we have to look at from the permitting side of it. Do we need to do a better job on the front end? You can never guarantee 100 percent safety, but (we’re) looking at ways to enhance safety.”

Meanwhile, the list of extreme attractions drawing tourists and Clark County residents keeps expanding.

“I don’t know where they come up with these ideas. They’re becoming more and more edgy,” Sisolak said.

“It’s so extreme, the stuff that they’re talking about. I can’t imagine what’s going to happen next. I never thought they’d do these things.”

WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN

Years ago, commissioners had discussions about how to regulate traveling carnival ride attractions. They revived conversations about keeping tourists and locals safe after the accident at SpeedVegas that killed Craig Sherwood, a 37-year-old real estate agent from Thornhill, Ontario, and his instructor, Gil Ben-Kely, 59. Ben-Kely had worked at the facility since it opened in 2016 and was in the passenger seat of the Lamborghini Aventador that hit a wall and burst into flames.

“I was led to believe that the worst that could happen is that you could go too fast and spin out on the grass,” Sisolak said in an interview in his office. “Obviously, it was much, much worse than that.”

The county doesn’t have staffers trained to look at racetracks and their design, spokesman Dan Kulin said. It also lacks a dedicated staff to annually inspect roller coasters and other attractions at local resorts.

When it comes time for the inspections, private firms labeled as experts by the county conduct the review. These inspectors submit reports to the county, which the county uses to decide whether the ride can continue running, Kulin said.

Finding a body of experts or a contractor to come and inspect a niche thrill business like SpeedVegas would require time and cost that Sisolak said he’s not sure is justified, given the rarity of these businesses and the small pool of available experts.

Likewise, sending county employees out to similar businesses that may exist elsewhere or in other countries would incur a large cost, he said.

While preventive regulations seem like a reach, Sisolak said he and fellow commissioners may consider stronger accident-preparedness measures, like requirements for on-site emergency medical response teams.

A big concern of commissioners is that while they want attractions to be safe, they don’t want to overregulate and make it impossible for companies to comply, putting them out of business.

WHERE TO BEGIN

Similar concerns about safety have come from track operators. Representatives of SpeedVegas and Exotics Racing say they want some form of regulation, but different companies have different ideas about what’s safe.

For example, some of the experts who reviewed SpeedVegas’ track at the request of the Las Vegas Review-Journal found the track unsafe for a variety of reasons. Meanwhile, other experts who reviewed the track for SpeedVegas after the accident deemed it safe.

SpeedVegas CEO Aaron Fessler and Romain Thievin, a co-founder of Exotics Racing, previously told the Review-Journal that they would be interested in helping the county or the state formulate regulations. Thievin said he helped to formulate such regulations in France.

Sisolak said he is hesitant to take too much of a cue from owners of local driving experiences to avoid competitive sparring that has occurred in other settings.

“When we tried to develop regulations for inflatable devices, you couldn’t get people on the same page,” he said. “One company would say, ‘Oh, you’ve just got it out for me because you’re a bigger carnival operator and you just want to squash me … and you have more wherewithal to effectuate these regulations, and it’s your best interest that makes it onerous on me.’”

Sisolak said he “definitely” wants the local industry involved but he would prefer to have recommendations from some type of sanctioning association or a model of other rules to work from.

The New Jersey State Police monitors tracks in that state. Sisolak believes that the county and not the state should be involved in Nevada, but he thinks it’s too expensive to put on the plate of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

FOUNDATION GUIDELINES

Groups like the Motorsport Safety Foundation nonprofit have developed guidelines to help operators of new racetracks write safety procedures.

The Coral Gables, Florida-based group also will release an online training course this month for driving instructors, Chief Operating Officer Scot Elkins said.

The nonprofit started in response to the 2013 death of English racer Sean Edwards, who died at a raceway in Australia.

But over the past 10 years, Elkins said, he’s seen more and more tracks pop up on private land, even operating as country clubs for car enthusiasts.

While events like Edwards’ death and the SpeedVegas crash are tragedies, they help people understand the importance of his nonprofit’s mission, he said.

“The positive thing is that now people are talking about it,” Elkins said.

Contact Wade Tyler Millward at wmillward@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4602. Follow @wademillward on Twitter. Contact Nicole Raz at nraz@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512. Follow @JournalistNikki on Twitter. Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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