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Victims identified in fatal Marysville Raceway accident
Police have released the names of the victims in a race car crash on Saturday that left two people dead at Marysville Raceway Park.
Dale Richard Wondergem Jr. of Grass Valley, 68, was pronounced dead at the scene and Marcus Joseph Johnson of Santa Rosa, 14, died at Rideout Memorial Hospital in Marysville shortly after they were hit by a careening vehicle in the raceway's pit area, authorities said.
"It was a very violent scene," said Wes Brenton, who witnessed the grisly site moments after the accident.
The Yuba County Sheriff's Department said they received several 911 phone calls at about 6 p.m. after a winged sprint car left the racetrack during a warmup lap and hit Wondergem and Johnson on pit row. The vehicle, traveling at an undetermined speed, then tipped on its side and came to a stop.
The driver, 17-year-old Chase Domonic Johnson of Penngrove in Sonoma County, was not injured in the crash, authorities said. No one else was injured in the incident, and the park's spectators were never in jeopardy.
The Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol are investigating the cause of the accident, Undersheriff Jerry Read said. Autopsies on Wondergem and Marcus Johnson will be conducted today or Tuesday.
Sprint cars are small, high horsepower vehicles that normally race on short dirt ovals. The races often serve as stepping stones for NASCAR hopefuls.
Brenton, a sprint car owner, said he was standing in pit row when he heard the crash. He said he rushed over to help Johnson climb out of his race car.
"He was very, very shaken up," he said, adding later that the expression on the driver's face was one of "terror."
After Chase was pulled to safety, Brenton said he saw Wondergem lying face-down near the vehicle.
Brenton's 17-year-old son, Adam, was one of the drivers competing in the California Sprint Car Civil War Series on Saturday night who witnessed the scene after the crash.
Adam said he saw Marcus Johnson, who was Chase Johnson's cousin, lying on the ground unconscious.
"I can't get the image out of my head," the Marysville driver said.
Adam said he has been friends with Chase for about six years and that Chase is a well-known and successful driver on the racing circuit.
Don Johnson, Chase's father and Marcus' uncle, issued a statement Sunday thanking the racing community, The Associated Press reported.
"Our family has suffered an unspeakable tragedy with the passing of our precious Marcus Johnson and Dale Wondergem. There are no words to express our sorrow. Our family has been racing for four generations and loves the sport that has now brought us so much pain," the statement said.
About 200 people, mostly classmates, family and friends, gathered around a table filled with flowers, stuffed animals and notes, during a memorial candlelight vigil for Marcus Johnson at Rincon Valley Middle School in Santa Rosa on Sunday evening.
The Appeal-Democrat was able to reach the Wondergem family on Sunday. However, the Wondergems declined to comment.
Bob Burbach, the announcer for the Marysville racetrack, said he met Wondergem 21 years ago.
"I knew Dale personally as a kind, gregarious and positively motivated individual," Burbach said in an email.
Wondergem, a former sprint car driver, experienced most of his success at the now-closed Ernie Purssell Speedway in Grass Valley, Burbach said. After his retirement, Wondergem provided a race car for his son, Ricky, and then for driver Herman Klein.
Klein took fifth in the overall Civil War standings last year while driving Wondergem's blue No. 91 car.
"Wondergem was a racer in the purest sense of the word," Burbach said.
The Civil War series comprises a traveling group of racers that are scheduled to visit the Marysville track twice this season, he said. Despite the tragedy, the quarter-mile clay oval will remain open for business.
According to Burbach, Marysville Raceway Park is the safest short-track facility "in the West."
It's the only short track in the area that has its own fire truck and ambulance service available instantly, he said. Outside fire and rescue personnel are also available.
However, Brenton said, the park is unusual because it is the only track that exits directly into the pit after a straightaway and doesn't have a gate.
Saturday night's accident was the second time someone has died at the Linda track in three years.
In 2010, Merle Shepherd Jr. was killed during the track's first Big Rig Trucks exhibition. His death was the first at the track in its nearly 50-year history, officials at the time said.
Shepherd's widow, Linda, filed a wrongful death suit against the track operators. The case is pending.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat contributed to this story. CONTACT Griffin Rogers at email@example.com.