Scores of police officers descended upon and shut down the Bonneville Raceway Saturday night after fighting erupted among drag racing fans, some of whom turned upon track security officers who tried to stop the scuffling.
Before calm returned about two hours later, many fans and officers had suffered minor injuries - scrapes, bruises and dog bites - and several people had been taken into custody.Fans and track officials were critical of the police response to the situation.
The annual daylong "Fox Hunt" drag race - described as the biggest event of the year - drew contestants from around the West and 10,000 to 12,000 fans from throughout Utah for the Memorial Day weekend at Bonneville, 6555 W. 21st South.
Most fans apparently were not aware of the fighting. Raceway officials closed the beer stands soon after the problem began, hoping that would help quell the trouble, and the races were still under way when West Valley officers ordered the track closed for safety reasons about 8:30 p.m.
The fans didn't respond well to the order. Thousands protested, refusing to leave.
Off-color chants filled the air, and some unhappy fans threw beer cans, rocks and other objects at the 40 to 50 West Valley, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake, South Salt Lake and Utah Highway Patrol officers who had responded to the emergency call. Windshields on some patrol cars were shattered.
West Valley Police Sgt. Randy Pond said the ruckus started when two track security officers tried to arrest several fighting fans just after 8 p.m.
After police took the fans into custody, 500 to 1,000 people left the stands and surrounded the officers.
At that point a police dog became aggravated and struck at both fans and police, West Valley Police Sgt. Ed Spann said.
A "small riot" ensued, Pond said. Other fans apparently tried to intervene, the officers were assaulted and radioed for help. Area law officers rushed to the raceway.
The trouble was centered not in the bleacher area, but in a section called the Circle Track, where about 300 to 400 fans had parked their cars on the oval racetrack to watch the drag racing on the adjacent straightaway.
Although West Valley police ordered the track shut down at 8:30 p.m., it took another two hours to clear the raceway and parking areas. The dispersal clogged nearby highways.
When asked if the police presence aggravated the problem, Pond said, "You can't leave people unpoliced. You've got to have the place secured."
But Dick Godfrey, the track's manager, said, "Ninety-nine percent of the people are here to watch the drags, and they don't want to cause any problems.
"I'm getting conflicting stories," he said. "We've got one story from fans that only four guys were involved. The police came in and were too rough, and the fans didn't like it.
"If they'd waited 45 more minutes, the race would have been over, and we would not have had this problem," Godfrey said.
Rowdy fans have caused trouble before at Bonneville, he said, but this is probably the first time the raceway has been closed by police.
Saturday's race events began at noon. Time trials began at 3 p.m., and drag racing eliminations began at 7 p.m. Godfrey said the races might have been over in about 45 more minutes if the police had not descended in force and closed the track.