Race Weekend Central

Travis Pastrana Returns to NASCAR, Not Slowing Down (Part 2)

After Travis Pastrana returned to NASCAR last weekend at Kansas Speedway, we caught up with the 36-year-old motorsports icon to discuss driving for Niece Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series in the Sunshine State, as well as his previous time in NASCAR and his other endeavors in the motorsports world.

Pastrana spent time in competitive supercross, freestyle motocross and rally racing, winning numerous X Games medals. He’s backflipped a motorcycle into the Grand Canyon, jumped out of a plane without a parachute and jumped a dirt bike into the San Francisco Bay – enough content for several highlight reels. He has also won three supercross championships.

This is a follow-up to the original Wednesday (July 29) article, and includes Pastrana’s discussion of his career outside of NASCAR and his first-ever start in the Truck Series.

Adam Cheek, Frontstretch: Your first Truck Series start was with ThorSport in 2012, and you finished 15th. How did that partnership come about?

Pastrana: I think Crafton got, like, second that race – I was definitely the worst ThorSport truck. I spun it on the first lap, I literally was wide open every single lap of practice, every single lap of qualifying, and I got in and everyone let off the gas, I guess because we had a big draft and the sun was setting on turn three. So I went three wide to the top and crashed the truck and took all the downforce off the right rear and we just had a pretty bad time of it coming up through there. So 15th was respectable for coming back and getting the lap back and everything else, but definitely for the vehicle we had out there, and I don’t feel like the competition was quite to the level it is today in the truck series, but no, it definitely was a cool experience. I just wish I wouldn’t have blown it up on lap one – it was pretty devastating. Crafton was just like ‘man, I give you an opportunity to come out here in a vehicle that you could do well with, and you don’t even make it to the green flag!’ Well, I did make it to the green flag [Laughs]

Cheek: You’ve also had previous experience in rallycross and timed rally racing. Was there anything you took from that discipline, such as handling or the way the cars race, to help you settle into NASCAR, or was it a completely different animal?

Pastrana: I’ve always struggled with pavement in general, it’s just different… my greatest asset, if you will, or strength, is that I can take risks to make time. In NASCAR, you don’t really make time with risks, if you’re sliding or going slow – if you’re going slow, you’re going slow. You just you have to figure out where that car [is], where that balance is. Jimmy told me best, he’s like, “Look, it’ll take you 10 or 15 times in the wall before you realize where that edge is.” You didn’t know before you were there.

The bias ply tires, even with the K&N [cars] – like, I could drive those cars hard and you can kind of get away with it. Where [you can in] like rally and dirt, all-wheel drive… that really wasn’t the case in NASCAR, and I had a hard time if you’re like, “Okay, the hardest that I can go and the best that I can do in this line with this vehicle right now is, eighth, 10th, whatever it was,” and that’s like most of the times that I felt, again, [I had] a car that I could have run [in] the top five. If I was running fifth, sixth, seventh, I was just still like, “Why can’t I run the speed of the leaders?” I’d usually end up crashing out or having something an hour in and you’re like, “All right, like, they’re going that fast. Why can’t I?”

And just that understanding of race-craft… Chris Buescher was a prime example of someone that I almost every practice was faster than [him] – almost every qualifying, I’d out-qualify him. And every time I came across the finish line, I look up and he’s five cars ahead of me. And I’m like, wow, like what – you know, Chase Elliott was the same way. I mean, Chase obviously now is extremely fast and absolutely amazing, but he was, he was a kid at the time. But his race-craft was still so much better and his understanding of how things were going to work out was a million times sharper than I was for sure.

Cheek: Going back in time a little bit, your earlier career was primarily with motorcycles – freestyle and supercross. What was it like to be racing against past champions like Jeremy McGrath, Chad Reed and Ricky Carmichael when you arrived in the early 2000s?

Pastrana: Shoot, my best year I was probably 16 – I broke my thumb at McGrath’s house week before the start, rode with the cast. I cut the cast off in Daytona, won my first race, won the outdoor championship my rookie year against [riders] like Steve Lamson and Stefan Roncada and guys that I’d looked up to for years. When I jumped to the 250s the next year, the premier class, and took a fourth in Anaheim 1, first race at 17 years old and everything was looking pretty good.

I guess at that point, I didn’t really have that learning curve that most people did, I just found a way to go faster, which is something that I was never able to do in the cars and obviously that came at a high price on the dirt bikes – I did find the ground a lot. But I could always seem to take enough risks to be competitive with whoever I wanted to be, and that part I could do with anything – even the rally cars. You know, it’s hard to do that for an entire race or even entire stage if you will. But I can always figure out that aggression led to speed, and that just wasn’t the case in NASCAR.

Cheek: As for freestyle racing, what impact did becoming the first to do a double backflip in competition have on you and your career?

