DENVER — For more than a decade, daredevils in snowsuits climbed atop their quarter-ton snowmobiles, sped them up icy ramps and flipped them head over heels into the frosty night air. Fans of action sports cheered while others, less enthralled with the event, wondered whether the sport was a good idea.
It's a question that's getting a much more serious look after last month's Winter X Games, where things went wrong in a serious and tragic way.
One rider, with very little experience on snowmobiles, flew off his vehicle and the machine went careening into the fence, dangerously close to spectators. Another wrecked and separated his pelvis. That rider's brother, 25-year-old Caleb Moore, lost control, landed on his head and, four days later, died from injuries related to the accident.
The tragedy left everyone involved — snowmobilers, other action sports stars, the people who issue the permits and the programmers at ESPN, which sanctions and televises the X Games — re-examining a niche event in an action-sports world that has, for decades, lured its audience by thumbing its nose at danger.
"That's something we'll all have to deal with," said Levi LaVallee, whose two gold medals in snowmobiling this year were afterthoughts in the wake of Moore's death. "Unfortunately, the crashes that happened, they're serious ones. You can only pray that that stuff won't happen in future — look at how it happened and see how we can prevent that in the future. It's a tough one for a guy that's passionate about the sport."
In Aspen, where the event has been held for the past 12 years, regulators have signaled they'll take a new look at the permitting process for the Winter X Games, including the possibility that they'll get more involved in the ins and outs of the actual events, which are usually left to ESPN's discretion.
"We permit so many events and they're all so different in nature, too," said Mike Kraemer, a planner for the department that handles special event permits in Aspen. "We've never had machines go into the crowd. We may need to ask, 'How can you mitigate for those types of actions?'"
That question, along with equally big issues of rider safety, will be on ESPN's plate over the upcoming year.
"ESPN's Safety and Security departments go through a diligent review of all venues for the safety of staff, athletes and spectators," Scott Guglielmino, ESPN's senior vice president of Programming and X Games, said in a statement sent to The Associated Press.
Among the core issues network officials will have to discuss is whether the thrills, spills and ratings provided by snowmobile tricks are worth the risks that became so apparent in Aspen last month. ESPN's average of 1.1 million viewers for nine telecasts hovers around the same area as the PGA Tour but below that for NBA telecasts.
Snowmobile jumping is hardly the first sport in which athletes willingly subject themselves to severe and sometimes life-threatening injuries. But even sports such as football and NASCAR, which are an ingrained part of American culture, have been under pressure in recent years to improve safety.
"I guess the question is, do we acknowledge that there are certain sports that are so established that danger has become a fact of life, and are we OK adding more to that list?" said Robert Thompson, a professor who studies popular culture at Syracuse. "But certainly if we said we should not legitimize a sport where the possibility of serious injury or death is there, then we'd have to look carefully at some beloved institutions in this country."
Sporting high-wire acts used to be the domain of Evel Knievel, whose jumps across the fountains at Caesar's Palace and elsewhere made news not only because of their intrepidness, but because he had a willing media partner in ABC, which put them on "Wide World of Sports."
The X Games franchise, which started in 1995, broadened both the audience and the participant pool for these sort of spectacular but high-risk events.
Impressed by the highlights, to say nothing of the young audience they draw, the Olympics has added several disciplines over the past 15 years — namely snowboarding, in race form, on the halfpipe and, beginning in 2014, on the slopestyle course.
As those events have grown into the mainstream, their respective industries have grown through equipment sales, vacation packages and lift tickets. A bad week on snowmobiles at the X Games, however, does not concern leaders in the industry, who say recreational riders recognize the clear demarcation between a casual weekend with friends and what the competitors try in the X Games.
"You never see it where we go," said Ed Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association. "That's just pushing it to the extremes, which is why they call it the X Games."
Buoyed by steadily growing success since his X Games debut in 2010, when he earned a bronze medal, Moore had a full schedule planned for this season, in an attempt to earn his share of the still-limited prize pool competitive snowmobiling generates.
Moore's death will leave a gap in the sport, depriving it of a man LaVallee called "a fierce competitor" with a "very creative mind" — the sort of traits that keep daredevils pushing the envelope and entertaining fans for pennies on the dollar compared to what NFL players or NASCAR drivers can make.
The risks they take, however, are every bit as serious, and now their sport is in the spotlight.
"It does look bad for the sport in general," said Tucker Hibbert, a winner of six straight X Games snowmobiling titles in SnoCross, who skips the more dangerous freestyle event. "But at the same time, when you see someone doing something amazing and cool, and record-breaking on a snowmobile, it sheds good light on what we do. It's the nature of sport in general. You have to deal with it. For me, I love riding snowmobiles, enjoy racing and riding. You have to do everything you can to be safe and take precautions you need to avoid injuries and crashes."