Former X Games star knows fans will follow if he succeeds
Travis Pastrana used to be one of those guys who made fun of people watching NASCAR.
Every year on the afternoon of the Daytona 500, when he and his buddies would gather to fire up the grill and take in the spectacle of the Great American Race, the X Games legend would be the one dishing out the most grief. “I had a lot of friends who were really passionate abut NASCAR, and I really enjoyed giving them a hard time,” he remembered. This is, after all, the same guy who for his first visit to a circle-track event chose a T-shirt featuring one word stripped across the front.
Pastrana doesn’t wear that T-shirt anymore.
"No matter how many people you bring over, if you don't do well, you're not going to keep them."
-- Travis Pastrana
“Getting in the car, I’m scared for my life. In a good way, because they have great safety precautions. But I am nervous and on the edge the entire race,” said Roush Fenway’s newest NASCAR Nationwide Series driver. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, did you get bored out there?’ I’m like, ‘Bored? I’m running a heart rate of 160 just sitting in a chair, in a seat.’ The car is sliding the whole way. It’s something you just don’t understand. You may watch it on TV, and pick a driver, but until you go to Charlotte, until you go to Daytona, until you go somewhere you can see the speed and the raw power of these things -- it’s something you have to witness.”
Can we get an amen? Although he’s been involved in the sport for only a few years, Pastrana has emerged as one of NASCAR’s most ardent converts, his opinions on stock-car racing having flipped 180 -- or more appropriately given his motorcycle jumping background, 540 -- degrees. The 29-year-old has legions of fans, kids in flat-billed ball caps who were wowed by his exploits in motocross and the X Games, many of whom may be just as skeptical of NASCAR as their idol once was. Pastrana wants to bring them all in, to have them smell the gas fumes and the tire smoke and become as hooked as he is, but he knows one thing has to happen first.
He has to succeed.
He’s done that in every other endeavor he’s been involved with, whether it’s winning 10 X Games gold medals or claiming two motocross titles or launching the Nitro Circus franchise or setting a world record by jumping a car 296 feet from a pier onto a barge anchored off the California coast. Pastrana has built his legend on not just doing crazy things, but doing them exceptionally well, always pushing the limits and never allowing the occasional broken bone to keep him down for very long.
In NASCAR, he’s found perhaps his greatest challenge. He’s leaping in full time, and with an organization that’s won the last two Nationwide titles, because he believes that’s what it will take to prosper in an extremely competitive field. And if he’s going to enthrall all his fans all over again, show them that turning laps in a stock car can be as fascinating as attempting a Superman seat-grab back flip on a motorbike, there’s one thing he has to do.
“I have to be successful,” Pastrana said. “… Hopefully, I can bring that crowd in. Hopefully my fan base will stick with me, and they have done so far, which is great. When (Supercross star) Ricky Carmichael came to NASCAR, he did well, but a lot of his fan base didn’t really transfer. … But I’m hoping that the fan base sticks with us, and that I do learn how to drive these things. Because the bottom line is, no matter how many people you bring over, if you don’t do well, you’re not going to keep them.”
Hence the alliance with Roush, which provided Pastrana with a one-race tryout late last season in Richmond, where the former daredevil qualified fifth and finished 17th. That was enough to convince Jack Roush that Pastrana was serious, that there would be no more incidents like the botched X Games jump in 2011 that resulted in a broken ankle and pushed his NASCAR debut into the next year. Pastrana greatly enjoyed wading into NASCAR, although a limited schedule of 10 national-series starts in 2012 didn’t exactly help him progress behind the wheel. So Roush asked his prospective new driver: Do you want to have fun, or do you want to win?
Pastrana thought it was a trick question. It wasn’t.
“You can go out and do a lot of things in motorsports, and a lot of things in exhibition things, and if you get 80 percent of the potential of yourself … it can be enough,” Roush said. “But in the business of stock-car racing, you’ve got to be able to squeeze every ounce of blood out of this turnip. You’ve got to be able to get well up in the 90 percent of what the potential is, and you can’t do that without undivided attention and without focus and without patience. And I wanted to make sure he understood I thought it was going to require his absolute dedication to do it. And he’s committed to that.”
There’s no question Pastrana showed flashes of promise, even in his limited slate last year -- a 13th-place run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a surprisingly solid showing his first time at Darlington Raceway, the Richmond event that won over a Roush camp which was very closely eyeing his every move. But committing to a full-time run, in equipment Ricky Stenhouse Jr. used to win the last two Nationwide titles, raises the bar substantially. There will be no excuses. As Roush told him, in his no-nonsense style -- you fail, you know you’ve failed as a driver.
“That puts on a lot of pressure, but it also puts things in perspective,” Pastrana said. “Before, it was fun and games and every race was learning and it was great. … But the bottom line is, this is my year. I’ve got a whole season to figure it out. If I don’t do well, people are going to go, ‘Oh, you failed. You couldn’t make it. You’re not as good a driver as you thought.’ I have more to lose by going to NASCAR than I have to gain. But I do stuff because I’m passionate about it and it makes me happy.”
But what if he doesn’t fail? Granted, Pastrana doesn’t seem quite ready to challenge the likes of Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon for race victories, but if he succeeds the breakthrough could be felt on many levels.
“If he runs well, that will open more doors. And he’ll have more doors than most to be able to open,” said Roush President Steve Newmark.
Given Pastrana’s immense appeal to the youth market, that’s certainly the hope -- on the part of NASCAR as well as Roush. But it all has to begin with performance first. “I think we’ve all learned in this sport that you don’t just bring someone over because of the appeal you think they may have with a different demographic,” Newmark added. “You only bring somebody into this sport if you think they can drive.”
It took Pastrana five years to master the double backflip he used to win X Games gold in 2006. He may not have that long to master NASCAR, but along the way he’ll continue to preach the sport’s message to the unconverted. He did just that with a group of action sports friends last year, bringing them to the summertime Daytona race, watching them ham it up in the most garish souvenir-stand garb they could find. Then there was a wreck, and Jeff Gordon’s car slid to a stop very near where they were standing, and they all saw the light.
“They’re like glued to the fence,” Pastrana remembered. “Half of my buddies went to another NASCAR race that year, and they brought their friends, and they went to races I didn’t even go to. So I think for me, all you have to do is see it.”