- Associated Press - Sunday, August 15, 2010

LUCERNE VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Zachary Freeman loved to fish, ride dirt bikes and camp, but most of all, he loved to watch off-road truck racing in the vast Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles.

That love would cost Mr. Freeman, a 24-year-old pipe welder, and seven other off-road enthusiasts their lives when a truck competing in the annual California 200 careened off the sand track Saturday and into the crowd, instantly killing Mr. Freeman and his best friend.

On Sunday, his girlfriend and his stepfather mourned at a simple cross-and-stone memorial set in the thick sand and waited in the blistering heat for a locksmith to arrive to change the ignition lock in Mr. Freeman’s truck so they could take it home. His keys were lost in the chaos; the coroner found only a lighter in his pocket.

“I’m just in shock. It’s not real yet; it hasn’t soaked in,” said Randall Peterson, his grieving stepfather.

Mr. Freeman’s girlfriend, Nicky Carmikle, sobbed as she knelt down and placed her boyfriend’s camouflage baseball hat in the center of the stone circle surrounding the wooden cross.

Ms. Carmikle recalled how she had stepped away from the race for a few minutes to use the restroom and returned to find the truck upside down, bodies everywhere and people screaming in panic.

“His shoes are still over there. I can’t even look,” she said, gesturing to a bag full of abandoned clothing, shoes and blankets, some stained with blood. “It just isn’t fair, it isn’t right.”

Those who witnessed the accident said the crowd pressed close to the track and could almost touch the trucks as they hurtled and bounced over the desert sand.

Shortly after the race began, one driver took a jump at high speed, hit his brakes on landing and rolled his truck sideways into spectators, sending bodies flying on a section of track that had no guardrails or anything else to keep the crowd back. Eight people were killed, and 12 were injured.

“You could touch it if you wanted to. It’s part of the excitement,” Ms. Carmikle said. “There’s always that risk factor, but you just don’t expect that it will happen to you.”

Cheyenne Frantzich, 15, was watching the race with her sister, who was killed in the crash. “I just thought it would be fun to be close — and it was a big mistake,” Ms. Frantzich told CBS’ “Early Show” on Monday.

California Highway Patrol Officer Joaquin Zubieta said Brett M. Sloppy, 28, of San Marcos was behind the wheel of the truck involved in the crash. Officer Zubieta said alcohol was not a factor in the crash and there were no plans to arrest Mr. Sloppy, who the CHP estimates was going 45 to 50 mph at the time of the crash.

Officer Zubieta said state vehicle codes don’t apply because the race was a sanctioned event held with the approval of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land used for the race.

The BLM issued a statement saying safety was the responsibility of the race organizer, South El Monte-based Mojave Desert Racing. MDR’s permit required racers to travel 15 mph or less when they were within 50 feet of fans and allowed no more than 300 spectators for the event, the agency said.

BLM spokesman David Briery said the agency would cooperate with the CHP’s investigation.

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