Travis Pastrana hadn’t been on a motorcycle for more than a year, since he crashed while attempting the insanely difficult freestyle motocross trick known as the TP7 during the 2011 X Games, crushing his foot so badly that he couldn’t get out of bed for an entire month.
That’s the reason the master suite of his Maryland home has two side-by-side king-sized beds. One is the regular bed that he shares with his wife, the pro skater Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins Pastrana, when the two are on the East Coast, and the other is the one he slept in during that torturous recuperation, when he couldn’t move and thus needed his own sprawl of mattress and linens. “Now that one’s just the dog house,” Pastrana joked, while fastening a sparkly gold vest that, along with a black top hat, completed a look meant to capture his role on the upcoming Nitro Circus Live tour of Europe: Ringmaster.
The incredible and often idiotic stunt competitions that he and his friends -- most of them professional motocross and BMX riders but also skaters, skiers, wakeboarders, and fearless childhood pals -- used to stage out back in his foam pit had grown into a popular series of Nitro Circus videos, and then into an even-more-popular MTV show, and then into a 3D movie, and finally into a major touring show that had almost sold out all of its 40 dates, grossing $40 million.
Pastrana is and will always be the beating heart of the Circus, the most famous of its stars and the guy whose foam pit (and gigantic balls) gave rise to the whole enterprise, but since the X Games crash he had taken a step back from the tour. One reason was his injury. But more than that it was because of what the injury reinforced: that he had to focus on his new day job -- as a NASCAR driver racing for a team owned by legend Michael Waltrip. So while Pastrana was going to travel to Europe with the crew (which includes his wife, a world-class daredevil in her own right) for its first-ever tour of that continent, he would be doing no stunts himself.
In the waning days of September, Pastrana was enjoying a rare day at the 20-acre Maryland spread with his wife (most of their time is spent either on the road or at their California home), and it was going to be a short visit. Before taking off for Stockholm, where Nitro Live made its European debut, Pastrana flew to Vegas for his final auto races of the year -- he was going to do a rally race and a truck-series race in the same day -- and then back to Maryland for yet another surgery. This one would hopefully fix his problematic shoulder, which had been dislocated so many times that it popped out often and at inopportune times -- in the middle of a race, for instance. This surgery would require him to spend a month in a sling and was, in theory, a permanent fix, he said, “at least until I knock it out again.”
This was a surprisingly sedate and pragmatic version of America’s Daredevil-in-Chief, the first human to do so many things, including a double backflip on a motorcycle. The X Games crash seemed to have chastened him a bit, while getting married added a new wrinkle -- a feeling of responsibility to someone other than himself. Toss in a little maturity and the combined forces have settled Pastrana, at least a little. “He’s calmed down just a hair,” according to Andy Bell, the former BMX pro who is one of Pastrana’s best friends and who now produces the series On Pace with Pastrana. “And getting married was a good thing for him. He’s learning to balance a little.” Bell says Pastrana often jokes that his wife is “his Ritalin. Never before was he able to calm down and hang out.”
Clearly, Pastrana is also feeling the pressure of NASCAR, and Bell points out that his friend’s competitive nature should not be underestimated. “That’s the thing people don’t understand about Travis. He’s the most single-minded competitor I’ve ever met.”
“I have to focus on NASCAR right now,” Pastrana told me while showing me around the house. “I’m not gonna get a third chance.” What he meant was that the X Games crash wasn’t just bad because of the painful recovery; it also ruined his first NASCAR season before it started. Waltrip and the team knew what they were getting into by agreeing to work with Pastrana, but he still feels awful to have let them all down. Waltrip, he said, took the bad news well, but he also made Pastrana call and break the news to his crew, “the 12 guys whose families didn’t have any money coming in. He was like, ‘It is what it is, but you have to realize what this means.’ ”
It’s clear that the experience had an impact on Pastrana. He wouldn’t let them down again. “Almost everyone came back this year, and they’re all still excited to work for me, which is awesome.” He smiled. “So I should probably not do too much stupid stuff.”
The last time I’d seen Pastrana had been more than a year before, on the set of the Nitro Circus movie in Salt Lake City, as he and the crew worked through some of what they expected to be the final scenes they’d shoot. He had just come from a few days of practice with his new NASCAR team and was appropriately humble about his prospects. He told me that Waltrip had signed him up knowing exactly who he was doing business with, and that the unpredictability of his life -- and its appeal to a younger demographic -- was obviously part of the appeal. “I think Michael realizes I’ve been to the top of the sports that I’ve tried,” he said, while taking a break in his trailer from the incinerating summer heat. “You get there by taking calculated risks.”
Outside, Nitro’s least athletic member, Streetbike Tommy, was preparing for his only true stunt of the film; he would be jumping a speedboat over a spit of land and through a ring of flames.
“But having said that, with the sponsors and everyone counting on me, [doing the stunts] is a risk,” Pastrana said. “It’s a huge risk.” His words were prescient. Because a few months later, he crashed at X Games the day before he was due to make his NASCAR Nationwide series debut. That was the end of his car-racing season.
It was unfortunate, because it left the impression out in the public that NASCAR, like everything else, was just another lark for a guy who’d built a career on trying new things -- literally, every day. But the Pastrana in Salt Lake was extremely serious about stock-car racing, even as he orchestrated and participated in ridiculous feats of derring-do on the set of the Nitro Circus film.
It might seem that racing in circles would be boring to a guy like him, but Pastrana said it actually isn’t at all. “I really enjoy it. I like the competition,” he said. “I like that it’s something I haven’t done.” While he’d acquitted himself very well in rally racing, on dirt -- Pastrana is a four-time Rally America season champion -- pavement was a whole new challenge, and one that he welcomed. “I want to push myself and put myself against the best.”
