BRISTOL — He is to action sports what Tom Brady is to football or Derek Jeter is to baseball.
An 11-time X-Games gold medalist and star of the former MTV series Nitro Circus, he’s undoubtedly one of the most successful action sports stars of his generation
Now, Travis Pastrana is making the leap from motorcycles, rally cars and stunt driving into the world of NASCAR.
The 28-year-old Maryland native joined 30 other drivers and turned his first laps around Bristol Motor Speedway Monday in preparation for the NASCAR K&N East Series 125 on March 17.
“It’s awesome,” said Pastrana, who will drive the No. 99 Pastrana Waltrip Racing Toyota full-time in the developmental series this season. “It feels like a modern-day Gladiator. This whole setup is kind of cool. It’s going to be fun trying to take the car around the course.
“It was good, really fast. In the car, you can’t see the exit point of the turn. I just about lost it on the second lap. I’ve raced a few circle tracks, but nothing quite like this one. Right now, the car goes faster than I go. … I’m just not use to having bankings that are like vert ramps. So this is a great test, a great experience and it’s going to be a tough race to start out for us, but I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The race, which follows the Nationwide Series event on the same day, will mark Pastrana’s first action in a stock car since a serious leg injury during last summer’s X-Games event in Los Angeles.
“I’m really looking forward to getting out there,” Pastrana said. “(Bristol) was always my favorite race to watch. I always enjoyed the short track stuff and I’m real excited to start in NASCAR. Last year, we had a few K&N races and right when I was going to get a lot more races I went and bogged myself up at X-Games.
“Hopefully we’ll stay healthy this year and race with these guys a little bit. I definitely have a great team, I’m just real excited at how everything’s coming together like it has and being able to race all but one K&N races this year.”
The driver made three K&N Pro Series starts in 2011 before attempting what he dubbed the ‘Pastranathon’ last August with a freestyle motorcycle run in Los Angeles to be followed by a Nationwide Series debut in Indianapolis and a final X-Games run in a rally racing event over a five-day span.
For the guy who performed the first double backflip on a motorcycle and garnered career X gold medals in everything from supercross, moto cross, freestyle motorcross and rally racing, the weekend was to be something special.
On the first night, however, Pastrana attempted the Rodeo 720 — arguably the most difficult trick on a motorbike — and landed badly, shattering his right ankle and foot in the process. The injury postponed his stock car driving career, but the tough Pastrana fought through the pain and finished fourth in the rally event before undergoing surgery.
“We duct taped the thing together and strapped into the car,” said Pastrana. “X-Games for Action Sports is the biggest event. To get there and knowing that the NASCAR season was done and everything I had kind of been working for was done, I already messed up the best trick, the one thing I had really gone there for, I can’t just go home now and on a gurney. We’re going to do the best we can to get out there.”
In hindsight the injury was a learning experience for Pastrana, who had to relay the bad news to a crew of mechanics and engineers at his shop.
“To have to tell a whole team that, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be driving and our sponsor has basically pulled out, you guys — for lack of a better word — have to fend for yourselves the rest of the year,’ was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do personally,” said Pastrana. “Action sports, you have you and your mechanic. It’s not you and 15 mechanics and engineers and everything else. For myself, it’s definitely a big learning experience. It’s a hard one, but not only for myself but everyone else, let’s not hurt ourselves again.”
Pastrana began to focus on his stock car career and studied the sport, while practicing via an iRacing simulator device. He’s healed enough that, along with a full season in the K&N series, he will run seven races in the Nationwide Series and earn his stripes in NASCAR competition.
“I can’t walk very well, but I can drive as well as I ever could,” Pastrana said. “The ankle — it’s probably the best thing that happened to me … it really made me a big fan of the sport.
“My whole life has been about competition and this is the biggest stage of competition that I could be on. For me, it’s never really been about the adrenaline, it’s been about trying to beat your friends. Now your friends just happen to be the best drivers in the world.”
NASCAR is hoping the four-time Rally America champion can draw different fans into the sport, much like that of Danica Patrick. But it’s going to be a learning process for Pastrana, a guy who, at the age of 14, survived a separation of his spine from his pelvis, later endured broken multiple bones and numerous surgeries, successfully jumped out of an airplane without a parachute on a stunt and set the world record for the longest ramp-to-ramp car jump with a 269-feet rally car launch from the a Long Beach, California pier onto a floating barge during ESPN’s 2010 New Year’s special.
“To be honest, no matter how many fans you’re bringing in, if you’re not doing well, nobody’s going to stick with you,” the driver added. “My goal this year isn’t to see if I can bring in this many fans, it’s wanting go out there and learn how to drive this, be competitive and hopefully we’ll bring some over and win some more.
“It’s going to take some time. We’ll have some good days, we’ll have some bad days. In the end, I hope we’re learning every time.”