INSIGHT: Daytona 500 bid just one more quantum leap for Pastrana

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INSIGHT: Daytona 500 bid just one more quantum leap for Pastrana

International Racing

INSIGHT: Daytona 500 bid just one more quantum leap for Pastrana

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With 17 X Games medals, six U.S. rally crowns, three motocross titles, a Nitro Rallycross championship, starts in NASCAR’s Truck and Xfinity Series, a run in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the Mount Washington Hillclimb record and even wins in powerboat racing, there’s very little that Travis Pastrana hasn’t done in his career.

It’s a resume that’s the envy of many, but for Pastrana, there’s been a huge gap in it for some time. In February he aims to plug that gap by finally entering the Daytona 500.

“It’s always been something I really really wanted to do,” Pastrana tells RACER. “So I just went to all my sponsors, all my friends, I went to everyone possible and said, ‘Look, how can we race the Daytona 500?’ People thought this was the worst idea I’ve ever had, which is pretty bad, or the best idea I’ve ever had.”

Pastrana’s biggest backer, the Black Rifle Coffee Company, is heavily involved in motorsport, but its main aim is to support veterans, which all makes for an even more compelling backstory — America’s greatest action sports star fulfilling a lifelong dream while simultaneously using the opportunity to help others.

“We’re gonna use this as a platform to just inspire, to have fun,” he says, “and they go, ‘You know what? If you don’t qualify that’s going to suck, but at least we’re going to go down there and have the best freaking week of our lives, living the freaking American dream and having a shot to race ‘The Great American Race’, and I said, ‘***k it, let’s go.”

For all the fanfare around Pastrana’s Daytona 500 deal with 23XI, a headline name and a race-winning team can only guarantee so much. He will, however, have to race his way in, and in doing so, he’ll do battle with seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and potentially four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves — two other superstars who aren’t guaranteed a seat at the table.

Pastrana is aware of the task he faces, but is confident he’s up to it nonetheless, and that attempting to make the race with 23XI as opposed to one of NASCAR’s powerhouse outfits will give him the best chance possible.

“If I don’t make it, I’m gonna be the most disappointed person, that dog with a tail between his legs and kind of show all the NASCAR fans that they were right. And as much as I really don’t necessarily care what other people think, this is for me and for my friends and family and sponsors and kind of living my best life that I possibly can.

“I believe we can make it,” he insists. “That’s why we came with the Toyota 23XI team. They’re a younger team so succeeding with their car would be really beneficial. Even like a Hendrick or at Gibbs, those guys are awesome, but I’ll get the slowest motor that they’re making, I’ll be getting the hand-me-downs a little bit.

“But here, on Michael Jordan’s team, just talking to all the guys and to Denny (Hamlin), they said before we know what your motor is going to produce as far as power, you’re assigned that motor, you’re assigned that chassis. They said the same crew chief works over all the cars. You’ll have your crew chief or car chief at the event, but we want to give everyone an equal opportunity to shine, and for me, that was why we’re going that direction. Looking at how well they did in the last restrictor plate races, I think we’re going to have a rocket ship.

“Having said that, my first time ever outside of third gear in a Cup car will be (my) qualifying lap at Daytona — no practice,” he notes. “God, I hope these simulators are accurate! I’ll be on iRacing and we’ll see what happens.”

Pastrana showed strongly in the Xfinity Series race at Daytona in 2013 with his wild-liveried No. 60. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

Daytona has been something of a happy hunting ground for Pastrana in the past, though. His first top-10 in NASCAR came at the track in the 2013 Xfinity season opener, and add in the fact that superspeedways are often a lottery that throw up surprise results — the last two victors have been first-time winners, for example — it’s cause for cautious optimism from Pastrana.

“On a mile-and-a-half course or short course, if we were battling top-30 it would be a very, very good race for me,” he says. “But here at Daytona, restrictor plate races, I mean, we’ve had good success with those. I qualified pole for Talladega. I got my first top 10 in NASCAR — it was a potential top five: qualified third, was running fifth and Kyle Larson decided to put his car into the fence on the line. So I didn’t have a scratch on my car, filled it up with grass, crossed the line backwards, lost like five spots there on that last straightaway.

“But it is a crapshoot. I’ve got a great team with Toyota and, if I prove to them during the Duels that I can not crash people, I can help them get to where they want to go. Because at the end of the day, you work with your team, you work with your teammates — but everyone’s out to win.

“So if they feel like you’re the best chance that they have of doing better, they’re going to work with you. If you’re crashing everybody, they’re not. And it’s not that political, I just hope that I can earn their trust and then not mess it up quick enough to get a chance to run with some of my top teammates.”

