By Robert Orr, Senior Editor At Large.
Woodland Hills, CA – June 8, 2016 – Race promoter Lou Peralta, who has had vast experience promoting racing events in Baja California as well as in the United States since 1986 and has been racing since 1969, was asked for his opinion regarding the current situation in Baja and what seems to be an increase in incidents and accidents–especially at this year’s Baja 500.
Robert Orr (RO) – Mr. Peralta, may I call you Lou? You just returned from the Baja 500 and of course, you have heard of or witnessed the incidents during this year’s race. In your opinion, what do you think needs to be done to ameliorate the potentials for such disasters in the future?
Lou Peralta (LP) – If you think there is an easy answer to make sure that everyone is safe during the race, especially the thousands of spectators over a 250-mile, 500-mile or even 1000-mile course, that’s nearly impossible. This is also true when you are dealing with such vasts amounts of open space, where anyone and everyone has access to parts of the course.
As far as racers are concerned, we know what we are getting into and what we can expect. A few of us shrug the possible consequences and go for it, regardless. That’s what our sport is all about. Very different from playing golf on the weekend. But to totally prevent what happened the weekend of the Baja 500, is going to be very difficult.
Let me be clear. You never want to see anyone hurt in an event, not a participant or participants and absolutely no spectators. Yet it happens.
Speaking as a participant, I know the risks and I’m willing to take them, and I know going in that the possibilities exist.
But as a spectator, I go to watch an event and it really never crosses my mind that I could get hurt, except when I chose to expose myself to those potential risks. Then, the ownness is on me.
RO – I see what you mean. So what’s going to happen with the future of these races? Are they going to go away?
LP – I certainly hope not. However, we are at a very important crossroad of our sport in Baja.
For example: We complain about all the hassles we have to go through when we attend an off-road race here in the United States. All the permits, and wristbands and vehicle tags that we must have in order to support a team, a car or club are a big pain in the butt. Sometimes all these restrictions seem ridiculous.
The BLM here in the U.S., for example, makes promoters jump through so many hoops, that it is really discouraging. I feel and have great empathy for those promoters here in the States that have to jump through all those obstacles. Now, they even have to worry about what each person, group or pit has in its coolers because all alcoholic beverages are prohibited during some races. Promoters and their staff have to be babysitters. It’s awful.
Even when you travel hundreds of miles to enjoy the sport, you have to be looking over your shoulder to make sure there is no Ranger, Sheriff or weekend-cop who may ruin your weekend by issuing a citation do to the fact that you did not park in the exact area that is permitted, or maybe you had a can or two of beer in your cooler; perhaps your youngsters were not tied to a leash or maybe your tent is too close to the race course. These seem like important measures, but they are not pleasant.
However, one thing that all those “hoops” that we all have to jump through, here in the States, do, is that they eliminate the potential for too many people hanging along the course. Those measures eliminate the risk factor so that potential third-party incidents become negligible. It’s the price we have to pay for the safety of others.
I don’t like all those restrictions, and often I chose not to attend some of the U.S. desert events because you really need a legal background to understand all those limitations they put on us.
Nonetheless, and I must grudgingly admit, there are a number of good things that come out of it as a result.
RO – So are you saying that we should have the same restrictions in Baja, a Mexican BLM, as it were?
LP – No, absolutely not! No, I hope not because Mexico and Baja, in particular, needs and loves our sport. It’s an important economic and social factor to them.
We have to work with the current system and just make it better and safer. Besides, many of the trails and roads we use for racing do not belong to the government (as it does here in the States), but to private ranchers and many Ejidos. A Mexican BLM would never work.
We cannot lose Baja. We have to be smarter and make changes for the better. But we have to do them now!
RO – So what are your solutions?
LP – I don’t claim to have them all covered but I think I can honestly say that I have a few suggestions that might help the situation.
RO – So what are they?
LP – These are a few ideas:
• Mexico and Baja in particular, are not going to like this. Curtail the amount of pre-running to one week. This leaves less impact on the terrain. It also protects the many ranches that we go through. I would almost say that maybe we take out all pre-running.
• I know the government does not want that because pre-running brings an economic boom to the State. Moreover, many people love it.
• However, it might help a bit to eliminate the thousands of spectators who will make a weekend out of the race by setting up their camp, next to the course starting Thursday and Friday and on through Saturday.
• By the time the race cars come along, many of the spectators are pretty partied-out, mellow and liable to do stupid things.
• A Major change is this: I don’t think we should start or finish the races in the City. If you are in Ensenada, stage a “mock” start for the first two blocks and then “parade” with police control to an ultimate starting spot. It may be all the way down to Ojos Negros or Uruapan or someplace where crowd control is easier to achieve.
• On a few occasions, I have started our races with a “mock” start in Ensenada, then parade down by the cement plant or the Tecate to Ensenada road, or once near Uruapan. There were people there but because there was limited parking and it was more remote, crowds were minimal. (Of course, I didn’t have as many entries as the Baja 500 and 1000 have so it is really not the same.)
• Do likewise for the finish. The finish time stops somewhere outside the city, but you still need to go through the ceremonial finish in the City, as an “official finisher” but not at race speeds.
