Pastrana charts unconventional course in motorsports landscape
Travis Pastrana has mastered several sports including motocross and rally car
Pastrana's popularity has helped to bring attention back to many motorized sports
As he moves away from FMX, Pastrana is toying with other pursuits, like NASCAR
MT. WASHINGTON, N.H. - They had all stopped squinting toward the summit by now. There was nothing to see but rocks and clouds, nothing to do but try to find a spot where their phones could pick up a cell signal in this picturesque and remote sector of the White Mountains. The quiet, the wake in the energy field created when Travis Pastrana exited, stage up, was palpable. Almost unnerving.
A breeze stirred at the foot of the Mt. Washington Auto Road along Route 16, tugging at the red-yellow-and-blue inflatable Red Bull starting gate that undermined the secrecy of the private rally car test this early September morning. The top of the 6,288-foot granite monolith was being buffeted by high winds, as usual, and a massive cloud bank would soon settle up on it. The mechanics, videographers and spokes in the publicity machine that keep Pastrana's exploits churning into public consciousness anxiously waited.
"Cleared the cragway," came a voice on a walkie-talkie.
Weather changes in moments here under Bernoulli's Principle, a convergence of three major weather systems, and the maddening three minutes since Pastrana and co-driver Marshall Clarke had skittered up the asphalt-tarmac-gravel glorified cart path in their Subaru rally car had allowed early autumn, fall, the first hint of spring and Indian summer to blow through. Snow and ice would temporarily close the road in just 11 days. No one knew that at the time, but they'd have believed it as they zipped their jackets up yet again.
"Cleared Mile Park."
That was both the point and the peril with this undertaking. Pastrana's Vermont SportsCar rally team and a film crew had been assembled to document his anticipated smashing of a 12-year-old record for ascending the 7.6-mile road through four climate zones and 149 years of human endeavor, creating a high-definition thrill ride to promote the renewal of America's oldest auto race, the Climb to the Clouds, next June 22-26. The bonus was another marketable moment and interesting day in a series of many for Pastrana, whose rare combination of daring and extroverted gregariousness has made him Millennial Superman, limited only by his imagination and well-tested recuperative powers.
"Cow Pasture, clear."
A champion motocrosser, freestyle motocross visionary, part-time monster truck driver, thrill-seeker, X Games legend, daredevil and crossover media star, a breaker of bones, professional Buck Hunter gamer and burgeoning screenwriter, the 26-year-old has become one of the most recognizable figures in action sports, a barnstormer, and perhaps one of the most important figures in modern motorsports, an arc between the last century and what the next generation will define and consume as competition and entertainment. He is something different to seemingly everyone.
"Living legend," said NASCAR driver Carl Edwards, who will compete with Pastrana for the American team in the annual Race of Champions global all-star challenge in November.
"One of the most talented guys in the world," said two-time Sprint Cup champion and former Indy Racing League titlist Tony Stewart.
"I wish I had the talent he does. I just don't," said Ken Block, an action sports pioneer who in 2011 will become the first American to compete for the World Rally Championship. "I've been around him long enough to know he's got talent that just goes way beyond normal people."
Even Pastrana gropes for a definition of self. So, as usual, he undersells it.
"Jack of all trades, master of none," he deadpanned. "I would have considered myself an athlete until I was about 21. Went from athlete to entertainer. And then to driver. For me, right now, X Games is all about entertainment. Obviously, you have to use the talent you have to do well, but bottom line, it isn't just competition. You have to put smiles on people's faces, make people stand up, show them what you feel inside."
Motorists pay $23 to flog their cars up the mountain at a recommended 25 mph on an average 12-percent grade. Pastrana would have to average 72 mph to break Canadian Frank Sprongl's record of 6:41.99 to the top set, in an Audi in 1998. Pastrana has jumped Big Wheels off 75-foot ski jumps -- "that's not as hard as it looks. All you have to do is point it and hold on," he says -- and back-flipped into the Grand Canyon, but even his heightened sense of adventure and utter confidence would be quashed by a white layer of fog at 4,000, with no guard rails between an undulating, damp road and the face of God. They might get just one chance at this. So the dozen or so onlookers stared at their shoes, and occasionally each other. Waiting.
"Check point. Summit cleared."
Six minutes, 20 seconds, .47 hundredths, an average speed of 72 mph. Record set, first try.
The "why'd-we-even-worry" smiles abounded. The Subaru, emblazoned with Pastrana's ubiquitous No. 199 -- a truncated "10/99," a reference to his becoming a professional motocrosser on his 16th birthday on Oct., 8, 1999 -- clatters down the hill and to its makeshift garage area by a barn built for mountain maintenance equipment. The collection of onlookers is rapt. Pastrana, as usual, doesn't disappoint, hitting his mark again with a perfect sound bite, flawless on the first attempt.
"Working" for Red Bull develops in its athletes a knack for nailing a line first try, in odd circumstances, like sitting in a rally car about to hurl off a pier and onto a barge. Pastrana did that without a hitch in December, smashing the world record with a 269-foot leap in Long Beach, Calif.
