Even before he climbed onto his dirt bike at a freestyle motocross (FMX) exhibition in Costa Rica, something didn't feel right to Jeremy Lusk. Only 24, Lusk, a husky San Diego kid wtih a brown buzz cut, was able to do just about anything on his 225-pound bike: backflips, tail whips, body extensions in midair. "A next generation star," as Wade Martin, CEO of the Alliance of Action Sports, described him. "One of the handful of guys driving the sport forward." Like his buddies in the Metal Mulisha, a Southern California FMX gang known for its black garb and smashmouth style, Lusk projected a hardened image (his nickname: "Pitbull"), despite being a soft-spoken born-again Christian married to his high school sweetheart. And with an X Games gold metal last year and two more at a contest in Mexico, Lusk was on a roll.
In the locker room at San Jose's Ricardo Saprissa Stadium, Lusk confessed to fellow rider Myles Richmond that the ramps felt a little funny. It was so windy the promoters had erected makeshift barricades to block the gusts. "He said, 'It's just like anything else – it takes a couple of time to get it figured out,'" Richmond remembers. Then Lusk donned his helmet and astronaut-style boots, gunned his engine, and zipped out onto the field.
Given the conditions, Richmond was surprised to see his friend attempt a difficult Hart Attack backflip (named after its pioneer, Carey Hart), in which a rider inverts his motorcycle in midair, extending his legs while beneath it. The real trick is returning to the seat before the bike lands. Richmond couldn't see the landing, but when the crowd roared, he assumed Lusk had pulled it off – until he saw Lusk's still body on a stretcher, one arm dangling off the side, as medics rushed him to a hospital. He'd hit the ground headfirst, so hard it pushed his neck back and split his helmet in two. Lusk died two days later. "It's sad to say, but I always felt someone was gonna die in a big event," says Ryan Leyba, a now-retired motocross rider. "I just never thought it would be Jeremy."
As in other adventure sports, a death-defying zero-margin-for-error trick has become almost a prerequisite for stardom in FMX. Riders such as Travis Pastrana, Mike Metzger, and Brian Deegan were already pushing the Hart Attack's limits, pulling back-to-back flips or 360s that ended in broken backs and concussions. Even before Lusk's accident, the flip was so daunting that many riders would flinch when asked if they were planning to learn it; some, like Leyba, quit FMX altogether. "The sport was going in a direction I didn't want to go," he says. "It's so unnatural for a dirt bike to do that." As former ESPN assistant marketing director Ian Votteri recalls, "The level of risk was getting gnarlier. The riders were saying, God, what's next?"
Richmond remembers a determined Lusk first nailing the flip on a 2005 trip to Texas. "It rained, and the ramps were way too wet," Richmond recalls. "I didn't want to ride, but he gave me a hard time. We cleaned up the runway so we could practice flipping. He wanted to do it."
For the riders aspiring to beat Hart and Pastrana, the backflip also appealed to their skinny wallets. Freestyle riders haul their bikes from contest to contest, hoping to hobble away with a few thousand dollars. The bigger the trick, the bigger the prize – and the better the chance of landing sponsors. The X-Knights contest in Costa Rica that claimed Lusk's life didn't require any particular moves, but its $10,000 prize was enough to get riders to test limits. "If you're one of the top guys, you're in for, what, five years?" says one action-sports insider. "It's critical for them to one-up each other; that's where you make the money. There is no 'reunion tour' for these guys."
Lusk's death has raised uncomfortable questions. "Are there safety measures we can take?" asks X Games senior vice-president and managing director Rick Alessandri, who broached the idea of neck braces. "Maybe." It's doubtful a brace would have saved Lusk. Adds Aaron Cooke of the Athletic Recovery Fund, a non-profit that helps athletes pay medical bills: "It's one of those things where the safety gear has to catch up to the injuries."
The day after Lusk's death, Richmond was flipping at a charity event at a children's hospital. "That's how he'd want us to be, riding and progressing," he says. "I try not to think about it, but, my God, at every jump, it's in the back of my head. You just don't think anything like this is ever going to happen."