LAS VEGAS (AP) — A veteran race driver from California may have been distracted for a moment before his silver 1997 Porsche 993 crashed off a sweeping turn and exploded into a fireball close to the finish line of a high-speed highway road rally in rural Nevada, the local sheriff said Tuesday.
Philip Bowser, 71, of San Jose, may have been driving more than 120 mph when he missed a left turn barely 3 miles short of the finish line of the 90-mile Silver State Classic Challenge, Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee said.
Bowser's death and the narrow escape of his daughter in their 150 mph-class run drew attention to an open-road competition that for 27 years has allowed non-professional drivers to hit speeds faster than 200 mph on a lonely stretch of desert road north of Las Vegas.
Bowser's daughter, Amy Bowser, 44, of Reno, suffered injuries to parts of her face that her helmet didn't cover, but she escaped serious injury as the car plunged down an embankment off State Route 318 and burst into flames, Lee said.
She was serving as race navigator in the passenger seat, and she couldn't get her unconscious dad out of the wreckage before it burned.
"She kept saying, 'I couldn't get him out by myself,' " said Lee, who was the first emergency responder to the scene of the Sunday morning crash near Hiko, Nevada. Flames prevented Lee from reaching Philip Bowser, and the sheriff said he pulled the distraught daughter away when something in the wreckage exploded.
"The first thing she said to me was she thought he got distracted," Lee said.
As the county coroner, Lee is the lead crash investigator. A momentary look away or a reach toward the dashboard as the car approached the curve may have been enough to start the fatal swerve, he said.
Bowser's death was the fourth for the race held twice a year since 1988 on a remote highway in the Nevada high desert.
Richard DeKneef of California and Merle Hill of nearby Ely died in a fiery crash in 2011, when a tire blew as their Chevrolet Camaro topped 200 mph. Las Vegas driving instructor Terry Herman died in a wreck in 1992.
A race official and the sheriffs of White Pine, Nye and Lincoln counties where the event is held said Tuesday they believe the rally is run as safely as possible while allowing drivers to test their skills, their nerve and their vehicles.
"Negative attention raises concerns. But this is one of the safest hobbies in the world," said Jimi Day, a Wisconsin-based publicist for the nonprofit Silver State Classic Challenge Inc. He said 130 competitors took part Sunday.
Company chief Gail Waldman in Las Vegas declined to comment. She is the widow of race founder Steve Waldman, who died earlier this year.
"Look at the thousands of participants in 27 years driving 90-plus mph, and the tens of thousands of miles that have been run," Day said. "It's literally safer than crossing the street."
The highway is closed at 5 a.m., and Lee said even truckers asleep in their rigs are prompted to move along. Spectators are banned, but they can get a glimpse of racers whizzing past by serving as official gate monitors — placed at every dirt road and driveway along the highway to prevent anyone from entering.
Ambulances are positioned at several points along the track, with a helicopter on standby, White Pine Sheriff Dan Watts said.
Competitors are staged according to their predicted times. A car averaging 95 mph completes the course in just under an hour. A racer averaging 180 mph takes 30 minutes. The top record speed is more than 217 mph.
"They rent the road, and at that point it becomes a racetrack," Watts said.
Day said he had no information about a memorial service for Bowser, but said he knew the risks of the rally.
"Phil was a friend," Day said. "He's done this before. We're all very sad for his family and friends. But we all recognize this is a possibility that can happen when we strap into the driver seat."