Pastrana: That was one of the few moments that, as an athlete or whatever action sports is to you, there’s so many things that you do that you’re really proud of, that no one else in the world has ever done that you figured out – that you work through the problems and that you were able to land it, but it’s usually just you and one or two people with a camera and a friend or something in the backyard. To do something that everybody felt the risk and everyone kind of could understand as a double flip, like it was something that is very relatable. Most people wouldn’t do a double flip on a trampoline, you know, let alone with a 250-pound dirt bike, 55-60 feet in the air, six stories up. Yeah, so that that was extremely relatable, and I feel like being live ESPN, maybe the heyday, if you will, of freestyle and action sports, it was just [the] right place, right time. and really awesome that that worked out.

Cheek: You’re, of course, a huge part of Nitro Circus, and it’s been around for nearly 20 years. Looking back, what is your favorite Nitro Circus stunt that you’ve done, whether it’s how much fun you had doing it, how creative it was or how much went into it?

Pastrana: Oh, well, those are all different answers. [Laughs] I mean, the most fun we have is honestly the pit bikes and the big wheels. The pit bikes, they’re just kind of what we do for fun after the filming, it doesn’t really translate I guess too much. It’s the small mini cycles where everyone’s competitive, but the flip side and the big wheel – you know, literally with Nitro Circus we differentiate ourselves, we make a living on kids’ toys. My dad still laughs at me every day as he’s working construction, he’s like, Ah, congrats! Keep riding that train till the wheels fall off.’ It’s the stuff that everyone’s done, like the crocodile mile or whatever, where you slide – you inflate this little thing and you put a hose on and you slide down it – well, ours was down a 60-degree angle, almost vertical, hill and you know, [you] jump in the beginning that if you didn’t land right or soap up correctly, [you’ll] come up short and knock yourself out, then you still have another 60 foot jump into a pond at the bottom of the hill, you’re unconscious flying through the air. Someone had to save you out of three feet of water. So yeah, it was a little crazy, a little fun. It was a little like [Johnny] Knoxville, his worst best pitch ever. I said, ‘So what is Nitro Circus?’ He said, ‘It’s like Jackass, but they don’t intend to get hurt and they don’t do drugs.’ So, cool! Thanks buddy, I think! [Laughs]

Cheek: Your first huge stunt came at the Grand Canyon in 2002, where you jumped a motorcycle off a ramp and parachuted down. How did you prepare for something of that magnitude?

Pastrana: Yeah, the Grand Canyon was interesting. It was where I met kind of the guy that we ended up starting Nitro circus together with, Gregg Godfrey, and I turned 18. And he said – because you have to be 18 to skydive…legally, anyway. And he goes, “hey, I know you want to skydive and to start base jumping…you want to base jump into the Grand Canyon in two weeks?” [I was] like, “yeah, I should probably learn how to skydive first.” [laughs] And we went with Jack Guthrie and all the guys at Skydive Utah, they took me under their wing and showed me the ropes, and I sent the dirt bike into the Grand Canyon two weeks later. That was pretty rad.

Cheek: Circling back to NASCAR, iRacing wasn’t as big when you were first gravitating towards NASCAR. Without that resource, how did you prepare and get yourself ready for a completely different kind of vehicle?

Pastrana: Ah, not well enough, I guess would be the correct answer. But no, I knew that it was going to take practice, and that’s, I feel like that’s [similar to] with Dave Mirra when he went to rally cars, he had a hard time. We grew up in sports, like soccer, baseball or any traditional sport, anything that doesn’t have such a high price of entry or such a big area where you go home and you practice every single day – every waking hour is on your dirt bike or bicycle or trampoline or whatever it is, it was a little different. [With] iRacing, I was very fortunate. I kind of found out about that right as I got into it…they obviously [now] have all the tracks that they have now and stuff, but it was still a very, very helpful tool for me. And, you know, simulators come along more and more, that’s where [Matt] Crafton laughs every day. They’re like “oh, the young drivers are killing you!” It’s like yes, it’s still it’s a simulator, it’s not real, they’re not afraid to crash. He [Crafton] is like, “I will beat them, I promise!”

But it is extremely helpful, and you learn your turning points and your braking points and you can go – shoot, I just raced Pikes Peak and I jumped into my first turn off the mountain. I was probably within five seconds of where I was at the other week, just from knowing the course from sim racing. So, you know, I think that’s a huge help, but it’s still it’s not in the car, and I think that’s the toughest part about NASCAR, is [that] the top guys are already the best drivers in the best equipment, and they’re getting the most seat time. So for any of the young kids you see come up and come in to the sport, the Byrons, the Elliotts, the list goes on and on there’s a lot of younger generation. But it’s a lot to do with the sim racing and the amazing talent that they have, and the amount of seat time they put in and their families helped them put in with go karts and everything along the way up.

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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