Pastrana had speed but couldn't harness it
November 12, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Speed has never been a problem for Travis Pastrana.
Whether it's rocketing up Mount Washington, zooming off a ramp and onto a barge anchored off the Southern California coastline, or shredding through the curves behind the wheel of a rally car, the world's foremost action-adventure superstar knows how to slam the pedal to the floor and go fast. The countless broken bones, the back injury that once put him in a wheelchair, the fractured foot he famously suffered in the X Games -- nothing could stop him. The man was born to accelerate.
That much was also evident once Pastrana moved into NASCAR, undertaking a Nationwide Series effort fielded by Jack Roush. Some of Pastrana's best moments this season have come on qualifying day, where he could mash the throttle and go. That he had raw speed was never at issue as the Maryland native tried to make the transition to stock car racing from rally cars, motocross, stunt jumping, and general feats of derring-do.
No, it was the little things that plagued Pastrana, that frustrated a competitor who has enjoyed crazy success in just about everything else he'd ever tried. Pastrana came into this with eyes open, understanding that the transition to NASCAR would very well be the toughest endeavor he'd ever undertaken. There were no illusions of winning races and contending for titles from the beginning, even though he hoped to get there eventually. From the start he was realistic, completely accepting of the fact that this would be damn hard.
And indeed it was, evidenced in Monday's announcement that he won’t return to NASCAR next year. Having all that raw speed was one thing -- harnessing it was another. It was the finesse, the nuance, what old-timers called "the bloody black art" that Pastrana most wrestled with, those struggles laid bare in a series of hard crashes that came to define his season. They weren't all his fault, but in retrospect he realized there were measures he should have taken to evade or prevent them altogether, the balance between going fast and slowing down lost somewhere amidst all that crumpled sheet metal.
He admitted as much at Kentucky Speedway in June. "That’s why I’m beating myself up," he said. "In motocross, I knew what was going to happen. Here, I feel like I’m blind until it’s too late."
He always fought the battle between locking it up and playing it safe, and perhaps driving over his head. Too often, by his own admission, he chose the latter.
"I always try to save it," he said at Kentucky. "And the guys who try to save it always end up hitting the wall a lot harder.”
Goodness, did he do that. Charlotte, Talladega, Iowa, Daytona -- Travis Pastrana's greatest hits were enough to make you wince, once again proof of all that speed the guy could squeeze out of a vehicle, but how elusive the line could be in keeping it all under control. After the Charlotte hit, which lifted the rear wheels of his No. 60 car off the ground, he found it hard the next morning to turn his head from side to side. No question, the dude absolutely oozes raw talent. But in NASCAR there are a lot of guys who can go fast, and success is often found in the margins, and those margins can be difficult to locate.
"I've never been able to figure out the finesse required in pavement racing, and that is disappointing," Pastrana wrote in his statement Monday, when he announced he would not return to NASCAR next season.
Clearly, inexperience played a part here. Back in his motocross days Pastrana was downright clairvoyant, all that accumulated knowledge on the bike helping him to sense when an accident was going to happen a half a lap before it actually did. It might be unfair to expect him to have that same internal alarm so finely calibrated after all of his 42 national-division starts (counting the 2013 season finale at Homestead).
For now, though, Saturday's Nationwide Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway shapes up as his last. Pastrana's stock car adventure has been financed to a degree by his personal sponsors, and he wrote Monday that his results weren't good enough to pull together enough funding for next season. That's sad on a lot of levels, especially given Pastrana's infectiously upbeat personality and crossover appeal. But it also serves to reinforce one of the cornerstones of NASCAR -- that this is first, foremost, and forever a performance-based sport.
Of course, that doesn't make Pastrana's looming departure any easier. He clearly relished this opportunity, from the challenge NASCAR presented, to the structure Roush's organization afforded, to the charge he got out of trying to improve. In June, Pastrana said he woke up every morning thinking about how to get his to get his No. 60 car to go faster, and sometimes woke up his wife drilling on the iRacing rig until 2 a.m.
"I love this," he said then. There's no lack of effort here. On all fronts, Travis Pastrana did everything right, except master the small details that separate great NASCAR drivers from the rest.
Talladega was Pastrana's experience in a microcosm -- he was fast enough to claim his first pole and have a real shot to win, but he pushed it too hard, too early and got himself taken out in a crash that started when Brian Scott and Reed Sorenson tangled in front of him. "There's no reason we should have been there," he said afterward. "That was entirely my fault."
And so it went. Pastrana possesses courage by the bucketful, as evidenced in some of the ridiculous stuff he's tried on a motorbike or in a race car. He's never been afraid of slamming down that right foot and making his crazy pink, blue and yellow vehicle scream by in a polychromatic blur. But in NASCAR, knowing when to slow down is as important as knowing when to go fast, as counterintuitive as it might seem. And all those little nuances that bedeviled Pastrana all season can add up to an awful lot.