The first truck was set to launch off the rock pile around 7:30 p.m. – right as the sun set on this remote spot deep in desert, east of the San Bernardino Mountains. To make sure they had a good view of the jump, Matt Torian and his three buddies got there about an hour early.
Jason Cagle, Justin Podsiadly, Luke Vangelder and Torian were all set for a fun night of camping and hanging out with friends, but mostly they were there to watch truck after truck barrel across the rock-encrusted desert plane in what's known as the California 200 – an amateur-level off-road race run annually some 125 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The four had been to this same spot a hundred times, each without incident. But this time was different. There was no fencing, only signs in the ground warning spectators to stay 125 feet away from the track – and most of those were kicked over.
Initially, spectators weren't right on top of the track. But as more and more people ascended on the jump, where trucks hover a few feet above the ground for 20 to 30 yards, getting a good view meant moving in closer and closer. By the time the trucks started rolling through, the crowd was close enough to give the drivers a high-five as they sped by.
Cagle, fearing that one false move could send a truck into the crowd, stayed on the high side of the jump. Podsiadly and Brian Wolfin, another friend, were with him as well but decided to join Torian and Vangelder down by the landing zone on the driver's side of the course.
"I'm like, 'Dude, why do you want to go down there? That's sketchy down there. One car breaks a part, they're going into the crowd,' " Cagle said he warned. "We saw the danger. They were like, 'Nahhh, we'll be fine.' "
A way of life
Parked in Cagle's driveway is a beat-up 1993 Toyota truck he uses to pre-run desert race courses. Filling his garage is an assortment of motorcycles. And hanging on his living-room wall are 12 frames holding photos of trucks racing through the desert.
As for thousands of Southern Californians, off-road racing isn't a hobby for Cagle and his friends. It's a way of life. Be it wide-open planes or steep slopes of sand, the desert is a playground for adrenaline junkies.
Cagle, 26; Podsiadly, 25; Torian, 27; and Vangelder, 25, grew up in Escondido, Calif., a blue-collar town north of San Diego. They started working on cars before they could drive.
Torian's first vehicle was a 1992 Ford Ranger. Despite pleading from his mom not to, Torian began the laborious process of transforming the car from a passenger truck to an off-roading race vehicle.
Though it was technically Torian's truck, he and his friends worked on it together – Vangelder's a solid welder, Torian and Cagle are smart with engines, Podsiadly is good with fabrication. If other friends wanted to hang out, they had to come to Torian's garage, because that's where they spent their free time.
In 2003, they finally had it ready for the desert. Three races in, the truck was destroyed. But that didn't stop them.
"We were already hooked on it at that point," Cagle explained. "We didn't have a truck anymore, so we started building mine [a '79 Toyota] because, at that point, we couldn't go two months without racing."
Said Torian: "You love the feeling of racing. It's one of the purest things you can do. It's just you and your race vehicle and the desert."
Before life and responsibilities caught up with them, they'd enter 10 to 13 races a year, each event coming with about a $4,000 rebuild in between. Though Podsiadly and Vangelder didn't have their own trucks, they were paid in "ride-alongs" – which were good enough for them.
Racing is such a part of their lives that Cagle proposed to his wife in front of Torian's truck out in the desert.
"It was the coolest idea ever," Torian said.
"I had to plan my wedding around a race," Cagle admitted.
In 2006, Torian entered the Baja 500 – an 18-hour grind through the Baja California Peninsula. Just finishing the race is an accomplishment. Torian took third in the Sportsman Truck division.
Lately, though, the cost to race has caught up with them. Cagle's got a mortgage. Torian's helping out with the family avocado business. These days, they're down to about three races a year.
But if they can't be in them, they still go to them, which is how they ended up at the rock pile for the California 200.
Sundown at the rock pile
Standing next to Torian when the trucks started rolling through the rock pile were Aaron Farkas on the left and Anthony Sanchez on the right. Behind him was Danica Frantzich, whom Torian had driven to the rock pile. Wolfin, Podsiadly and Vangelder were there too.
Torian knew they were in a "bad spot," but as he told Cagle before the race, "that's where we always watch from."
According to Cagle, who had an unobstructed view of the trucks as they approached the jump, most of the drivers were checking up because of the crowd being so close. Brett Sloppy, a 28-year-old from San Marcos, Calif., was about the 20th to 25th driver through.
"I was on the top side, thinking: Damn, he's not slowing down," Cagle recalled. "He was probably 20 miles per hour faster than any other vehicle through there for those conditions. He just hit the jump at full speed.
