Travis Pastrana Doing Different Double, X Games, NASCAR

By Tripp Mickle
Special to the Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service

(July 26, 2011)

Early last week, Travis Pastrana popped into a Subway near his home in Maryland for lunch. While waiting to order, he noticed a man nudge a boy wearing an oversized, flat-billed hat standing in line behind him.

“Hey, man,” the 9-year-old boy said to Pastrana. “I watch ‘Nitro Circus,’ and I can’t wait to see you start NASCAR.”

Pastrana’s eyes widened. He’d never heard anyone mention “Nitro Circus,” his daredevil reality show on MTV, and NASCAR in the same sentence.

“The demographics couldn’t be more different, and that’s kind of neat,” Pastrana said, recalling the episode. “If either one transfers to the other, that could be a really good thing for both.”

That’s what everyone across Michael Waltrip Racing, NASCAR and Wasserman Media Group, which represents Pastrana, hopes will happen when Pastrana brings his nice-guy image and thrill-seeking personality to the Nationwide Series this Saturday at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. It will be the first of seven races he plans to run in NASCAR this year.

Other action sports athletes, such as Ricky Carmichael, have made similar jumps into NASCAR. But few could mean as much to the sport as Pastrana does today, with NASCAR desperate to grow its fan base and eager to appeal to youth.

Pastrana, 26, connects with young people as well as any athlete in sports. He has 2.8 million fans on Facebook, nearly 174,000 followers on Twitter and a show on MTV2. He’s so popular that a YouTube video he recently filmed with three scantily clad dancing grannies netted more than 250,000 views in its first week.

It’s that type of appeal that inspired Michael Waltrip Racing to gamble and give Pastrana equity in its Nationwide Series team, which was renamed Pastrana Waltrip Racing last fall.

“It’s not just a NASCAR initiative, or a Michael Waltrip Racing initiative,” said Waltrip general manager Ty Norris. “This is a youth initiative. The youth market is something so important to us going forward, and what we see in Travis is not only a guy with incredible passion and desire to be a champion … but one who also has a massive following.”

Executives with Waltrip Racing and Wasserman spent the better part of the past year working on a business plan that would put Pastrana in position to bring that following to NASCAR. In the span of six months, they forged an unprecedented partnership, secured sponsorship support, haggled with NASCAR over issues including car numbers, and worked with the X Games staff to schedule freestyle motocross and rally car events around the Nationwide race so Pastrana could do all.

“The vision of where this Pastrana Waltrip team could go has been pursued with a lot of passion from a tremendous amount of people,” Norris said. “I’ve probably said Travis Pastrana’s name more than my wife and kids’ names combined in the last six months. It’s what I’ve been talking about because I know personally, and we know as a group, what Travis can mean to the sport. We hope that we can do it right. The sport needs it.”

“Come drive our car”

On New Year’s Eve in 2010, Blake Bechtel, the 28-year-old who co-owns the Michael Waltrip Racing Nationwide Series team with his father, Gary Bechtel, climbed in a car with a then unknown stock-car driver named Trevor Bayne and headed to Long Beach, Calif., to see Pastrana jump a rally car 200 feet onto a floating barge.

Bechtel, who moved to California in his teens and became a fan of supercross, motocross and action sports, had always dreamed of bringing some of action sports’ cool factor to his NASCAR team.

During the after party celebrating Pastrana’s successful jump, Bechtel approached the X Games star and introduced him to Bayne.

“You need to come drive our car, man,” Bechtel told Pastrana.

“Really?” Pastrana said. “That’d be great.”

Pastrana had spent the previous three years pestering his agent, Steve Astephen, to find him a ride in NASCAR. Astephen thought it was a joke, but Pastrana was really interested, and Bechtel picked up on that. He left that night and called Norris to tell him about meeting Pastrana.

“I had no idea what the structure would be, but we knew if there was any way we could get him in a racecar, that would be the best decision we ever made,” Bechtel said.

Bechtel stayed in touch with Pastrana’s representatives at Wasserman, and late that spring, he and Norris went to the agency’s office in Carlsbad, Calif., to discuss Pastrana. The Wasserman team, led by Astephen and Pastrana’s business manager, Travis Clarke, said it was looking for investors for a Pastrana-owned supercross team. Norris had a different idea. What if, instead of a supercross team, Pastrana became an owner of a NASCAR Nationwide Series team?

“We’ll put Travis’ name on it,” Norris said. “Travis has to stay Travis. He can do everything … he wants to do. Ultimately, if we do this right, we can build a race team that’s an umbrella for all the race things Travis does — rally, supercross, motocross.”

