Travis Pastrana tries to weather his own storm
June 21, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- The line at Road America stretched past the autograph tables, down a small hill and around a concession stand.
It was teeming with NASCAR fans who waited out a lightning delay, watched a two-plus hour block of practice in the rain, then raced each other to be first in line as the NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers sat down at a row of white tables, Sharpies in hand.
At the very end sat Travis Pastrana, who was the star of the show.
"I love the competition. This is what drives me. And I think you have to get angry before you can get better. We’re working on it.”
The driver of the No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing Ford flashed wide, genuine smiles as folks found their way down the line to his spot. He made easy banter with people he had never met in his life. And, while always giving a big thumbs-up, he posed for scores and scores of photos -- some of them Polaroids, some of them on cell phones and some with digital cameras.
“Nice double backflip,” hollered a kid, who couldn’t have been more than 8 years old, getting a high-five from the NASCAR driver who built his career as a daredevil on wheels.
The entire event was a welcome respite for the popular Pastrana, who was still signing scraps of paper as area workers began stacking up the empty chairs, 30 minutes after the session was supposed to end.
“My dad’s always like, ‘If life’s ever bad, just come back home and work construction with me, and we’ll work your ass off,’ ” Pastrana said with, again, a smile. “I’m very fortunate to have the lifestyle I do.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant, or always easy. The last six races have tested that affable smile, with Pastrana netting just one top-15 -- a 15th-place showing at Dover International Speedway -- during that time.
There was the wreck at Talladega Superspeedway after he won on the Coors Light Pole, an incident Pastrana called “stupid” on his part. There was a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks after that. There was a crash at Iowa Speedway two weeks after that. Each resulted in a finish outside the top 30.
The slump came on the heels of Pastrana’s best NASCAR showing, a ninth-place finish at Richmond International Raceway, in which he stormed through the field over the final laps.
“We’ve always just been off a little bit,” Pastrana said. “At Richmond, we finally had it in the end. We finished ninth, and we were running the same times as the guys up front. I just need to figure out a little bit quicker what I need out of the car. But we’re close.”
The configuration of Road America, a 4.058-mile road course in Wisconsin, theoretically plays into Pastrana’s strengths. After all, the driver won four consecutive Rally America Championships on road courses (although many of those races were on dirt).
But Pastrana was still missing something Friday as the rain drummed down on his car. He was 21st out of 30 drivers during the opening session, with a best lap time of 2 minutes, 40.701 seconds. For perspective, the leader of that session, Sam Hornish Jr., posted a time of 2:26.888.
In the second session, Pastrana was 24th out of 40 cars.
“You know, I really thought I’d be a lot more comfortable out there,” Pastrana said. “I thought (the course) would play a lot more to my favor, but we’re probably the slowest that we’ve been out of practice this year. It’s my first time driving a Nationwide car here, and they have a lot of power. I felt like I could charge in harder than I could. I just need to back everything up and slow everything down, and we’ll be OK.”
There’s still time. Qualifying for Saturday’s Johnsonville Sausage 200 presented by Menards (5 p.m. ET, ESPN, MRN) is scheduled for 12:05 p.m. ET (ESPN2), just hours before the race.
The weather forecast shows thunderstorms are possible Saturday afternoon. Friday was blustery and rainy for hours, matching the mood of several drivers following their first Nationwide Series laps on a road course in 2013.
“When you first come in, you don’t have really high expectations,” Pastrana said of his rookie year. “You’re like ‘OK, this is fun, this is awesome. All right, we’re 20th!’ Now I’m so depressed after practice, my wife is like, ‘Why do you do it?’
“I have to say, I love the competition. This is what drives me. And I think you have to get angry before you can get better. We’re working on it.”
And with that, Pastrana turned back to his hauler to meet with a team working to ensure the driver’s own personal storm blows over. As Pastrana walked off, the sun peeked out of the clouds.