"His truck bucked a little bit and he had some speed and when he hit, I was watching, and at that point there was so much dust I couldn't see. I thought the truck was probably rolling, but I didn't know what the circumstances were."
Here is how Torian recalled what happened next:
"A white bus – bam! just hit me, and I remember I was literally underneath the truck and my head was banging against the ground and rocks and the hood of the truck, and it was bam, bam, bam! That was my head hitting back and forth. And it was pushing me down. Then it rolled off of me.
"I got up, tried to stand; my legs weren't working. I started punching them. Both were broken. The first thing I remember seeing was the dude to my right, his entire stomach was ripped open and his face was down in the dirt, and I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, this is really bad.' I had never seen a dead body before. That's when the shock kind of hit me."
Sanchez, who was standing to his right, was dead. So were Farkas, Frantzich and Wolfin.
Cagle, not knowing if his friends were OK, first ran up the track to stop oncoming traffic, then ran down to the scene of the accident. Podsiadly, who was standing just a few feet from Torian at the moment of impact, found him 20-30 feet away. Vangelder was bleeding from his head. Within three minutes, Cagle had put blankets over three people.
"I found our buddy B [Wolfin]," Cagle said. "He had already expired at that time. He was one of the first to get hit by the truck. He was out instantly. And chaos just started unfolding. We start seeing people and seeing things, you know."
By chance, a group of EMTs were on hand to watch the race. According to Cagle, there were seven of them. They were the first medical responders on the scene and the ones taking charge – charting injuries, prioritizing victims and administering medical attention.
Torian waited for about three hours while emergency personnel tended to the more seriously injured. Eventually, he and other victims were airlifted out. Torian was taken to a Palm Springs-area hospital.
In all, six people died at the scene; two died later. Twelve were reported injured. Podsiadly and Vangelder walked away with minor cuts and bruises. Torian suffered two broken legs and a shoulder fracture.
"We were just talking to friends," Vangelder said. "And that's what's fun about it. Hang out, talk, tell stories, see who's coming down next. And then all the sudden," he snaps his fingers, "people are dead."
Reports vary on how the crowd responded to Sloppy in the aftermath of the incident. Some say spectators began throwing rocks at him. Cagle says that's not true. However, a California Highway Patrol did spend the night at Sloppy's campsite.
"So incredibly lost and devistated [sic] my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families and friends involved," read a message posted on Sloppy's Facebook page. "Thank you too all my friends for sticking with me even thru these tragic times. I love you all."
When asked why they were standing so close to the action, Torian responded: "We were that close because no one told us we couldn't.
"I knew it was bad; I knew it was stupid," he continued. "But we weren't literally in the track. We left no room for driver error where we were standing, and there was driver error."
According to the website for Mojave Desert Racing, a mom-and-pop organization that put on the California 200, spectators were prohibited from standing within 100 feet of the track. MDR's permit requires trucks to go no more than 15 mph when spectators were nearby. Witnesses say there were no personnel from MDR at the rock pile at the time of the incident. MDR did not return phone calls for comment.
Pending an investigation, the Bureau of Land Management has suspended all off-road racing events organized by MDR.
"They probably had 10 rangers out there last night, but it's hard to manage a 50-mile course," BLM spokesman David Briery told the Los Angeles Times. "In hindsight, they should have been over by the rock pile because that's where most of the people were."
Off-roading enthusiasts insist what happened at the rock pile on Aug. 14 was an aberration, not the norm. In fact, it's difficult to find another incident when a spectator died. MDR was sued for a 1998 incident in which a motorcyclist was hit by a truck after he inadvertently wandered onto a race course that the lawsuit contended wasn't properly marked. The motorcyclist, Craig Diller, suffered a heart attack, a broken leg and shoulder.
"What are you going to do? Put K rail around 1,000 miles of road down in Baja?" said Robby Gordon, a professional in both the NASCAR and off-roading world. "It's not going to happen. It's not realistic. That side of it is unfortunate. But it's a sport that we love, and I think the fans know when they stand there, danger could happen.
"It's what people love to do," Gordon continued. "You say 'OK, should you be allowed to do it?' Well, this is what people grow up to do. It keeps them out of bars, it keeps them out of drug habits, stuff like that. So I think the young kids who go out there even the one father got on TV and said, 'My son wouldn't want off-road racing to stop.' This is what we love to do, and it's unfortunate that it happened."
Had he not had a rock go through his radiator in February, destroying a brand-new engine, Torian would have been in the California 200 – not standing on the sidelines. When he heals, he plans on being back behind the wheel of his truck, flying through the desert again.