LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. — The crowd at the off-road race could almost touch the trucks as they hurtled and bounced over the desert sand. They were close enough for one mistake to end eight lives.
Hundreds of thrill-seeking fans watched in horror Saturday night as one racer took a jump at high speed, hit his brakes on landing and rolled his truck sideways into spectators, sending bodies flying on a section of track that had no guardrails or anything else to keep the crowd back. Eight people were killed, and 12 were injured, at the California 200, a race in the Mojave Desert about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Authorities identified one of the deceased as Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas and a 2008 Shadow Ridge High School graduate, according to her MySpace.com page.
Frantzich was an avid fan of off-roading, and her Jeep Grand Cherokee was lifted and had oversized tires, according to friend Olivia Huerta, who said she met Frantzich last year.
"She was awesome," Huerta said. "She was just such a cool person."
Huerta said she didn’t know details of what happened Saturday, and didn’t know Frantzich was at the race.
"I’m angry, but I don’t know if I’m angry at anybody. It was an accident," Huerta said.
A relative of Frantzich declined to comment Sunday, and her parents could not be reached for comment.
Spectators at the event were dangerously close to the vehicles hurtling by.
"You could touch it if you wanted to. It’s part of the excitement," said Niky Carmikle, 19, who stood sobbing over a makeshift memorial on the spot of the crash Sunday. Her boyfriend, Zachary Freeman, 24, of Ventura, was killed in the crash. "There’s always that risk factor, but you just don’t expect that it will happen to you."
California Highway Patrol Officer Joaquin Zubieta said Brett M. Sloppy, 28, of San Marcos was behind the wheel of the truck. Zubieta said that alcohol was not a factor in the crash and that there were no plans to arrest Sloppy, who the CHP estimates was going 45 to 50 mph at the time of the crash.
Zubieta said state vehicle codes don’t apply because the race was sanctioned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM issued a statement saying safety was the responsibility of the race organizer, South El Monte-based Mojave Desert Racing. MDR’s permit required racers to travel 15 mph or slower when within 50 feet of fans and allowed no more than 300 spectators for the event, the agency said.
BLM spokesman David Briery said the agency would cooperate with the Highway Patrol’s investigation.
"We followed all our rules," he said by phone. "We don’t think we did anything wrong."
Phone and e-mail messages left for MDR were not returned.
Tens of thousands of people were spread out along the 50-mile track, but the crash site, known as the "rockpile," is one of the most popular areas, witnesses said. Some witnesses said they got within 4 feet of the unmarked track, watching trucks fly over a series of jumps. Several jagged rocks jut from the sand track at the bottom of the hill.
The driver in the crash "hit the rock and just lost control and tumbled," said Matt March, 24, of Wildomar, who was standing next to the jump. "Bodies went everywhere."
March said he and several other fans lifted the truck, which came to rest with its oversized wheels pointing toward the sky, and found four people underneath.
John Payne, 20, of Anaheim said he was among the first to reach the truck. He said the victims included one person who was decapitated.
Carmikle said she was away, at the bathroom, when the crash happened. When she came back, Freeman and his best friend, Dustin Malson, 24, of Ventura, were dead.
"Bodies all over the ground, people screaming, and all I wanted to do was find my boyfriend and my friends," Carmikle said.
It took rescue vehicles and helicopters more than 30 minutes to reach the remote location, accessible only by a rutted dirt road. Spectators said off-duty police and firefighters in the crowd joined paramedics hired by the race organizer to help the injured and place blankets over the dead.
In addition to Frantzich, Freeman and Malson, those killed were identified as Brian Wolfin, 27, Anthony Sanchez, 23, and Aaron Farkas, 25, all of Escondido; and Andrew Therrin, 22, of Riverside. The name of the eighth victim, a 34-year-old man from Spring Valley, had not been released Sunday afternoon. Six people died at the scene, and two others died after being taken to a hospital, authorities said. No information about the dozen injured spectators was available Sunday.
Officials said Sloppy wasn’t hurt. It was not clear why he lost control of the truck, a modified Ford Ranger with "Misery Motorsports" painted on the doors.
A Facebook page that appeared to belong to Sloppy and included a picture of his truck was updated Sunday with a note: "Soo incredibly lost and devistated my thoughts and prayers go out to all the familys and friends involved. Thank you too all my friends for sticking with me even thru these tragic times I love you all."
Nearly 40 friends responded with messages of support by Sunday afternoon.
Jeff Talbott, the Highway Patrol’s inland division chief, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that the driver was forced to run from the scene when the crowd grew unruly and some began throwing rocks at him. But several witnesses said they didn’t see anyone throwing rocks.
The race is part of a series held in the Mojave Desert’s Soggy Dry Lake Bed, about an hour’s drive from the city of Lucerne Valley.
A small cross and a circle of rocks were placed Sunday near the ruts in the ground left by the truck. Bags of victims’ clothing, some of it bloody, sat nearby.
There were no barriers at the site of the crash. Fans said these races rarely have any kind of safety guards.
"That’s desert racing for you," Payne said. "You’re at your own risk out here. You are in the middle of the desert. People were way too close, and they should have known. You can’t really hold anyone at fault. It’s just a horrible, horrible accident."
Briery said he didn’t know whether the BLM would conduct an internal investigation, and he added it was too early to say whether the agency would change its permit rules to ensure stricter enforcement of safety requirements.
The course winds through empty desert dotted with rocky outcroppings and desert shrubs. Several families were still camping Sunday on a dried-up lake bed below the crash site. Buggies and dirt bikes zoomed back and forth, kicking up dust that could be seen for miles.
Racing in the Mojave "has been going on forever," March said, but he expects that to change because of the crash.
"I think they’re going to do away with open desert racing for a while ,” he said.
Review-Journal reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.