After a well-staged exit from the car at the base of Mt. Washington, a removal of his helmet, and a quick check to see if anyone else was coming at him with a boom microphone, he paused to absorb the moment. Someone mentions how he reduced poor Sprongl, who completed his run without a co-driver, to a lesser footnote in the annals of Mt. Washington history.
"Well, this record is still unofficial, I guess, because this was a test and he was in a race. He's got the record in an actual event ... not in a Subaru," he poker faces.
A wide grin ends the facade.
"But I've got the record! I've got the record!" he crows, like a taunting child on a playground, and literally jigs away until breaking into a run. With Pastrana, there's no telling where he could be heading.
He is at the same time supremely self-assured and humble, displaying an audacity that most of the sane would deem foolishness, but in him is a calculating nature that tempers his bouts of recklessness. Mostly. There are always caveats. He's so inconsistent on the 360-degree freestyle motocross flip he doesn't even attempt it anymore. He'd shelved the landmark double back flip trick he was the first to perform in competition at the 2006 X Games. That was until friend and X Games rival Blake Williams called him an "old man" and levied a bet on which one them would win the X Games Moto X Freestyle competition this year. Pastrana, who has largely focused on rally car racing the last four years, returned to the freestyle event for the first time since 2006, won the gold in just two rounds, and used the meaningless third to perform the double back flip for emphasis.
Pastrana will not be talked into a trick or a stunt, but watching another enjoy even modest success at it often prompts him to rethink his position. When friend/collaborator/rival Andy Bell landed a 35-foot foot Big Wheel jump into a foam pit on Nitro Circus -- the televised outlet for his manic creativity -- Pastrana couldn't stand it. So he jumped 75 feet.
"Why just beat it?" Pastrana asked. "Crush it. That was the same with the barge jump. I didn't want to take all that time just to break it. So we smashed it by 98 feet."
Despite concocting and performing these and other risky deeds -- jumping a motorcycle between rooftops, flinging himself from an airplane without a parachute and waiting for a buddy jumper to grab him -- Pastrana has no death wish or brazen disregard for his life.
"It's amazing how much of that stuff works, though, huh?" he counters. "If I've been trying to kill myself all this time, I'd like to think I'd have been a lot better at it."
Still, Pastrana has paid dearly for his craft. Ironically, most of his major injuries were sustained within the realm of organized motorsports, specifically motocross, and not performing the dangerous tricks that made him a star of Nitro Circus on MTV. He's broken every bone that matters at least once, including shattering his pelvis and dislocating his spinal column so badly in a motocross race at age 15 that he was wheelchair-bound for five months and is held together internally by two large screws. He has a left shoulder full of metal pins and plates, a bulging disc in his back that forces him to stand and stretch after prolonged periods seated, surgically repaired and re-repaired knees and a mind full of worry about a score of concussions, three severe enough to prompt him to briefly shut down his career. He has a mutual understanding with pain. Concussions are insidious.
"Concussions are something I pushed through a lot when I probably shouldn't have," he said. "You hit your head, you're throwing up, you're slightly dizzy, but physically you think, 'I can go race again.' I had three bad concussions back-to-back, and really that's the only time I really stepped out of it for a year and said, 'You know, this is something that could change my life completely.' I break both legs, I have lots of friends in wheelchairs, so be it. It sucks. I knew what I was getting into, you adapt, but concussions are the one thing I worry about."
Pastrana is virtually uninsurable. Even Lloyd's of London wouldn't take his hefty premiums without exceptions on his wrists, head, knees or back. "Well, that's a lot of me," he shrugged.
But he's willing to pay the price, nevertheless.
"It all comes down to if it's worth it to you," he said, the strange look of seriousness overtaking him. "At the beginning of the season, I was just training, because I still ride just to condition and stay in shape, and all my friends do it. I broke my collar bone. I had already had a plate in there, but I broke it through the plate, broke it with a compound fracture through the skin, and that was on Monday. Call up my doctor, got in Tuesday morning for surgery. On Thursday I was at Sno*Drift [rally in Michigan]. Friday, Saturday I ended up winning the rally. That was the first round of the season.
"You do what you have to do. Those are the days when what we do is a job and you have to be there. If you're in this type of sport, you have to be tough. Just because you have a broken bone doesn't mean you're not going to ride two days later. You think of your body, but you do your job."
Pastrana has always been able to rise from the wreckage, beginning with ultracompetitive pick-up football games against cousins who would eventually go on to play Div. I intercollegiate sports. His mutant management of pain and buoyant, yet resolute, disposition always seemed to steward him through the latest injury. As a result, injuries seem commonplace to his fans, the consequences diminished. But there is a toll.
"He's in more pain than anybody knows," his father, Robert, said. "He's bent-over and limping now."
This brutal calling has made him a rich man young, but it will end, he knows, one way or another, before he'd like. He very much aspires to becoming an old man, but he knows how uncomfortable those years could be. But he won't stop racking up tolls on his body.
"Not to make it all philosophical, but I'd rather live every day without being afraid of dying than to live my life in fear of not chasing my dreams," he said. "Basically, every single day I wake up with a smile. So many people say, 'Oh, I could have done this or done that' or 'it's just not that safe thing to do.' A Hail Mary's my whole life."
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