• Using local police or the Army or Navy, you curtail all access to the course whenever possible. This is going to be difficult because our off-road friends in Mexico are very resourceful. Nonetheless, a bit of control will go a long way. The same Army people that stop you on the highway can be designated to cover the better-known access spots on the course.
• Conversely, we should also add with every course, good “spectator spots” where they can see excellent racing action but be under control. Ejidos and ranchers would love to make a few bucks by dedicating a spot or spots where they would charge spectators to come in and watch the race. Some are already doing so and we should help promote those spots.
• Concurrently with no pre-running or limited pre-running, I would strictly limit access to the race course by marking the entire course with GPS, yet offering no physical markings, such as arrows, ribbons, and mileages. Or perhaps minimal markings, such as leaving mileages up as reference points.
• Most of the public will not know where the course goes through. The ones that need to know, such as local ranchers and Ejidatarios will know in advance at the pre-race meetings.
• Racers will be given the GPS course at the last moment or when the course is open for pre-running. Again, I don’t think the government will like no pre-running. Admittedly, I wouldn’t like it either. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had and the way I have made very good friends in Baja was by pre-running. But being very pragmatic, I think this must be considered.
• The biggest thing we can do is EDUCATE EVERYONE. Do this not just before the San Felipe 250 or the 500 or 1000, but we must have a year-round campaign to educate spectators as to what they can or cannot do during a race, and have law enforcement throughout with potential citations to violators.
• There are certain basic rules that everyone should know. They just make common sense, I know, but when you’ve had a couple of beers or you want to show off to your friends and your senorita, how “macho” you are, you don’t use the correct side of your brain to take over. For example:
o Never stand on the outside of a turn. In off-road, even a good driver, an excellent driver will make a mistake, the vehicle may develop problems and blow through a turn. You can’t be in the path of such confluence.
o Never get closer than 30-feet from the edge of the course, on either side. This is especially true when you are on the other side of a large ramp or jump. You never know what can happen upon landing. One slight miscalculation and the car and driver can plow through many people. That is the scariest moment for me as a driver.
o To discourage people who suddenly have a great amount of “beer-induced courage,” work with Ejidos and Ranchers and through the State, and deputize locals to help control crowds and yes, allow them to issue citations.
• Other solutions are also available. For example. Instead of using the old trails that have been used for years, which people already know and have their hot spots where to spend the weekend watching the race, we as promoters must invest time and money to create other routes and bypass the commonly used roads, some used daily, thus saving the wear and tear on the roads after our use.
• For this to happen, I think we ought to look back quite a few years to a proposal that I made to the Federal Government. That is to create a “National Off-Road Park” along the entire peninsula, where future races can be held exclusively through a permitting process. These trails would be so tough and inaccessible for daily use that we could control crowds a lot better. I am speaking of trails that would include start and finish areas such as Tecate, Mexicali, (at the time I suggested also Rosarito but it’s really growing at a fast pace and it might not be feasible), Ensenada, San Felipe, San Quintin, San Vicente, Gonzaga Bay, Bahia de Los Angeles, El Rosario, Catavina, Guerrero Negro, El Arco, San Ignacio, Mulage, Loreto, Ciudad Constitucion. La Paz and Cabo San Lucas. Theses trails can be divided into 125, 250, 300, 450, 500, 750, 1000, and 1200 mile courses. We can use portions of one with another or just use the selected courses.
• But here is where the tricky part comes. It means that we as promoters would have to physically cut trails with due diligence, throughout the entire States of Baja Norte and Baja Sur with prior approval. Our laying out the potential courses must take into consideration growth, potential ecological concerns, and access. It would be a lot of work and it will cost a lot of money, but I can guarantee you that, done correctly, we would always have the off-road trails in which to race.
RO – That sounds like a monumental task. Who would do all that you and other promoters?
LP – To be sure, we promoters, U.S., and Mexican, would have to have a hand on its development. I would hope that the State and the Federal Governments would underwrite a large portion of this effort. After all, it would be their “National Off-Road Park” that we promoters would use during the year. So yes, I think they would have to think of this seriously. The economic windfall is large enough to warrant all of us doing this.
RO – Wow! That sounds like a huge project. Do you really think that it could be done? I mean would other promoters jump into something like this? Would the current government go along?
LP – If they are smart, they (promoters and government officials) would. They have to think of the future of the sport beyond the next three to five years. They have to think that the sport must live for another fifty years and more.
Going along as we are doing now, I see it as futile. We think that the people who love our sport won’t let its demise happen. Not so. Do you know that the people who love our sport in Baja are maybe one percent of the population? The other 90-plus percent don’t give a hoot whether the sport lives or not. They get nothing out of it. They will demand changes. We have to be smart and start policing ourselves and look to implement major changes before a simple vote of the population says “no-mas!” No more!
Where do we go from there? It’s a tricky situation that we are faced with.
Whatever we do, we all must learn to nurture Baja, our cousins, friends and find ways to minimize the tragedies that occurred this past race. Most importantly, I think we must show that we are doing something about it.
RO – Boy it sounds like we have a lot of work to do.
LP – You bet!
RO – Thank you, Mr. Peralta. I hope our readers enjoy your insights.