The decision to close Bonneville Raceway Saturday night was prudent - despite criticism by race officials, West Valley Police Chief Dennis Nordfelt said.
"Yes, it was a good decision to close the raceway down," Nordfelt told reporters Sunday, the morning after hundreds of race fans pelted police with rocks and beer bottles to protest a police order to close the race.Raceway officials advised against shutting the race down after two officers arrested a man fighting in a nearby race area, provoking 500 to 1,000 fans to flock from the stand and assault the arresting officers.
The conflict had the "potential to escalate into something really ugly," and officers knew something "dramatic" had to be done, Nordfelt said.
So, after 75 backup officers from four agencies arrived, Sgt. Randy Pond ordered the annual "Fox Hunt" drag race - considered the biggest event of the year - closed about 8:30 p.m., Nordfelt said.
But the riot continued, moving from the drag strip, where bikini-clad contestants in a beauty contest cajoled protesting fans, to another track where rock throwing continued until after 10:30 p.m.
Asked if the conflict would have cooled had police not remained on the scene for more than two hours, Nordfelt said, "Once it started escalating . . . we had a problem, and then it was a matter of immunizing that problem."
When police evacuated the raceway on Nordfelt's order about 10:30, the riot evaporated. "We left and then they left," he said.
"In my opinion, the big mistake was shutting the race down," track manager Dick Godfrey said, adding he advised officers the race would end in 45 minutes and if it was closed early, a virtual riot would ensue.
Godfrey stressed, however, that, except for closure of the race, police handled the situation well.
Officers at the scene Saturday night indeed described the melee that followed as a riot. Three officers were hospitalized and released with injuries sustained from being hit with rocks and other projectiles, Nordfelt said.
Two spectators were also injured, one suffered a chipped tooth, the other a bruised face, Nordfelt confirmed. Many others also may have been injured, but those incidents remained undocumented Sunday, he said.
"I never saw any officer who was overly
aggressive," Nordfelt said. Nor was he aware of any official complaints of police brutality, although several spectators complained to reporters they were struck by police Saturday.
Pond said Saturday night that two spectators and police officers were bitten by a police dog, which Nordfelt stressed was never unleashed, when the animals became aggravated during the first arrest.
Nordfelt said nine spectators were arrested and booked into Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of disorderly conduct, inciting a riot and resisting arrest and other activity.
Race announcer Brandon Gee, who was handcuffed after initially refusing to announce the race closure, was not arrested and charged, Nordfelt said, adding he did not know why officers handcuffed Gee.
Witnesses reported seeing many more spectators taken into custody, handcuffed and then released Saturday night.
Police and race officials cited use of alcohol illegally brought into the raceway as a major contributing factor to the riot, and its control will be a topic of formal discussion between the two parties Tuesday.
Godfrey said he will work closely with West Valley officials to ensure that a Fox Hunt rescheduled for June 4 will go smoothly.
Ticket stubs from Saturday's event will be honored at next weekend's race, which Godfrey said would cost him thousands of dollars.
A series of meetings this week with race officials and West Valley police may offer solutions to Saturday's problems, Nordfelt said.