A contestant in a night-time desert race in California lost control of his pick-up truck and plowed into a group of spectators, killing eight and injuring at least 17, officials said on Sunday.
The horrific accident occurred at about 7:40pm on Saturday during the California 200, an annual event held in Soggy Dry Lake Bed near the city of Lucerne Valley in the Mojave Desert.
“Right now we have 17 injured, six of them in serious condition. Seven of the eight people killed were identified [on] Sunday by officials,” California Highway Patrol spokesman Joaquin Zubieta said.
At least four of the injured were in a serious condition and were taken by air ambulance to nearby trauma centers, fire department supervisor Tim Franke told reporters.
NBC news reported that those killed were all in their 20s or 30s, while an unspecified number of minors were among the injured.
California Highway Patrol identified the driver as Brett Sloppy, 28, a welder and owner of a nearby motor sports company.
Sloppy “lost control of his modified 2000 Ford Ranger while he was driving 45 to 50 miles per hour [72kph to 80kph]. He was not arrested and alcohol was not a factor in the crash. At this point, Mr Sloppy has not been charged in the crash,” Zubieta said.
On his Facebook page, Sloppy wrote that he was “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 through these tragic times, I love you all.”
Local reports said he needed to be escorted away from the area when spectators threatened him and began throwing rocks.
“He got airborne and when he landed, rolled over straight into the spectators,” Zubieta told the Los Angeles Times. “People didn’t have much of a chance ... to get out of the way.”
The accident occurred near the start of the race, when one of the drivers failed to negotiate a jump and veered off the track into the crowd.
News footage showed the vehicle, a white pick-up truck plastered with sponsorship decals, flipped on its roof, with at least one body under a white sheet next to the vehicle.
The dry lake is located about 165km northeast of Los Angeles. Drivers race four times around an 80km loop, at speeds that top 96kph, and the race typically ends before dawn the next day.
Video from last year’s California 200 posted on the Web shows off-road cars and pick-up trucks roaring past spectators just a few meters away on the sandy, washboard river bed, with nothing more than a rope or thin plastic sheeting between them.
“They had people lined up right along the track — inches from the track,” an unidentified spectator told NBC after the crash. “People are way too close.”
The tragedy is being investigated by the California Highway Patrol, which sent its major accident investigation team to the scene.
The race is organized each year by Mojave Desert Racing, a Southern California corporation headquartered in South El Monte.
It says on its Web site it organizes 12 desert car races per year for 20 different classes of vehicles and provides “an exciting, rewarding and safe environment for off-road racing in four locations: Barstow, Lucerne Valley, Ridgecrest and Plaster City.”
A flyer listed on the Web site indicated that fees to enter the race ranged from US$200 to US$440. A total of 87 drivers were registered to take part in Saturday’s race, the Times said, adding that hundreds of spectators had gathered around the site where the pick-up truck landed.