The California 200 Tragedy: Taking Responsibility

By Charles Krome

As most people likely know by now, an off-road racer named Brett Sloppy flipped his truck into the crowd at the California 200, leaving 8 people dead and another 12 injured. For those who follow racing history, it no doubt brought back thoughts of the infamous 1955 Le Mans disaster, in which Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR (like the one pictured below) left the track at 150 mph. The car began disintegrating almost immediately, with pieces flying off the car and into the crowd with lethal affect, and once the racer’s magnesium-based body began to burn, the scene quickly turned into an inferno. In the end, Levegh and more than 80 people died, and 120 were injured.

Now, you might think that this loss of life would have been enough for all of motorsports to rethink its safety measures, but not so. There were certainly major immediate changes to LeMans, but the pace of improvements to spectator safety in other series, even major ones, has often bordered on the glacial—especially for non-oval racing.

The FIA didn’t begin truly comprehensive efforts to improve its circuits until the late 1960s—mid 1970s. As late as 1961—six years after the LeMans disaster—14 spectators died when Ferrari driver Wolfgang von Trips went into the crowd at the Italian Grand Prix, and von Trips died as well.

But even as F1 safety improved, other major racing series, including the FIA-run World Rally Championship, seemingly refused to take crowd safety seriously. As anyone who has seen video of Group B rallying at its peak knows, the situation was insane: You had cars like the Lancia Delta making in excess of 550 hp, racing along gravel “roads” within touching distance of the crowds. Unsurprisingly, there was a steady stream of spectator and driver deaths and injuries, and Group B racing was over by 1987.

And in a way, that decision put us on the path to this weekend’s tragedy. Because there was another option to the Group B problem of cars going way too fast, way too close to spectators: Instead of slowing down the cars, organizers could have instituted stricter crowd-control measures to keep people back away from the courses. Or better yet, enforce them.

But that last bit is rarely a priority for motorsports governing bodies. And remember, the key reason so many people were killed in California was that the crowd was ignoring well-established rules regarding where spectators are “allowed” to stand, while the group overseeing the race wasn’t equipped to enforce them.

In a perfect world, we could talk about the personal responsibility of those fans, but the mind-set of these spectators is pretty well indicated by Keith Carty. The off-road racer was among the crowd when the California 200 crash happened and saw one of his friends killed there. The money quote from an ABC News report: “It’s the same thing as crossing the street, that’s all it is. You look both ways.”

Now, I don’t know where Carty lives, but I don’t see too many highly modified off-road racers careening through my neighborhood at 60 mph and then launching themselves through the air over a hill of dirt. And if I did, I can assure you I wouldn’t be standing on the curb—or in the street—to watch them.

On the other hand, if Carty and his friends are all competent adults and want to make that decision, I’m not going to stop them. The thing is, however, since most of the world isn’t on board with that philosophy, the only real alternative is making sure the race organizers of the California 200—and the WRC and all the other competitions that give a wink to dangerous spectator behavior—enforce prohibitions on where the crowd can watch the events. Or stop the racing altogether.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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