Kurt Caselli, 30, died from injuries sustained during a crash while racing in the 2013 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 on Friday in Baja, Mexico.
According to a statement from SCORE International Off-Road Racing, the sanctioning body behind the Baja 1000, Caselli's KTM Racing team had been leading the 883.1-mile off-road race when "he apparently lost control of his KTM motorcycle in a sandy, high-speed section at approximate race-mile 792."
The accident occurred at 4:30 p.m. PST. According to a statement released by KTM Saturday evening, the crash "resulted in severe head trauma. He died of his injuries in Ensenada."
The KTM statement also reported that, upon inspection of Caselli's recovered bike, the team "discovered traces on the machine that indicate he had collided with some small animal, which apparently caused the crash."
Caselli was a Moto X Endurocross competitor at X Games beginning in 2011, and was one of the most highly decorated athletes in off-road racing. He was named AMA Sportsman of the Year in 2007, and was in Baja fresh off of winning his third consecutive AMA National Hare & Hound Championship title.
"Our desert racing family has lost a very special person in Kurt," said SCORE president Roger Norman, in the statement. "Kurt was a superb racer and this is a tragedy that affects us all. We extend our deepest condolences, thoughts and prayers to the Caselli family. Their loss is immeasurable and we grieve with them."
Early reports that the crash was related to an on-course booby trap have been discredited by eyewitnesses.
"My teammate Rickey Brabec was the first person to Kurt … in a very secluded area with no spectators," Kawasaki racer Taylor Robert posted on his Facebook page on Saturday afternoon. "Ivan Ramirez showed up shortly after Ricky. They decided Ricky would go get help while Ivan stayed with Kurt.
"Even though the news didn't come out until the night time the accident happened while there was still daylight, and didn't have anything to do with racing at night. This was merely a racing accident."
Caselli had been competing on the 2x KTM bike, with an FMF Racing/Bonanca Plumbing KTM team that included X Games Moto X Endurocross gold medalist Mike Brown and Ivan Ramirez and Kendall Norman. The KTM Racing team posted the following statement on Friday night:
"[We are] hugely shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Kurt Caselli. … A huge loss to his family, team and to our sport. Kurt was a wonderful competitor and an all round top guy."
Tributes have been flooding out over social media overnight, including this one from the World Off-Road Championship Series Facebook page:
"It is with a heavy heart and fond memories of one of the greatest racers to ever kick a leg over a motorcycle that we morn the loss of a great one. Kurt Caselli raced, lived and breathed off-road and was a role model to many. My tears and prayers are for his family and to all those that will feel the deep loss from our small community."
Caselli was the WORCS champion in 2007, 2010, and 2011.
The Jonny Campbell Racing Honda team of Colton Udall, Tim Weigand, David Kamo, and Mark Samuels went on to win the race with a time of 18 hours, 29 minutes, 14.240 seconds, marking the 17th-consecutive Baja 1000 win for Honda.