PINELLAS PARK — Just before he took flight, Monte McCoy twisted the throttle on his dirt bike and gunned it up another hill.
A moment later, he would be standing up on the bike, 40 feet in the air, nothing but dirt and sky and a horizon stretching out before him. Mr. McCoy lived for those pockets of space, and was willing to endure scrapes and even a few concussions to make them happen.
"A few weeks ago," recalled Jeff Peters, a childhood friend and longtime motocross buddy, "Monte said, 'I am going to ride motorcycles until the day I die. They'll have to peel me off.' "
Mr. McCoy, a Florida motocross legend who brought national attention to riders in this state, died Nov. 12, while riding his motorcycle. He was 54.
"Tough? Boy, was he tough," said Steve Martin, 50, a former two-time national champion in Japan who also grew up with Mr. McCoy. "I'd see him crash so hard, I'd think, 'He's really going to be hurt this time.' But he'd just get up and brush it off."
The moment a 240-pound motocross bike comes to earth, the rider must control several competing forces at once. "You land in the sand," said Peters, 50. "The bike wants to go all over the place. You adjust."
Mr. McCoy suffered a few concussions over the years but nothing more serious, although a recent doctor's visit revealed healed fractures he had never noticed before.
A Pinellas Park native, Mr. McCoy got his first bike from his parents when he was about 11. At 15, he won the World Mini-Cycle Grand Prix in Valencia, Calif., beating 526 other contestants.
He turned pro at 16 while attending Dixie Hollins High. In 1976, he won the 500cc class race at what is now the Daytona Supercross, one of the most prestigious national races. He began racing full-time, competing against the sport's top stars, all backed by major manufacturers like Suzuki and Honda.
"Those guys had sponsors," said Peters, 50. "Monte never had a corporate sponsor, and he always put it on those guys. They would come to town in Florida races and it was like, 'Man, who is this guy?' "
Said Buzzy Germony, 55, another longtime friend, "He was racing guys with $30,000 motorcycles, and his bikes would cost 800 bucks. And he was out there whipping them."
Mr. McCoy moved to California, where he raced professionally for several years. Unlike today's motocross millionaires, riders got paid a few hundred dollars for winning.
He returned to Pinellas Park in the mid-1980s, took up his father's stucco trade, remarried and settled down. Mr. McCoy took his young daughter, Molly, on bike rides in a special buggy.
In recent years, he worked for Peters' Internet company, downed tequila at Buffalo City Bar & Grill and believed himself content.
Just one thing was missing.
Mr. McCoy resumed motocross training four years ago, after a layoff of more than 20 years.
This year, he won the American Motorcycle Association's Winter National, a four-race series around Florida, and competed in the Daytona Amateur Supercross.
Most recently, Mr. McCoy had his sights set on the 2012 National Vet Motocross Championship, to be held in February in Marion County.
The fire of old rivalries rekindled within him.
"He kept saying, 'I've got something for those guys,' " Peters said.
Mr. McCoy and his friends, including Peters and Germony, were training last weekend at a private track in Hernando County. They practiced jumps under clear skies, cooled by a light breeze.
"Monte said, 'You couldn't ask for a better day,' " Peters said.
At 1:35 p.m., Mr. McCoy bore down on a hill on his 450cc Honda. He maxed out the throttle and flew forward. It was a long, horizontal jump, at least 75 feet. He landed without incident.
A minute later, Germony recalled, "I heard somebody say, 'Hey, McCoy went down.' " Which in itself was no big thing. But Mr. McCoy had not crashed. He had simply fallen over on his bike.
The medical examiner's office determined he died of heart disease.
He was found on his side, legs wrapped around his motorcycle. His right hand still rested on the throttle, which was stuck on wide open.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.