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Wife recalls Gardens racer’s off-roading death: ‘Racing was his passion’

When Mark Luhtala was in a hospital bed in San Diego, seemingly recovering from a wreck that forced the amputation of his left leg, he asked his wife, Holly, to see a picture of his off-road race truck.

She turned her cellphone, displaying an image of the totaled truck, to face his immobile body.

“That’s nothing,” Luhtala teased.

“He was going to get a fake leg and race again,” recalled Holly Luhtala from her Palm Beach Gardens home Monday afternoon, five days after Mark Luhtala died.

Luhtala, 48, died of a heart attack Wednesday while hospitalized following a wreck in the Mexican desert. He collided head-on with a fellow racer in the Baja 1000, an intense 1,000-mile off-road race in the Baja California peninsula of northwest Mexico.

He spent six hours in the desert with his navigator, Gregory Schlef, who kept him from bleeding out until officials could rush him to a hospital in San Diego, Holly Luhtala said.

Mark Luhtala was a pilot, an airplane mechanic and an award-winning airplane restorer, but above all else, said his wife, a father of two daughters and an “adrenaline junkie.”

“Aviation was his job,” Holly Luhtala said. “But get him in fast car in the desert, that was his passion.”

The Baja races, put on by SCORE International Off-Road Racing, annually draw more than 200 competitors who drive motorcycles or trophy trucks while thousands of spectators watch from the sidelines of the race path.

Mark Luhtala drove a truck he’d built himself. The Baja 1000 was his seventh race, Holly Luhtala said.

“It was the greatest day of his life,” she said. “I have no doubt about it.”

Before the Baja 1000, Luhtala had successfully completed the Baja 500, a shorter race in the same area, in June.

On Monday, Holly Luhtala watched a video of her husband’s beaten-up blue trophy truck pulling into the finish line in the darkness before dawn, hours after he was expected to finish the June race.

“Look,” she said, pointing to a smiling Mark in the video. “He’s so, so happy.”

Three people died in that race, according to multiple news reports. One was a spectator mowed down by a racer; the others were motorcyclists.

Luhtala worried about her husband’s off-roading hobby, she said, but never discouraged him from his desert adventures.

“This was his world,” she said. “I’m not going to be the one to tell him he can’t do what he loves.”

He started off-road racing in 2007, after he saw similar races in his native Finland while on a family vacation. There isn’t much of an off-road racing community in Florida, Holly Luhtala said, so her husband often travelled to Mexico, California and Nevada to race.

A memorial service is planned for Dec. 10 at North Palm Beach County Airport, where Luhtala operated an aviation company while also managing the grounds at the Palm Beach County Park Airport in Lantana.

It won’t be your typical memorial service, Holly Luhtala said. They’ll celebrate her husband with taco trucks, beer and loud music.

“I have to find a mariachi band,” she said. “He wouldn’t want crying and sobbing. He would want a party.”

Mark Luhtala had this quip about the age of 50 being his “expiration date, so he lived every day like it was his last,” she said.

“That’s why he did this,” she continued. “He lived more in 48 years than most people do in a lifetime. And he had a freakin’ blast.”

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