For Pastrana, NASCAR a different crash course
June 27, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
From deep in his brain, Travis Pastrana knew what he needed to do the instant his car began sliding through the turn -- lay hard on the brake, get his vehicle back under control and live to race some more. But he was battling for the free pass position. He was worried the caution might come out at any moment. And he had a much different thought on his mind.
I got this. I got this. I got this.
“For the most part, you can almost always lock it down,” Pastrana explained at Kentucky Speedway. “You’ll hit the wall a little bit. Or, you can try to save it. And I always try to save it. And the guys who try to save it always end up hitting the wall a lot harder.”
Which is exactly what happened last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when the red, white, and blue No. 60 car veered down the track and slammed into an inside wall, thankfully protected by a SAFER barrier. The impact was so violent, it collapsed the front end of Pastrana’s vehicle and lifted the rear wheels completely off the ground. The next morning, his neck was so stiff he found it difficult to turn his head from side to side.
“I knew I didn’t have it,” he remembered. “But I was pushing over my head.”
To Pastrana, crashing is nothing new. It’s been a part of his life for almost as long as he can remember, from his days as a tyke on a motocross bike, and into his later years, racing rally cars, competing in X Games and performing stunt jumps. He’s been hurt in crashes so many times, he can’t remember them all. When he was 14, a spine injury suffered in a motorcycle crash forced him to spend three months in a wheelchair. The start of his NASCAR career was put on hold when he broke his ankle attempting a jump.
So Pastrana is no stranger to hitting hard surfaces at a rapid rate of speed. But even by his standards, his first full season on the Nationwide Series has been an adventurous one -- the Roush Fenway Racing driver has walked away from a trio of bone-jarring impacts at Talladega, Charlotte and Iowa that have left his vehicle crumpled and the competitor behind the wheel steaming as much as the engine pieces under the hood. In the process, he’s learning that the only similarity between crashes in his old life and this new one is that both can hurt.
In motocross, the discipline in which Pastrana got his start, the line is pretty clear -- you’re either hurt in a crash, or you’re not. If it’s the latter, you get back on the seat and keep going. “The bike may be a little bent, but you’re going to break before it does,” he said. “Part of motocross is being able to take a hard fall -- wind knocked out of you, thinking you’re broken. My dad always said, ‘Get up. If you’re broken, you’ll fall back down.’”
Which is what happened in July of 2011, days before his scheduled NASCAR debut at Indianapolis, when Pastrana crashed attempting a jump during the X Games, tried to get up -- and went right back down to the dirt, the fractured bones in his ankle grinding through his skin. In NASCAR, cars and safety systems provide a more substantial margin for error and an opportunity for everyone to be aggressive. Drivers aren’t ignorant of the risks, especially in a season where Denny Hamlin and Michael Annett have both missed time with injuries suffered on the track. But they’re also not easing up, either.
“No one really gives you a hard time in motocross for crashing because it’s your body that’s on the line. It hurts really bad,” Pastrana said. “If you’re tough -- you’re mentally tough, you’re physically tough, if you can deal with pain, you’re going to be a better racer. You’re going to be able to put yourself on the line, you’re going to be able to take those risks to win races and get out front.”
But: “In motocross, a lot of people will step back from the plate because they’re not willing to take that risk,” he added. “In NASCAR, 99.9 percent of the guys, if they’re at this level, they’re willing to take whatever risk that there is. So you can’t make up time in NASCAR by being more aggressive, by trying to take more chances. You’re already on that edge. You take more of a chance,you’re going to crash the car. And for a lot of the guys, for me, you’ve got to deal with sponsors. It’s not cheap to crash a car. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m tough; I can crash.’ It’s not my money I just put against the wall.”
As a high-profile, first-year driver, Pastrana seems acutely aware of that. He’s even developed tendonitis in one elbow from gripping the wheel so hard, a nervous habit that arises whenever he thinks of potentially missing laps or having to explain to owner Jack Roush why he wrecked a car. In fairness, two of the big crashes he’s been involved in this season have started with other drivers -- Reed Sorenson slid into him at Talladega, where Pastrana rebounded into the outside wall like a guided missile, and two cars turned in front of him at Iowa, where the onrushing vehicle of Max Papis sheared off the front of the No. 60.
“Your heart just stops for a second,” Pastrana said of the latter impact. “If I were four feet further, we’d be talking a whole different scenario. I probably wouldn’t be racing right now.”
In each case, though, regardless of the cause, he was ultimately angry only at himself. “You always put yourself in position,” Pastrana said. At Talladega, he was well ahead of the vehicles behind him, and afterward was furious at himself for pushing it so hard so early in a pole-winning car. At Iowa, his mind uttered a familiar refrain -- lock it down. No surprise, he ignored it. Pastrana was fighting to stay on the lead lap, and he didn’t want to risk flat-spotting the tires and making an unscheduled pit stop so instead, he slowed and dropped down the race track and had the entire front end of his car mowed off.
Again, it’s all about positioning. In retrospect, Pastrana understands he’d have been better off at Talladega had he backed it down, and at Iowa, had he locked it up. Now he needs to realize that in the moment, that’s something substantially easier said than done, particularly for a driver with all of 24 national NASCAR races to his credit entering Friday night’s event.
“Carl Edwards, he rarely has a mark on his car,” Pastrana said. “OK, so he went to Daytona this year and wrecked three cars. There’s some luck involved. Chris Buescher made it through an entire season last year without one crash in ARCA. … That’s what I’m learning. That’s why I’m beating myself up. In motocross, I knew what was going to happen. Here, I feel like I’m blind until it’s too late. I‘m getting there.”
Back in his motocross days, Pastrana was so familiar with his competition that he could tell when accidents were brewing. “I knew about a half a lap before every collision happened,” he said. The goal is to develop that kind of foresight in NASCAR, to recognize who’s on fresher tires, who’s better on restarts, who’s more aggressive and apt to go sideways in front of him. “Just be a student of the sport,” he said.
“I feel like these guys, especially the Cup guys, have a very good understanding of the guys because they drive against the same ones every weekend,” Pastrana added. “They know who’s aggressive; they know who’s going to give. It doesn’t always happen, some people make mistakes. But I feel like with my little experience in circle-track, racing, I’ve got a lot to learn. That’s why I’m beating myself up. I’m like, I should have seen that coming. I could have prevented it. Not that I could have done anything once I was there, but I should have never been in that position.”
For Pastrana, 14th in Nationwide points, it’s all part of a learning process that includes things like getting on and off pit road -- something that cost him five seconds on one lap in a race earlier this year. “I feel like I can drive the car,” he said. And clearly, his No. 60 has speed. Now it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together, of getting more familiar with other competitors, of thinking more proactively rather than reactively. And maybe, instead of trying to save it, occasionally locking it down.
“It’s not that I’m disappointed or frustrated. … I want to be where I have been,” Pastrana said. “I want to get wins, I want to be in contention. Even if we’re not winning, be in contention for the win. A lot of the motocross fans and stuff are like, ‘I don’t understand. Why aren’t you there?’ … We’re doing all we can to get better. My wife’s like, ‘It looks every weekend like somebody killed your dog.’ And I don’t have a dog. I’m like, ‘I love this.’ She’s like, ‘Are you sure?’ You wake up every morning, every night, and all you’re thinking about is how to get faster. You’ll jump on the iRacing until 2 in the morning and she’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ I enjoy that. It’s a passion.”