After several years of riding at Dade City Motocross, Oscar Diaz was going pro. On Saturday evening the fun-loving 21-year-old racer, known for taking younger riders under his wing, won the first stage of the National Motocross Championship in Guatemala.
A few hours later, he was dead.
Authorities say Diaz was gunned down as he drove back to Guatemala City with another driver and mechanic, who were critically injured.
Guatemala's National Civilian Police, or PNC, have said the car was attacked for unknown reasons. But the rising violence among drug cartels, known for backing some motocross teams in Guatemala, has fueled speculation that Diaz unknowingly got caught between rival gangs.
Diaz's friends learned of his death Sunday, as word spread at an event at Dade City Motocross.
"Everybody was numb after hearing what happened," said family friend Danny Vancil, who runs OAS Powersports in Brooksville. "All this kid ever wanted to be was a professional motocross rider. Everybody around the track loved him, and when they heard the news, everyone was in disbelief."
Diaz was born in Costa Rica and moved to Florida some five years ago, friends said. Before finding a home in Wesley Chapel a few months ago, he lived next door to the Morgan family in Ridge Manor.
By coincidence, Justin Morgan, now 14, was into motocross, too. Diaz worked out with the boy and taught him some tricks of the trade.
What made Diaz such a good rider? "His attitude," said Roger Morgan, Justin's dad. "He was such a happy-go-lucky person. He always made time for people and kids."
Vancil, who saw Diaz nearly every day at his shop, said the rider loved working with kids - and he stayed out of trouble.
"Just last week he came and picked up a box of racing gloves before going down to Miami to teach some kids down there," Vancil said. "He said he was going to give all the kids racing gloves. That's the kind of guy he was, not someone you'd ever think this would happen to."
After a brief visit last week with his mother in Costa Rica, Diaz made his way to Guatemala to ride for a team that had contacted him about riding in a National Championship race.
It's commonplace for aspiring professional riders to accept invitations to ride for other teams, Dade City Motocross owner Randy Yoho said.
After winning the race at the Entre Volcanes track in Alotenango, Diaz and his companions headed back toward Guatemala City. The attack occurred near San Lucas Sacatepequez, a city in southwest Guatemala.
The National Motocross Federation suspended the second stage of the competition on Sunday, in light of Diaz's murder.
"He was so charming," Yoho said. "If we had kids come in from other countries that spoke Spanish Oscar would translate. Everyone around the track knew him and respected him. He was a good rider and someone that brought a lot of joy to the track.
"He wasn't the kind of kid that stirred up trouble and he definitely wasn't involved with anything drug-related," Yoho said.
According to the Latin America Herald Tribune, Guatemala has been plagued by a crime wave that has driven the murder rate up to around 17 a day.
The more than 5,400 homicides reported last year in Guatemala - a nation of approximately 13 million - was nearly equal to the number of murders in neighboring Mexico, which has more than 100 million inhabitants and is the scene of open war among rival drug cartels.
The two men in the car with Diaz - Lewis Boniel, a 20-year-old Costa Rican driver, and Carlos Zuniga, a 30-year-old Guatemalan mechanic - were seriously wounded.
Diaz's father boarded a plane Sunday for Costa Rica. The family plans to bury Diaz in his homeland on Wednesday.
Times staff writer Bridget Hall Grumet and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.