In the wake of an accident that killed eight spectators, California's U.S. senators are pressing for more details about a federal agency's oversight of off-road racing on public lands.
Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein called Wednesday on the Bureau of Land Management to provide data on safety violations in past races. The senators also want to know what penalties, if any, organizations face if they violate the terms of their permit for conducting off-road races.
The lawmakers said in a letter to BLM Director Bob Abbey that federal officials must learn from the accident.
"What makes this accident even more troubling is that with proper precautions, it could have been prevented," the two senators wrote.
Eight bystanders at the California 200 were crushed Saturday when a truck flipped into the crowd, which had pressed to within feet of the sand track. A dozen others were injured.
The BLM is conducting a review of off-road racing on public lands. Organizations conducting such races need a permit that spells out their responsibilities. The race promoters are typically responsible for spectator safety, as was the case Saturday. But spectators were within feet of the speeding vehicles.
The lawmakers also want to know how frequently BLM staff attend off-road races and whether the fees collected from race sponsors are adequate to ensure proper oversight by the agency. The lawmakers also want more information about what happens when BLM staff witnesses activities at races that violate terms of the permit.
"Are they authorized to take immediate enforcement action," the lawmakers asked.
Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the agency, said officials would review the letter and will follow up on the senators' questions.
Local Victims Among the Dead
Four San Diegans were among the eight people killed when a pickup truck plowed into a crowd of onlookers during a Mojave Desert race Saturday.
Spring Valley resident Michael Dickinson, 34, and Escondido residents Brian Wolfin, 27, Anthony Sanchez, 23 and Aaron Farkas, 25 died in the crash that came shortly after the twilight start of the California 200.
The off-road truck sailed off a jump and hurtled into the crowd, pinning bodies beneath it and sending others flying into a chaotic cloud of dust in a crash that killed eight people, authorities and witnesses said Sunday. Twelve people were injured in the crash.
It took rescue vehicles and helicopters more than half an hour to reach the remote location, and spectators including off-duty police and firefighters helped the injured and placed blankets over the dead.
Brett Sloppy, 28, from San Marcos was driving the modified Ford Ranger that slammed into an area where hundreds of spectators were standing, according to the California Highway Patrol. The crowd, which included children, was standing within 10 feet of the track with no guardrails separating them from the speeding vehicles.
Sloppy knew Wolfin, Sanchez and Farkas, according to friends.
“So incredibly lost and devastated my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families and friends involved. Thank you too all my friends for sticking with me even thru these tragic times I love you all,” Sloppy posted on Facebook.
Two of the victims died after being taken to a hospital, authorities said. Among them -- Michael Dickinson of Spring Valley.
‘The Luckiest Guy Alive’
Dickinson was injured in the crash and joked with friends while being treated for his injuries, according to his wife Janet Dickinson.
Janet was in Michigan at the time and friends told her that her husband was going to be okay.
"His friend Jeff was saying, 'You're the luckiest guy alive, because all around there's dead bodies'," she said.
Janet was told that her husband was his usual self, joking with friends, trying to make light of a bad situation, despite complaining of rib and back pain.
Friends said that he wanted to take off his neck brace and keep watching the race, but medics wanted everyone to go to hospital.
"I was just glad he was going to the hospital to seek help," she said. But Mike's condition got much worse.
"They said that when he was being life-lighted, his heart stopped and went into cardiac arrest and they could not resuscitate him," said Dickinson.
Janet said her husband was a loving husband and wonderful father of a two year-old boy and a four month-old girl and will be missed by friends and family.
Now, she must figure out how to move on without him. "Mike and I, we were a team and I just don't know how to get by without seeing him. Just tell your loved ones you love them and don't take each other for granted," she said.
Friends and family have set up a memorial fund through North Island Credit Union. You can donate at any location or send checks to: Michael J. Dickinson Memorial Fund, PO Box 85833, San Diego, CA 92186. The monies collected will go to Janet and their children to help with expenses.
'A Bunch of My Friends Got Smashed Up’
Escondido resident Brian Wolfin traveled to the Mojave Desert as a last hurrah before starting a job, according to friends.
Keith Carty was emotional when talking about Wolfin, his friend of 10 years.
"He loved going to the desert, he loves just going anywhere where there are people and fun times," Carty said. "When me and Brian hang out, we're either talking about the races or we're racing."
Wolfin, who attended Orange Glenn High School, left behind a one-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son and their mother -- his high-school sweetheart.
“Brian just happened to be right there, wrong place at the wrong time and unfortunately they say he was one of the first to be hit," said Patty Kines, who helped raise Wolfin. "The guy didn't drive off the road purposely to drive into crowd from what I'm understanding, it just happened."
"The biggest thing we're trying to do right now is help his family, that's how we're dealing with it,” Carty said. “They don't have a dad no more, so we need to help them.”
A bank account has been setup for Wolfin’s family at U.S. bank and friends are asking for donations. The account number is 153465711205.
Carty didn't want to talk in detail about the crash but said he doesn't blame Sloppy, the San Marcos driver, who he knows as well.
"Almost all my friends got hit by that truck, everybody I know got hit by that truck, it's nobody's fault, things just happen. That's just the way it happens," said witness Keith Carty. "A bunch of my friends got smashed up."
Crash victims Anthony Sanchez and Aaron Farkas attended Escondido High School.
Sanchez has a 3-year-old son with his girlfriend, his childhood sweetheart according to friend Landon Borders. The couple was planning a March wedding.
“She was there when the crash happened,” Borders said.
Borders also knows Farkas who he said was in a local reggae band.
“They were just starting to get recognized and were playing in local bars. He's a very talented drummer and he's a well-rounded person,” said Borders.
“They were both just overall good friends,” he said. “They didn't go out looking for trouble. They were both into building off-road vehicles.”
'Bodies Went Everywhere'
Witnesses said the driver, Sloppy, took a jump known as "the rockpile" at high speed, hit his brakes on landing and rolled sideways into a crowd of hundreds of people standing with no barriers next to the course.
"He 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 lying unconscious underneath.
John Payne, 20, of Anaheim said he was among the first people to reach the truck. He said the victims included one person who was decapitated.
"It was complete chaos," Payne said.
Officials said the driver wasn't hurt. It was not clear why he lost control of the truck.
Alcohol was not a factor in the crash and there were no plans to arrest Sloppy, CHP officer Joaquin Zubieta said. He says state vehicle codes don't apply because it was a sanctioned racing event held with the approval of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land in the area.
'That's Desert Racing for You'
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 of over 60 mph on the 50-mile off-road course.
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 and had been scheduled to last through the night.
"There were no barriers at all," Jeff Talbott, inland division chief for the California Highway Patrol, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
Fans said there are rarely rails or any other safety guards at the races.
"That's desert racing for you," spectator John Payne said. "You're at your own risk out here. You are in the middle off 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."
Witness Matt March said "that's just how everyone plays it, everyone gets real close in these desert races."
Derek Laogali, 22, of San Pedro, said Saturday night was the first time he'd ever been to an off-road race, and he witnessed the horror up close.
"I seen people on the floor with broken bones, people with blankets over them. I'm guessing they were dead," Laogali said. "People were crying and screaming. It was a nightmare."