Mixing it up with NASCAR stars in the Nitro Rallycross series has encouraged Pastrana to want to take another shot of his own in the other direction.

Pastrana’s main motorsport program has been in Nitro Rallycross, a series he pioneered, and one where a number of NASCAR stars have competed over the last couple of seasons. And it’s that experience, racing against the likes of Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and Austin Cindric, that provides a good example of what Pastrana is up against down in Daytona.

“Honestly, I’m gonna be happy qualifying in. I think that would be amazing. But they only have four open spots. You’ve got a bunch of other guys that are very good with good cars vying for four spots. There’s a good chance that I won’t make it. People go, ‘Oh, won’t that be humiliating? I’m like, ‘Well, yeah.’ But, I mean, Austin Cindric won the Daytona 500 and he didn’t qualify (for) either races here for Nitro Rallycross, but he did well. He drove well, he had fun, he did the jumps, he got to accomplish something he’s never done before and I hope he comes back.

“For me, this is the one race. I’m not going in saying, ‘Oh, I have to win.’ This is a race I’m going in and saying, ‘Man, I just want to be a part of it.’

“I have more to lose here than to gain, but I feel like I would hate to go to my deathbed going, ‘I wonder if I could have qualified for the Daytona 500? I wonder what would have happened — 200 miles an hour, the best drivers in America,’” Pastrana muses. “There’s some of the greatest I’ve ever driven against. We saw last season with Kyle Busch, first-ever race, gets fourth at Nitro Rallycross. That’s impressive. Austin and Chase this season, but still, it just goes to show you that they came over to our world with jumps, where everyone in the world’s going, ‘That’s dumb, that’s crazy,’ but they wanted to test themselves as a driver and I appreciate they came over there. They added a lot to our event. They added a lot to the fan base in the excitement, and if I can do half of that over there in NASCAR, it’ll be a good time.”

Pastrana has been a part of the NASCAR world for over a decade now, but his attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 will place the cherry on top of a cake that’s been quietly baking that whole time. It’s something he’s been quietly working towards, and has always been the end goal of his stock car career. For now, at least, it remains a one-off. There’s no designs on a full-time return.

“I jumped into NASCAR with the goal of racing the Daytona 500 and Michael Waltrip said it best when I signed on with Waltrip Racing. He said, ‘You can’t just jump into the 500 because you have to race a lot, and by that point you’re probably going to be addicted to NASCAR,’ I quickly found out how talented the drivers were, how fun the sport was, and how little I knew.

Pastrana admits he was something of a fish out of water on his arrival in NASCAR…which made it all the more fun. Eric Gilbert/Motorsport Images

“I walked into NASCAR like every other Monday morning quarterback, not understanding it. And it was some of the most fun that I’ve ever had. It was the most frustration I’ve ever had, and my skill set is not rear-wheel drive,” he adds, crediting working with former Formula 1 and NASCAR racer Scott Speed in rallycross, and working with high-powered vehicles on hillclimb and Gymkhana projects with Subaru and Vermont SportsCar, with helping him improve his driving skills in recent years.

“My skill set is not pavement,” he emphasizes. “I’ve learned a lot from the last couple years, but at the end of the day, I have an opportunity to come through with why I started NASCAR in the first place and be a part of the ‘Great American Race.’ Right now we’ve done just well enough with every other sport to be able to have a sponsorship and the backing to make this work.”

Once Speedweeks at Daytona are wrapped, Pastrana’s attention will return to Nitro Rallycross, where he’ll see out the 2022-23 season, then get to work on the next campaign. Rallying, where he’s enjoyed much of his four-wheeled success, will be taking something of a back seat, though – something that had been planned before the recent passing of fellow American Rally Association competitor Ken Block.

“For ARA, it’s really tough because with (2022 champion Brandon) Semenuk, and when we thought Block was coming in with (his daughter) Lia, it was time for me to take some time back for family. ARA was in a really good spot as far as great competition on the top end. So I made the commitment to my family.

“I’m definitely not starting the year the way that I had thought with more family time, but as soon as we’re done with the Nitro Rallycross championship, my focus is then back again on Nitro Rallycross, building tracks (for next season). Nitro Rallycross is my main focus.

“I’m not racing boats, I might do a one-off or two-off, same with rally. Everyone at Vermont SportsCar, has been amazing and I want to help the sport as much as I can, and be there for the sport and be there for Ken now that he’s not there to kind of lead the charge on keeping ARA to the level It is. But my priority right now is to be home a bit more. My kids are growing up and I’m missing it.”

MX-5 Cup | Round 1 – Daytona | Race Highlights

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