Travis Livingston, a dirt bike rider from Palmdale, was ecstatic to get his first chance to test his mettle over the weekend in Mexico's grueling off-road Baja 500 race after another rider dropped out.
One of four team riders for Team 6X, the 32-year-old Californian mounted his Honda 450 and took his place Saturday at the starting line with hundreds of motorcycle riders from around the globe. He tore along the pitted dirt and rock trails, some of racing's most extreme terrain, in triple-digit temperatures, all for the glory of Baja gold.
He was in third place in his class at mile 289, just over the halfway mark in the 500-mile race, when he crashed. Livingston went into cardiac arrest and died. Friends said he crashed while headed into an S-shaped turn in a sandy wash area, "nothing you'd think Trav couldn't handle."
"This is something that he has dreamed of his entire life," said Justin Axelrod, who knew Livingston since the first grade. "He always wanted to be known as a professional rider. He loved, loved riding. He died doing exactly what he wanted to be doing."
Livingston was one of three people who died over the weekend at the race in separate incidents, including an 8-year-old boy when a race truck plowed into a group of spectators who race officials said were inside a restricted area. The boy's mother was injured. The third person who died was another motorcycle racer from Alaska who crashed along the course. All three deaths are under investigation by police in Ensenada, Mexico, where the event starts and ends, according to a statement by event organizer SCORE.
The deaths underscore the danger to both racers and spectators.
Race organizers said that safety is their top priority and that they've worked hard to improve safety in recent years. The police and military in Mexico patrol the course and try to keep people off the track, but it's tough in a sprawling desert race, said Jim Ryan, spokesman for SCORE. The event's website features a safety guide that includes videos for racers and spectators in English and Spanish.
On the course, ambulances stand by on the ground and helicopters carrying doctors, patrol the skies, Ryan said. Some race teams have their own helicopters that can also respond to crashes. Motorcycles, cars and trucks are outfitted with tracking devices.
"The teams are always cognizant of crowds as much as they can be," Ryan said. "Safety is a constant state of improvement. It's the best it's ever been in the history of the sport. It's always a priority. It doesn't matter how old the race is."
Racers say safety at the Baja 500, in its 48th year and one of motorcycle riding's most brutal races, has been improved "by leaps and bounds."
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"They're doing everything in their power to be as safe as they can be," said Steve Laroza, an instructor at Rally America in New Hampshire and an experienced dirt bike rider who's participated in hundreds of desert races and has lost racers in accidents. "But race and safe don't usually go in the same line."
As an investigation continues into the deaths, Livingston's family and friends planned his memorial service.
Livingston and his girlfriend of eight years, Lily Mills, had just bought a house and he was scraping money together to buy her an engagement ring. She got to watch his final race.
"I miss him," said Mills through tears. "I'm really proud of him. I know that this is something he wanted to do for so long and he finally got to do it."
His father, Darin, who was also Mexico to watch, said his emotions range from anger to admiration.
"I'm going to miss every aspect of him," said Darin, also a rider. "We were so tight. We were like brothers."
Mike Johnson witnessed his best friend's last moments.
"The worst feeling is standing there and feeling helpless and not being able to help him," he said. "I was with Travis when he took his last few breaths. The only thing that gives me comfort is that he died doing what he loved."
Axelrod is glad he was able to spend quality time with his buddy in the days before the race. He remembers a giddy Livingston while having a few beers in Axelrod's garage, anticipating the Baja 500.
"Travis was googly-eyed," Axelrod said. "He was so excited. It reminded me of when he was a kid and he was hitting his first jump."
He said he was hit with a wave of emotion on the way to the gym the other day when he pulled out a pack of Gummy Bears that he had shared with Livingston.
"I realized that I was eating out of the same bag that he probably put his grubby hands in," he laughed. "None of us saw this coming."