What seemed to surprise him most, when the subject arose again a year later in Maryland, was just how subtle the differences were between a great driver like Jimmie Johnson and a newbie like himself. Whereas in motocross races, Pastrana knew he could always make up time, on a superspeedway racing 200 mph, the difference between first and 21st can be a fraction of a second per lap. “In motocross and rally, you charge in the corners, you beat them in the corners, you block them, and that’s it,” he explained. “In NASCAR, you set a pass up three laps in advance, or at least a lap in advance, because there’s only one line that’s really good, and when you get really close to someone, it takes the air off the front of your car, and your car gets worse.”
What’s more, the top drivers are so consistent; they just don’t make mistakes. “I might do five laps great, but three laps bad, whereas the other guys will do 10 out of 10, within a tenth of a second.” Pastrana said that at his last race, he qualified less than two-tenths of a second behind Kyle Busch, one of the best drivers in NASCAR, “and I was 21st.”
This, as you might imagine, is both encouraging and frustrating. Pastrana knows he can be fast, but he’s also struggling to pick up the nuances that help him make up those hundredths of seconds that divide the podium from the mid-pack. “It’s going to take years,” he said. “My goal next year” -- when he returns from surgery, 100 percent or as close to it as Travis Pastrana can be -- “is that I’ll be consistently top 10 and get some top fives. A win would be amazing, but it’d have to fall into place.” He said he wants the feeling in the paddock to be that every time he climbs into his car, the other drivers think, “This guy’s got a chance.” “But we’re not there yet.”
That’s why he had sworn off riding motorcycles, and why when his friends were one-upping one another from the Nitro Giganta-Ramp in arenas across Europe, he’d only be goading them on to go bigger, instead of pushing them by example. “For at least the next two or three years, I’m going to put everything into NASCAR and see where we end up.” He doesn’t want to wake up in 10 years and think, “I wonder what would have happened if I had given everything to that sport?”
“That would suck.”
Pastrana’s house and its 20-acre playground of ramps and trails is a showplace of two-wheeled mayhem. There are jerseys and posters and trophies on every wall; the front walk outside his door runs directly into a concrete roll-in that leads to jumps that lead to a skate and BMX park and beyond that to a graveyard of launch ramps and kickers that have shot him into orbit and the foam pit many times; there are trampolines built into his yard for practicing aerials; and an entire barn at the bottom of his hill is filled with bikes of all kinds. Nearly every sign and decoration reveals his love of riding things with wheels, and yet he hadn’t touched a bike for more than a year.
Did he miss it? “Not really, no.”
Pastrana has committed to either succeeding in NASCAR or failing -- but only because he couldn’t get good enough before the money ran out, and not because he was distracted by other interests or injured doing some stunt. Few bodies have endured the punishment that his has, and Pastrana has long walked like a man 50 years his senior, but in Maryland he looked even more banged up than normal.
For the purposes of a photo, he sat gingerly on a miniature motocross bike and hooked a cable to its handlebars. He gave his wife a thumbs-up and she began to back away in a Bobcat, stretching the cable so that it raised her husband and his bike up over the wall of the foam pit until he dangled over a swimming-pool-sized container filled with blue and yellow chunks that had saved him from injury so many times. It hadn’t been used in months and yet still stunk in the heat of the late morning. “You should smell it on a summer day when 10 dudes in armor are using it,” he said.
Pastrana clowned atop the bike; even injured and out of practice, he is beyond comfortable in the air. He said that the foam pit often gives people a false sense of confidence. They think that they can try anything and those foam blocks will forgive all. But in reality, “it’s kind of terrifying.” If you fly high enough on a motorcycle, he said, you sink straight to the bottom, and “you’ll be lying down there with gasoline pouring on your head. You just hope there’s no static electricity” -- meaning, to spark a fire in the one place where Pastrana feels claustrophobic. “No one’s died in a foam pit, yet…” he said, and let the thought trail off. “It’s like an avalanche -- the foam sets all around you so you’re just sitting there waiting for help, and no one can hear you scream, literally. You can’t hear anything.” Pastrana has torn both his MCL and PCL in the pit; his mother broke her neck.
These are some other parts of the old job he doesn’t miss. At the end of the day, however, we’re talking about Travis Pastrana. The daredevil will never be purged from his soul.
“I’m never gonna be done,” he told me, once his wife had lowered him back to solid ground. “Maybe with [competing in freestyle] X Games, but there’s so much to do still.” He said he was inspired by what Danny Way had done with the MegaRamp -- he’d pushed skateboarding to a new dimension by completely changing the environment. Pastrana sees some of his own ventures -- Nitro Circus Live, and his participation in the Red Bull: New Year. No Limits. stunt extravaganza, where he jumped a rally car -- as presenting similar opportunities to build bigger and better ramps. “We’re reaching the limits of motorcycles, but we’re not even close to reaching the limits of ramps,” he said. “So much is possible. I’d like to help continue to push the progression of action sports.”
It recalled something he’d said back in Salt Lake City, when asked if he thought marriage, and a professional car-racing career, would mean a newer, safer chapter in his life.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Why do you keep building stuff? Why do you want to set the world record for distance jump in a bus with eight people when it would be easier to do it in a trophy truck?’ But that’s not the point. You wake up every morning, you smile. Even if I look scared -- which I am; I’m petrified most of the time -- I enjoy those situations.”
Standing at the base of his foam pit, he looked around at ramps he himself had sketched and in some cases helped to weld together. One, in fact, was based on a new idea he’d had after talking to ski jumpers; it could launch a rider -- whoever that might be -- much higher, much faster, opening up the possibility of, say, even more flips.
“Freestyle is still my life,” he said. “I can’t not do this.”
Check out the February 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands January 15) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.