Josh Headford, an up-and-coming FMX rider from Helps, Mich., broke his femur, fractured a shoulder blade, and injured his wrist and elbow after a midair collision with a cable strung across his flight path during a performance for the Elf Khurafeh Shrine Circus on Sunday at the Dow Event Center's Wendler Arena in Saginaw, Mich. Al Basner, a Shriner performing in the circus as a clown, was also injured in the accident after the cable struck him in the face.
In dramatic YouTube footage of the crash posted Sunday night, Headford can be seen taking off for a routine warm-up straight air on the ramp-to-ramp setup and striking the cable at the apex of his jump as if running into a clothesline, then whipping approximately 30 feet to the ground. Headford is being treated for his injuries at Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw and was in surgery on Monday, said Scott Murray, Headford's friend and manager at Sick Air FMX.
"Thankfully there's not been any more serious complications, considering the violent nature of the crash," Murray told ESPN. "After looking at the YouTube clip I know we're lucky this wasn't much, much worse."
Risk in FMX is a given, and safety precautions for FMX athletes have always been paramount at high-profile events such as the X Games, Red Bull X-Fighters and Dew Tour, but several recent deaths have focused attention on the need for vigilance at smaller events, particularly when dealing with promoters unfamiliar with the sport and venues that present less-than-ideal conditions.
FMX legend Jeremy Lusk died in February 2009 while competing at a contest in Costa Rica, prompting industry-wide efforts to improve conditions for FMX athletes, and Jim McNeil died in November 2011 while practicing for an exhibition jump at Texas Motor Speedway, raising questions about rider safety at FMX demonstrations.
Riding in a circus, says Murray, can be … well, a bit of a circus.
"These kinds of events can be the most chaotic circumstances FMX athletes ever ride in," Murray said. "When you have ropes and cables dangling from the ceiling and 'the show must go on' pressure to keep things moving along, there's a lot that can go wrong. Anything you're doing 30 feet in the air with a 250-pound dirt bike is really dangerous even when things are perfect, much less when there's a cable you can't even see hanging right in your way that just, bottom line, should not be there."
Headford, 20, was standing in for another rider last week as a temporary addition to the Elf Khurafeh Shrine Circus but had successfully performed in the show several times earlier in the week, said Murray, who had also performed with the Elf Khurafeh Shrine Circus as a stand-in performer earlier this month. Murray described the cable as a "guy wire" that was supposed to have been raised prior to the circus' finale, which features several FMX riders performing a series of ramp-to-ramp jumps.
"Everyone was in shock," Craig Hatch, executive director of the Elf Khurafeh Shrine circuses, told The Saginaw News on Monday, noting that the crowd was cleared from the building on Sunday as a Mobile Medical Response crew arrived on the scene and that crews from the Shrine Circus and The Dow Event Center were assessing the situation on Monday morning. Hatch could not be reached for comment for this story.
"The lights were coming up -- it was the end of the show -- and at first, even our ringmaster wasn't sure what had happened," Hatch told the newspaper. "It looked as if Josh was doing a somersault, which he does at the end, but the bike hit the floor instead of the ramp. That's when we knew it was an unforeseen accident."
Murray said Headford had complained earlier in the week about pressure from event promoters to hurry the show along, and had been concerned that the metal takeoff ramp was sliding on the venue's slick concrete floor. He says Headford should not have been given the OK to jump until all cables and other obstructions had been cleared away to make the jump safe.
"You're out there trying to make a name for yourself and you want to please these promoters and put on a good show, so when you get the go-ahead you go for it," Murray said. "We're professionals, and this is what we do for a living. But these promoters have to understand that the safety of the athletes has to come first, whether it's on an X Games level or a Shriner's circus. You just can't be messing around out there. Ultimately, Josh should not have jumped until he knew the coast was clear, so to speak, but it's dark, the cable is black, you've got your goggles on, and you're focusing on your jumps, which are dangerous enough on their own. Having a clear path from takeoff to landing should be a given, and in this case it wasn't."
Murray, a three-time Moto X Best Trick competitor at X Games, said he knows the level of risk involved in FMX better than just about anybody: He's one of just a handful of riders in the world to have successfully landed a double backflip, and said he's learned -- the hard way -- to walk away from any setting that is less than ideal. He recently declined to perform his double backflip at the X Pilots event in Mexico City after noticing that his bike's engine wasn't performing reliably in the high altitude at the venue.
"The athletes need to be self aware of the danger and risks they are taking and they have got to stand up for themselves, especially when promoters aren't taking their safety seriously," Murray said. "The sad fact is that nobody else is gonna do it for them."