Off-Road Racer Dies After Baja Accident

An off-road racer died in a San Diego hospital of a heart attack after suffering a racing accident on the Baja California Peninsula.

Mark Luhtala, 48, a SCORE racer, was recovering at the UC San Diego Medical Center after having a portion of his left leg amputated, SCORE officials said Thursday. He died of a heart attack on Wednesday.

Luhtala, a native of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, was hurt in the Baja 1000 race in Baja California on Nov. 19, when his race truck collided head-on with another competitor, Cody Parkhouse, 29, of Long Beach, California, officials said.

Luhtala and Parkhouse were both taken to UCSD Medical Center in San Diego. Parkhouse remained hospitalized and in serious condition Thursday night.

Luhtala graduated from Southern Illinois University and operated a jet aircraft maintenance company based in West Palm Beach, Florida. He leaves between two daughters, ages 12 and 2, and a wife, Holly, SCORE officials said.

"Monster Mike," a fellow off road racer at the Baja last Saturday and a public safety volunteer, had some harsh criticism for the race.

“Yesterday's news was a gut punch. I mean it was a really horrible terrible feeling that one of our brothers had lost their life,” he said.

Nearly half of the protective roll cage of Luhtala's rig is missing. so is the driver side front wheel.

“They struck head on driver to driver,” Mike said.

Last June, three people including an 8-year-old spectator were killed in the Baja 500 race. Mike says races are not just dangerous but unsafe. He is working with Baja's public safety department to make changes.

“The reason why these things keep occurring is because they are being tolerated in the republic of Mexico,” Mike said.

NBC 7 reached out to SCORE International Thursday night, the organization that puts on the Baja 1000 and other famous off-road races, with questions on the crash involving Luhtala and Parkhouse.

SCORE released this statement, via email, that in part read: "All of us in the SCORE family send our sincere condolences and continuing thoughts and prayers to Luhtala's two daughters and other close family members, his wife Holly and everyone impacted by this racing accident."

Off-road desert racers are challenged by the extreme conditions. They come here to "beat Baja." A race of a lifetime for many but never expecting it to be their last race.

“The event is becoming known for being even more than dangerous. It's even becoming known as death races,” Mike said.

NBC 7 spoke with SCORE International CEO Roger Norman Friday who said that since he took over SCORE four years ago, racing safety has been a top priority.

He said SCORE has taken "extraordinary steps" in race safety in recent years, including upgrading ambulances to include advanced life support equipment, adding rescue personnel and various other initiaves outlined in this SCORE article

There has also been a change in rules to make sure drivers are not penalized for stopping to help an injured fellow competitor.

"Anyone who stops during the race to help an injured racer, they don't lose any time in the race," Norman explained.

He said that up until Luhtala's accident, SCORE racing hadn't experienced a fatality in a car during a race in four years.

Norman said SCORE distributes a free safety magazine and videos about the off-road racing sport to make sure people understand the risks -- whether they are competitors or spectators.

"I want them to know that they need to be informed on everything about Baja [racing] if they're going to spectate or if they're going to race -- there's a lot of information they need to know," Norman added.

Editor’s Note: In an effort to gain additional perspective from other members of the off-road racing community, NBC 7 spoke to SCORE CEO Roger Norman Friday, who gave more details about the importance of safety in the world of Baja off-road racing. Our original article only reflected the opinions of Monster Mike. We regret the error.  Commenting on this article has been disabled due to a post threatening violence.

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