It is easy to see why freestyle motocross is among the marquee events of the X Games, with riders soaring from ramp to ramp at distances of up to 100 feet, flipping their 250-pound bikes while performing mid-air handstands and other seemingly impossible tricks.
But when the action sports world's annual festival returns to Staples Center and the Home Depot Center beginning Thursday, the anticipation and atmosphere around the event -- the freestyle motocross final is Saturday -- won't be quite what it has been in the past.
In the tight-knit community of riders and their fans, the tragedy of Jeremy Lusk reverberates.
Lusk, last year's X Games champion, died six months ago after a violent head-first crash during an obscure competition in Costa Rica, and his passing -- believed to be the first fatality involving a pro rider at a competition -- has had a profound effect on the sport and its athletes.
Lusk, who was 24, was known as much for his work ethic and engaging personality as for his prodigious talent -- "one of those kinds of guys whose passion for what he did was very tangible," says Chris Stiepock, general manager of the X Games.
A tribute to Lusk will take place before Saturday's competition, and the event's medals will carry his name and a small cross.
"What made Lusk so popular was his style of just being such a mellow, cool dude," says Brian Deegan, 34, a freestyle motocross pioneer who was a close friend. "He just let his actions speak for him."
And now Lusk's friends and fellow competitors are letting their actions do some talking.
Part of Lusk's legacy is the creation of the American Freestyle Motocross Assn., which was formed to provide a voice and safety services for pro and recreational riders alike. It also will serve as a sanctioning body for events that adhere to strict safety guidelines, including the placement of emergency medical technicians on site during competitions.
Beyond that, some veteran riders are considering easing away from a relatively young sport -- freestyle motocross made its X Games debut in 1999 -- that is progressing so quickly it's difficult to keep up with the complex nature of tricks, all of which carry heavy consequences if not executed properly.
"It isn't as much fun as it used to be, because it used to be easy stuff," says Ronnie Faisst, 32, a veteran rider from Temecula. "Now you're happy when you finish riding for the day and you're in one piece."
Some riders have even turned to religion, perhaps in part because the sport is so dangerous. Lusk had recently been baptized and, just days before he left for Costa Rica had the words "In God's Hands" tattooed prominently across his chest.
A coincidence? Faisst doesn't think so.
"I believe God was using Jeremy's life and his death for the kingdom," he says.
Lusk viewed the competition in Costa Rica as an opportunity to build his resume and fatten his wallet. He was the premier rider at an event devoid of many top stars.
But conditions were not good at Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in the capital city of San Jose. Gusts of wind -- a freestyle rider's worst enemy -- tore through protective tarps. Lusk appeared to have been blown off-course as he attempted a trick he had performed many times before -- a back flip with an upside-down body-extension seat-grab across a 100-foot jump.
Lusk pulled himself back onto the seat in time but the bike did not fully rotate and landed on its front wheel and handlebars, the rider pitching forward and plowing head-first into the dirt down-slope.
Without readily available access to transportation to a private facility that might have been better equipped to deal with head injuries, Lusk was whisked to a public emergency hospital. Patients "were people just stacked in rooms on top of each other," says Deegan, the winner of 10 X Games medals and co-founder of the edgy Metal Mulisha apparel company that sponsors his racing team. "There were holes in the walls. The floors were dirty. The sheets had blood all over them.
"It was by far the gnarliest thing I've ever been through; even worse than any surgery I've had and any near-death crash. I'd much rather go through those than have to deal with losing a friend like that."
Deegan, who has a place on the American Freestyle Motocross Assn.'s advisory board, hopes that the organization will be able to steer riders away from similar far-flung events whose safety standards might not be up to par.
"If our name isn't on that event, hey, you're going at your own risk, and we'd really rather that you don't go to those events," Deegan says. "But if you're a member and you crash there, well, we're going to help you anyway."
Asked whether the establishment of the association might be perceived as acknowledgment of the sport's increasing danger, Deegan said it was not.