By the early 1990s, desert racing in Baja had become hugely popular with the local population. As a direct result of increased newspaper and television exposure about the race, huge crowds started forming at easy-to-get-to spots to watch the action. Ivan Stewart, Walker Evans, Roger Mears, and the McMillins were by now household names. This particular spectator spot at the 1994 Baja Internacional was easy to access, only 50 miles down the highway from the start line at Ensenada. After the field passed through Ojos Negros, they headed south through Tres Hermanos, and continued south to El Alamo, a small mining village. From there, the racers drove down the extremely fast road 10 miles or so to Highway 3, crossed the road, and headed up a small hill where hundreds, if not thousands, waited.
What made this a real problem for the race organizers, or anyone else concerned with spectator safety, was that most of these fans had never attended any kind of a race before. They knew or cared little about the dangers of a flying racecar going 60 miles per hour. Cervezas had been flowing freely among groups of spectators since early in the morning, and in some more enthusiastic cases, all night.
By the time driver Mike Kalicki had arrived at this spot about 80 miles down the course, all the spectators were feeling more comfortable with the cars. The 1/2-1600 cars weren’t so loud, didn’t jump as far, and they didn’t go as fast as the Unlimited trucks and buggies. They felt relatively safe, despite the fact that any race vehicle colliding with a spectator at any speed could cause serious injury.
At one point, one boy decided to go for it. After Kalicki and other racers cleared this jump, they must have been astounded by what seemed to be hundreds of people on the course. But Kalicki experienced the extra horror of seeing a thrill-seeker running smack dab into the middle of the SCORE racecourse. Luckily, this time it was only a very close call. Kaliciki was able to slow in time and carefully drive through the sea of spectators.
A SCORE race marshal was standing nearby with a radio and was approached by some of the spectators to do something. They demanded he move the crowd back, slow the cars, call in reinforcements, or do something. Then someone recalled one could buy a SCORE official shirt at contingency and the young man, the marshal in question, may not be an official at all, but just someone who wanted a better vantage point with the help of his official SCORE shirt. Luckily, for another hour throughout the remainder of this race, every entrant was able to keep their car on course, avoiding the catastrophe that some on the scene were sure would happen.
Fatal accidents involving spectators at off-road races in Baja have been a rare occurrence. One of the worst occurred in 1999 when Jason Baldwin flipped into the crowd, killing one person and injuring six at the SCORE Baja 500. However, United States races have also not been immune to tragedy. In 2010, eight people lost their lives at the Mojave Desert Racing California 200 in Lucerne Valley under similar circumstances.
The new management of SCORE has promised increased security at its Baja races, and race officials have promised personnel will travel between checkpoints before the race to find on-course booby traps and maintain crowd control.
Vaya Con Dios from the staff of Dirt Sports