Monday morning, a team of forensic mechanics began their diagnostic analysis of the "sand rail" buggy that wrecked Saturday at the 4-H St. Joseph County fairgrounds.
The wreck happened Saturday shortly before 7:30 p.m. at the first ever “Summer Thunder Mud Bog” event. Racer Steven DeLeeuw, 48, of West Olive Mich., near Holland, Mich. was killed.
But so far, investigators say the St. Joseph County 4-H Fairgrounds, which hosted this Mud Bog racing event, and Sod Busters, which helped organize it, did their due diligence in setting-up the course.
Monday, a spokesman with event organizer Sod Busters" released a statement saying:
“South Bend Sod Busters would like to wish our condolences to the family of Steven Deleeuw for the loss of their loved one Saturday evening at the event at the St. Joseph County 4-h fairgrounds in south bend.”
Despite the kind words, many spectators and racing enthusiasts have accused the event, in its first year, of not having the proper safety mechanisms and course setup in place.
While investigators say they have found no glaring negligence, they also say their principle duty is to rule out criminal culpability, not to determine whether there is justification for a civil lawsuit.
A veteran by all accounts, DeLeeuw was well known in the sand rail and mud bog racing industries, first getting involved with the sport back in the 1980s. Because of that notoriety, the 48-year-old took part in the first race of the night.
"Everyone was pumped, they were really excited," said witness Angela Swartzell. "He went to the starting line and he shot off. It was like a blink of an eye, he was gone."
Video taken by a spectator shows DeLeeuw peeling out of the gate at estimated top speeds of 70 to 80 miles per hour. After traveling a few hundred yards, DeLeeuw’s sand rail dune buggy reportedly hydroplaned on the mud pit, preventing the racer from breaking.
Monday, NewsCenter 16 learned officers have two additional videos that may help them in their investigation. One was taken by Delueew's son and another mounted inside the vehicle he was driving.
"When everyone sees a crash, they're excited," Swartzell said. "But once they realized the severity of it, the atmosphere definitely changed and there was more whispers and trying to figure out what was going on."
According to Lt. Matt Blank with the St. Joseph County Police Department, DeLeeuw’s dune buggy flipped multiple times before crashing into a solid concrete barrier and chain-linked fence.
Many of the 1500 spectators and racing enthusiasts in attendance dialed 911. Within minutes, dozens of emergency workers, including some off-duty police officers working event security, rushed to the scene.
But Swartzell says it took about 20 minutes before they could extricate him from the buggy.
"I think they should have been more well-equipped with the ambulance," she said."No it doesn't happen very often, but when he's never ran on a track like that before, they definitely should have been a little more prepared."
Paramedics transported the Michigan resident to Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival with massive blunt trauma all across his body.
Blank tells NewsCenter16, DeLeeuw’s 15-year-old son was at the race with his father and witnessed the horrific crash. His wife was at home in Michigan at the time.
"When he went, he went fast," said son Luke DeLeeuw. "I can't believe I'm smiling right now, but just to see him run brings a smile to my face."
The crash remains under investigation.
"Obviously, no one wants to see this happen once," said Sgt. Gene Eyster of the South Bend Police Department. "No one wants to see it happen a second time. So anything that we can do through our investigation and through our training and education that we can pass on to those that are involved in this sport that may reduce a further injury, that's the ultimate goal."
To view eyewitness video of the crash, just click on the link below this story.