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Niche sport battles issue of fan safety

The sunrise little more than a glow behind the starkly rugged mountains, a cavalcade of Mad Max-esque vehicles roars off a makeshift starting line behind a roller coaster in Primm.

Every 30 seconds, jacked-up trucks with spares strapped on back, podlike dune buggies and old-time VW Bugs with oversized tires race off into the desert — some at over 100 mph — leaving this manmade oasis of entertainment in a dusty fog.

In a place where fortunes can be won or lost in a matter of minutes, these two-man teams have a simple goal: finish the race, win it if they can.

For those in charge of overseeing this motorized madness, the duty is much more daunting: keep everyone, including the fans, safe.

“We always look at the safety issue No. 1, and any way you look at it, it’s an inherently dangerous sport, no doubt about it,” said Bob Dieli, supervisory outdoor recreational planner for the Las Vegas office of the Bureau of Land Management.

Off-road racing is a niche sport, an all-in passion for die-hards, a shoulder-shrugging novelty to most everyone else.

It jumped into the headlines on Aug. 14 at a race in the Southern California desert.

With fans close enough to nearly touch the vehicles, a truck flew off a jump and landed on a group of spectators at the night race, sending bodies flying. Eight people were killed, 10 injured.

Critics piled on the sport, calling it unsafe and unnecessary, a detriment to the environment and a danger to fans and drivers alike. California’s U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, jumped into the debate, asking the BLM to explain how such a crash could happen and how the organization would prevent future tragedies.

Off-road competitors and fans worried the crash would cast a pall over the sport they love and don’t see as particularly dangerous and worried it would further limit the number of federal sites where races can be held, which are already being cut because of environmental concerns.

“I love off-road racing; I hate to see it for the industry, hate to see it for their families, but it’s a great sport,” said NASCAR driver Robby Gordon, who got his start in off-road racing. “There’s no reason for everybody to get down on off-road racing.”

The roots of off-road racing in North America are in the Mexican desert, where the first versions of the Baja 1000 were held in the late 1960s. Those early races featured mostly big-wheeled VWs that looked like a cat splayed out on ice and bastardized vehicles thrown together with whatever parts people could find.

Over the years, the race became a testing ground for automobile and auto parts manufacturers.

Makers of shocks, tires and transmissions went to the desert to try out their new products, able to get more out of one rugged, often all-weather, 1,000-mile race than a year of testing at their proving grounds. “Baja-tested” became a stamp of approval.

Today, the sport has evolved into an everyone-can-do-it enterprise with those bugged-out Bugs and the throw-it-together crowd at the grassroots, while celebrities and CEOs with 800-horsepower Trophy Trucks that hit 140 mph and cost close to $1 million are at the high end.

“In the short span of 40 years, I’ve seen from an ox and a wheel all the way to the moon,” said Sal Fish, CEO and president of SCORE International, sanctioning body of the Primm and Baja races. “These Trophy Trucks are as fantastically designed as any IndyCar or NASCAR, but the difference is we go left, right, upside down.”

The unpredictable nature of the racing is what draws drivers and attracts fans.

At the recent Primm race, a few dozen fans — some of them with beer in hand — stood along the starting line to see the 6 a.m. start for the lower divisions.

With a wave of the green flag and a splattering of mud, the vehicles raced off into the desert on an unusually chilly summer morning, stirring up a cloud of dust that left feathery swooshes hanging in the air along the base of the mountains.

All shapes and sizes of cars and trucks tore through the 69-mile course, wheel-hopping over the humps and bumps and hollows, negotiating hairpin turns through jagged canyons at 5 mph, running flat out across a dry lake bed and past the scrub bushes before pulling into the pits and doing it again.

By early afternoon, the sun had reached its full summer height and so had the crowd in anticipation of the biggest and baddest divisions of off-road racing.

Packed behind temporary fencing that wrapped from the starting line around the first corner, some fans sat on lawn chairs and blankets under tarps attached to aluminum poles. Others backed up big pickups — everyone, it seems, has to have a truck to be part of the crowd — to the side of a hill and sat in the back on ice chests, occasionally lifting a leg to get another beer.

Race operations radios blared through speakers attached to car batteries as fans oohed and aahed when trucks wobbled onto two wheels, then phoned in updates to friends who couldn’t make the race.

When Gordon’s truck took off from the line, some recognized it without seeing the start; the roar of the engine gave it away.

“The fans of this sport are absolutely amazing,” said “Ballistic” B.J. Baldwin, a popular Trophy Truck driver from Las Vegas. “They have the same passion we have for it, and it’s part of what drives us to go faster.”

The sport’s speed and edge-of-control nature are part of its appeal and what create the danger.

There have been deaths at the Baja 1000 and Dakar Rally, the two most famous off-road races, though multiple-death crashes into the crowd like the one in the Mojave Desert are rare.

The California wreck was an eye-opener.

At that race, just one ranger patrolled the 50-mile course in the Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle area the day of the race, and spectators were within a few feet of the passing vehicles instead of the 100 feet that race promoter Mojave Desert Racing’s rules specified.

Since the crash, federal officials and race organizers have stepped up safety efforts.

The BLM has started cracking down on violations of racing permits and said it will have an increased presence at all events on federal lands.

SCORE International put up concrete barrier fences near the start/finish line for its Primm race and implemented a 30 mph speed limit for the pit area. Fans weren’t allowed anywhere on the course, with patrols set up at every access road to keep them out.

But SCORE is just one of numerous organizations who operate off-road races in the deserts of Nevada and California. Each event, whether for motorcycles, ATVs or powerful Trophy Trucks, has a unique set of operational, environmental and safety issues, and it’s the BLM’s job to keep up.

“It’s really quite an ongoing process,” Dieli said. “We work on these events almost year-round with them on how to make things better, safer and, more than anything, make it flow easier, keep the events alive, so to speak.”

A lot is riding on it.

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