The offer was better than Astephen and Clarke could have imagined.

“When we met with other teams, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, Travis would be great for our team. We’ll pay him a bunch of money,’ ” Clarke said. “That’s not what we were looking for. Ty was selling us on what we were selling everyone else. It was a no-brainer.”

New look for NASCAR

On a fall day at around 6 a.m., as the deal was still being worked out, Pastrana and a handful of executives from Wasserman and Waltrip Racing met the NASCAR Media Group at Charlotte Motor Speedway to film a video announcing Pastrana’s move to NASCAR.

The video began with a black screen that read, “Is NASCAR ready for Travis Pastrana?” Then Pastrana appeared inside a stock car banging on the roof saying, “Come on, man, I know how to turn left. Let me out.” His friend Hubert Rowland pulled a tarp off the car, unveiling a yellow Toyota with skid marks and don’t-turn-right decals. The 90-second video debuted online and netted more than 200,000 views. ESPN showed it in its entirety.

In the weeks after the announcement, Norris met with Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions, and Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president of motorsports, in Las Vegas. They threw out the idea of Pastrana starting his season at the Nationwide Series race in Indianapolis, the same weekend as the X Games.

Norris liked the idea and took it to Astephen, who worked with X Games staff to schedule the freestyle motocross best-trick competition on Thursday and the rally cross event on Sunday. The schedule meant Pastrana could commute between Los Angeles and Indianapolis to compete in X Games on Thursday, NASCAR on Saturday and X Games on Sunday. The trifecta of Pastrana on ESPN was exactly what Norris had envisioned.

“Right out of the box, it’s exposing the sport to new people,” Norris said.

Learning curve

Pastrana’s transition to NASCAR will be filled with adjustments for both sides. After his debut in a regional stock car series race at Irwindale Speedway, Pastrana went into the stands to sign autographs and take pictures with fans. A NASCAR public relations official rushed over to take him to the postrace news conference, but Pastrana’s team at Wasserman intervened and asked them to let the other drivers speak first.

“This is what Travis does after a race,” Clarke said. “He goes and sees the fans. They weren’t used to that.”

Pastrana is expected to push the envelope in other ways. A BASE jumping enthusiast, he has asked about the possibility of parachuting into a speedway for his driver introduction. And there’s always the possibility of him doing a motocross demo before an event.

There will be plenty of adjustments for Pastrana, as well. He knows he needs to learn to speak the language of NASCAR so he can explain to his team how to improve the car’s handling during a race. He also has to get more seat time in a stock car, and he plans to do that by cutting back on some of his other activities, such as driving monster trucks and working on freestyle motocross tricks.

Pastrana doesn’t have high expectations for his performance this season, but he is committed to getting better. If he improves, then he will move from seven races in 2011 to 20-plus races in 2012, to full time in 2013. The ultimate goal is the Daytona 500 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2014.

Norris’ long-term vision is to turn Pastrana Waltrip Racing into a feeder system for young drivers and sponsors at Michael Waltrip Racing that allows both groups to benefit from Pastrana’s youth appeal and coolness factor. Astephen wants to turn the team into the umbrella motorsports program with supercross and motocross teams like Norris first pitched a year ago.

But everyone knows those plans will have to wait until after Thursday’s X Games. Pastrana is planning to try again to land a freestyle motocross trick called the Toilet Roll. He failed to land it at Staples Center in 2009 and wound up hobbling out of the arena. He said he is landing it 80 percent of the time in practice, and that margin of error is still a big concern for everyone behind the Nationwide Series team.

“His trick is not dialed for Thursday yet, and this whole thing could blow up in our face,” Astephen said.

Speaking last week during a news conference at Michael Waltrip Racing’s shop in North Carolina, Pastrana said he wasn’t thinking about that. He was concentrating on tackling one event at a time.

After he explained that to the media, he introduced himself to 10-year-old Jack Robinson, who was waiting for an autograph. Pastrana signed the boy’s Pastrana Waltrip hat and listened as his mom, Ann, explained that the crescent-shaped scar on Jack’s cheek was from a dirt bike accident.

“They have their own ‘Nitro Circus’ in the backyard,” Ann said.

“Uh-oh,” Pastrana said, grinning widely.

It was the second time in the same week he’d had a conversation about “Nitro Circus” and NASCAR. Maybe the demographics aren’t that different after all.

Tripp Mickle is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal.