Two fatalities in three events have prompted the City of Long Beach to deny permits for speed boats even after amendments were made to the venue and the rules of the race.
LONG BEACH⸺ Long Beach officials denied a special-event permit for the 2022 Sprint Nationals races planned for Aug. 6 of this year in Marine Stadium. On April 14, Ross Wallach, the President and Race Director of the Southern California Speedboat Club (SCSC), filed an appeal with the city clerk’s office as prescribed in the City Manager’s denial letter from April 5. The basics of the appeal include three points:
- The denial of the permit for the Sprint Nationals event scheduled for August 6 & 7 is contradicted by the evidence.
- SCSC was not allowed to present reasonable modifications to mitigate the City’s concerns.
- The public’s safety was never jeopardized, but the SCSC has nonetheless implemented mitigation measures that warrant the issuance of the permit.
“The city’s decision to decline the Southern California Speedboat Club’s application to conduct the 2022 ARP Long Beach Sprint Nationals competition at Marine Stadium was made after a thorough review of the proposed operations plan for the 2022 event that was submitted to the city with the event application,” said Jennifer De Prez, the Public Affairs Specialist for the City of Long Beach.
According to De Prez, the city takes a strict approach to ensure all events conducted in Long Beach are safe for both participants and active and passive spectators. However, as a result of the city’s investigation of the boating collision that occurred during the 2021 event and the similarities between that collision and a collision that occurred during the 2018 event, both of which resulted in the tragic death of a race participant, the city has determined that the Sprint Nationals Competition under its current configuration and safety requirements is unsafe and poses a danger to both racing participants and spectators.
During last year’s races, driver Jay Hart died after being ejected from his open-cockpit speedboat during a race on Aug. 8, 2021, creating further concern for the City of Long Beach to continue allowing the races. Hart was the second death in the past three Sprint Nationals; Gregory Paul Duff died two weeks after being hit by a boat while racing in the 2018 event.
A memo was sent on April 11 to City Manager Tom Modica, Special Events Manager Tasha Day, and Deputy Fire Chief Robbie Grego that said the event was too dangerous with its current set-up.
Wallach objects to the city’s decision.
“The Southern California Speedboat Club has been promoting boat racing events at Marine Stadium since 1946, and in that time, there have [been] accidents and fatalities,” said Wallach. “During the past 25 years that I have personally promoted the event for SCSC. We have experienced several racing accidents and, unfortunately, two fatalities [2018 and 2021].”
The Sprint Nationals have run at Marine Stadium since 1946, with several years taken off over time. Several classes of speedboats, some capable of speeds up to 150 mph, race an elliptical course around pylons in the stadium, sometimes for national titles.
After Duff’s death in 2018, the city first denied the 2019 permit, then agreed to the implementation of several safety enhancements. However, it wasn’t until two weeks before the scheduled event that Wallach and the SCSC secured a $10 million liability policy, up from $1 million the year before, to meet city requirements and get the event permit.
Wallach said the city had refused for months to meet with him at that time and that the same thing happened this year.
“We regret that the accidents happened, but it should be noted that at no time was any spectator or member of the public injured or in harm’s way,” said Wallach. “There have been zero lawsuits either naming SCSC or the City of Long Beach as a result of either of these fatalities or previous accidents. SCSC feels confident that if given the opportunity to sit down with the city agencies, as was customary after each year’s event and promised, which to date still has not happened, we, SCSC, would be able to address any and all concerns the city has as it relates to these past events and to mitigate future accidents like this from occurring. The reasons why they say they’re denying the permit are all erroneous. If they would just sit down with me, I could correct them.”
De Prez said she is researching Wallach’s claim. In the meantime, she said it is up to him to appeal the decision and provide a new plan.
“We, SCSC, have met with our safety committee and our hired external Safety Compliance Officer (Mr. Ray Renneker) as prescribed by the city and have come up with our increased safety plan, including but not limited to 1.) mandating capsules for all boats in classes over 105 mph. 2.) Outlawing running open-cockpit race boats with enclosed cockpit race boats. 3.) Limiting the number of participants in these classes (above 105 mph) to a maximum of 4 at a time on the racecourse,” said Wallach in an email from April 18.
During the 2021 fatality, a wake seemed to push one of the racing boats into Hart’s boat, which overturned, ejecting Hart. Both boats were traveling at about 110 miles per hour. The City’s letter said that if the boat had not overturned, it would have continued into the crowd of spectators.
Wallach said that statement is false — the accident caused the boat to turn over and go dead in the water. Also, barriers to prevent a boat from going into the stands had been added after the 2018 fatality.
According to Wallach, the SCSC hired experts who did not find the size of the facility, the actual racecourse, the water conditions, or the speed of the boats involved to be the cause of the accident, and the SCSC experts found driver error to be the root of the cause of the casualties.
“We’ve had two racing incidents on the water,” Wallach said. “We’ve had two fatalities in three events. But in the previous 25 years, we haven’t had one, not one.”
Wallach said his association has already passed rules to slow down boats and increase driver safety. For example, any boat capable of going faster than 105 mph must now have a closed cockpit; both drivers who died were in open cockpit boats. In addition, the number of boats allowed in a heat will drop from six to four. Wallach also said he’s willing to talk about other changes in the venue’s configuration.
Wallach claims he has still not heard back from the city regarding his April 14 appeal.