All images courtesy of KMC Wheels
When Travis Pastrana gets behind the wheel of his Dodge Dart in rallycross competition this weekend, it will represent the culmination of a career transition from motocross mega-stardom to top racing car driver that has been in the works since four-wheeled motorsport made its debut at X Games in 2006. This year there is no motocross on Pastrana’s X Games schedule and his medal hopes for the most significant action sport contest of the year are pinned entirely to his performance in X Games Rallycross competition on Sunday.
“X Games Los Angeles is for me the biggest action sport event in the world,” says Pastrana. “If you don’t do anything else in the season and you win there, then your season was good.”
And as X Games ends its 11-year run in Los Angeles, with a recently announced venue change to Austin, Texas, starting in 2014, it feels like the end of a chapter. Or the start of a new one.
The first car-racing event in X Games took place in Los Angeles seven years ago. Motocross idol Pastrana was a young man, barely out of his teens, but already looking at a forced retirement from the sport that had made him an international superstar. He had achieved countless accolades since learning to ride motocross as a toddler on a tiny motorcycle that scraped up the paint in the hallway of his parents’ home. A natural sense of balance, an intense drive to win, and an undeniable charisma with television cameras and fans had taken him on a meteoric ride to becoming one of the most famous figures in action sports history.
It wasn’t without its costs. He was only 14 when, in a freestyle motocross crash, he separated his spine from his pelvis an injury so rare it had only been reported twice before in history. When doctors reassembled his broken body, they presumed he would never walk again and the resulting slightly stooped posture reflects their presumption he would be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. His remarkable recovery is now the stuff of medical legend. And there were the knee surgeries, the shoulder rebuilds, the post-concussion symptoms: A never-ending sequence of injuries the inevitable result of forcing his lanky, 6’2″ body into the contortions required of a professional motocross racer and freestyler, where the physical norm is the petite build of a gymnast or a jockey.
But in 2006, Pastrana realized there could be a future for him in car racing. A victory over rally legend Colin McRae in the final, fractional seconds of a 37-mile race that brought the cars home to Los Angeles for a stadium super special showdown at the X Games gave him the hope that maybe his next motorsports career could see him gripping a steering wheel instead of handlebars.
“That win was my first taste that, Hey, you’ve probably got something going in rally that you could turn into a career,'” he says now of his first significant career win in auto racing. “It was a really exciting transitional time.”
By that contest, he’d already been racing cars for a couple of years. His first taste of rally driving had come in 2001 when he was just a teenager and sponsor Alpinestars arranged a trip for him to see Rally Great Britain, and put him in a private school where he had the chance to drive a WRC car. By 2004, he was running a partial season on the Rally America Championship and his focus was increasingly turning toward car racing or, as he famously called it at the time: “Action sport, with a roll cage.”
Buoyed by the support of Pastrana, who remains one of the biggest TV ratings draws in the category, the 2006 X Games event in Los Angeles saw the introduction of action sports’ automotive equivalent rally competition.
X Games is ESPN’s made-for-TV action sports festival. In the years since it started as the “Extreme Games” in 1995 (now the word “extreme” is considered something of an insult within the action sports culture), it has made idols of athletes who once performed on the fringes of sport. Among them, guys like skateboarder Tony Hawk, BMX rider Dave Mirra and Pastrana.
Perhaps hedging his bets with sponsors in that 2006 debut year, Pastrana added the rally competition to a schedule that also included motocross best trick, freestyle motocross and supermoto competitions. He won three of the four and performed an astonishing double-backflip stunt previously thought impossible. It was risky, it was spectacular, and it still ranks as one of the most important moments in freestyle motocross history. “It was the first time I went into a competition where I wasn’t sure a trick was going to work,” recalls Pastrana. “And that translated to the crowd; it was electric.”
After that, says Pastrana, he just didn’t have the taste for the two-wheel competitions that had repeatedly taken him to the line between possible and impossible, where the spectre of the big crash plays referee over life and death.
Car racing, on the other hand, satisfied his need for competition in the relative safety of an enclosed vehicle. And, with the popularity of his Nitro Circus franchise which features a collective of friendly hooligans egged on by leader Pastrana’s relentless enthusiasm to perform improbable stunts for TV, film and in live venues — he had no shortage of opportunities to indulge his adrenaline addiction.
Since that turning point in 2006, Pastrana has earned five more X Games medals three of them for car racing bringing his lifetime total to a healthy 17. In five focused seasons of rally competition, he scored four Rally America national championships and toed the waters of the Production World Rally Championship. Then, NASCAR beckoned with a new challenge and Pastrana leapt in with both feet, ultimately abandoning rally competition altogether after 2010 to take his shot at the sport that is every American country kid’s boyhood fantasy. Approaching 30 now, married to pro skateboarder Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins Pastrana and expecting his first child this fall, he’s racing cars fulltime. He is in his second season on the Nationwide circuit, while also running a concurrent season with Dodge on the Global Rallycross Championship and at X Games.
This week he’ll race in both: Saturday he’ll have an X Games Los Angeles paint scheme for the NASCAR Nationwide race at Iowa Speedway (Aug. 3), and then he’ll break out his Dodge Dart for Global Rallycross Championship competition Sunday. After being crashed out early in competition last year in Los Angeles, he says he’s got his eye on the big prize at Irwindale Speedway.
Even if he adds another X Games gold to his tally this weekend, he says he’s still got another motorsport on his bucket list. Not surprisingly, coming from a man who once back-flipped a motorcycle off the edge of the Grand Canyon, what he wants to experience first-hand could be described as the ultimate mix adrenaline and gasoline (or, in this case, nitromethane). “I want to run a Top Fuel dragster,” he says. “I just want to try it once. I want to hit it and see what happens.”
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