After off-track excursions, concerns mount over future of racing at El Mirage
Photo by CleftClips.
One would think the fluorescent orange signs would do the trick. Or perhaps the flashing LED lights mounted to those signs. But the Southern California Timing Association has decided to take additional measures to keep racers from blowing through the shutdown area on the track at El Mirage Dry Lake to ensure that racing continues there in the future.
Unlike the Bonneville Salt Flats, El Mirage sees high levels of public use alongside the SCTA’s regular racing events. According to Pat McDowell, the president of the SCTA, the organization does its best to separate the racing area from the motorcyclists, campers, and windsailers also using the dry lakebed by laying out cones and by posting observers every eighth of a mile along the track.
The track itself measures 90 feet by 1.3 miles and has another mile of shutdown area followed by “secondary containment”–cones that narrow in a V shape for 100 yards. The abovementioned signs and lights, along with balloons at two heights, mark the shutdown and containment areas.
“When a car goes outside that area, the BLM doesn’t like that much,” he said. “We’re in danger of losing our freedom here.”
“At the last SCTA El Mirage event of the season earlier this month, six drivers sent their cars ‘out the back door’–that is, beyond the shutdown and containment areas–far more than the occasional driver who suffers mechanical failures with their parachutes or brakes,” McDowell said. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees El Mirage and issues permits to the SCTA to allow it to use the dry lakebed, documented each off-course excursion.
“These are big mistakes by the drivers,” McDowell said. He noted that it’s possible El Mirage’s dust and haze can cause some drivers to miss the signage, but it’s more likely that many of the drivers behind those six back-door violations either didn’t pay attention during rookie training or driver orientation, and thought they had a longer Bonneville-scale course. “The perfect storm is if somebody goes out and hits a kid on a dirt bike. After that, we’re done, there’s no coming back.”
McDowell made the excursions a topic of his end-of-season message to SCTA members earlier this week, noting that the violations “are a very serious infraction and threaten our very existence at El Mirage. We just cannot continue to have these problems or we will be shut down.”
BLM representatives did not return calls for this story.
Since the last SCTA event, McDowell said that BLM representatives have requested that the SCTA increase the visibility of the shutdown and containment areas, which McDowell said the SCTA will do before its season opener at El Mirage next May. McDowell also said that SCTA officials are discussing tougher punishment for back-door violations, likely on a sliding scale. “If a guy goes over by a few inches because his chute didn’t pop, he might be out for the day, but if he’s under power for a mile past the end of the course, he’s not coming back for a while.”
Past SCTA president Bill Lattin said that the SCTA hasn’t considered reversing the El Mirage course–running from east to west instead of the current west to east, theoretically shunting anybody who goes past the end of the course into lesser-used areas of the dry lakebed. “I’m not sure that would be a good way to go,” he said.
Both McDowell and Lattin said that back-door violations aren’t the norm at El Mirage. Both cited instances of drivers at speeds of up to and exceeding 300 mph able to get their cars stopped well within the shutdown area. However, both also noted that the cars racing at El Mirage are more capable of higher speeds than in years past, and that driver education is critical to keep those faster cars from leaving the race course.
“There’s that saying, ‘You can’t fix stupid,’ but we’ve gotta give it a shot,” McDowell said.
The SCTA has hosted land-speed racing events at El Mirage since 1938. The racers who gathered at El Mirage and other Western dry lakes in the pre- and postwar eras are often considered the pioneers of the hot-rodding hobby.
For more information about the SCTA, visit SCTA-BNI.org.