To understand why Travis Pastrana, the most revered action-sports athlete of all time, is checking into a grim Quality Inn in the heart of NASCAR country, just watch him walk from the lobby toward the barbecue joint next door. It's a hobble, the hunched-over gait of a retired NFL linebacker. Mostly the limp is due to an X Games trick gone awry, when his custom-built 250cc Suzuki landed on his ankle last July, but Pastrana's body is laced with scars. Several of his bones are held together by titanium pins. He's had surgery more than three dozen times (nine on his left knee alone) and has had more concussions than he's had birthdays.
At 28, Pastrana's enviable motocross career is over. He had always been fond of joking about the natural post-motocross progression – "With age," he would quip, "get a cage." And now he is, partnering with NASCAR royalty Michael Waltrip and running in the sport's cutthroat second-tier circuit, the Nationwide Series at the Richmond Speedway in late April. It's a transition that more qualified drivers – Dario Franchitti, for instance – have tried to make and failed. If Pastrana doesn't perform, he risks losing the sponsorship of Boost Mobile and, ultimately, losing his ride. NASCAR is not a forgiving sport. It doesn't matter how popular or talented you are; if you can't hack it in Nationwide, go find another job.
Pastrana finally makes it to a cafe beyond the barbecue joint and orders a chicken salad, which is part of his fitness regimen (when he isn't hobbled by fractures, he does CrossFit every morning). He peers out from under a flat-brimmed baseball cap (a rookie no-no in the staunchly curled-bill Sprint Cup world). He's got floppy hair that he claims he's growing into a "NASCAR mullet" and a few extra pounds gained while sitting around waiting for his ankle to heal.
"The thing is, I'm not aging like a normal guy," he says, taking a bite of chicken salad, as we wait out a rainstorm delaying his on-track practice. "I mean, I feel great. Don't get me wrong. But I've taken a little bit of a beating. Just this year, I had two concussions." He pauses. "Hey, wait a minute. We're 2012 now, right? Then I'm completely concussion-free for the year. Things are looking up."
Lyn-Z, a professional skateboarder who married Pastrana in October, shoots him a playfully withering look. "I don't find that cute anymore," she tells him. He leans in to nibble her ear. "It's something we worry about," she says. "Travis has had like a bazillion head injuries. You get knocked out, and things can go south so easily. I'm glad he's doing NASCAR now."
It's odd to hear someone praise the safety of auto racing, but a NASCAR berth represents a measure of security and sanity to a guy who spent his formative years literally upside down. Pastrana is not the only one hoping for a successful ride across the finish line. NASCAR may need him as much as he needs it. The sport's demographic is old (the average fan is over 40), and everyone from advertisers to track owners are concerned that too many fans are "aging out" of the sport. Pastrana's arrival could reignite interest among younger guys who have been tuning out of the sport – the same sort of guys who followed him on the X Games or on his MTV show, 'Nitro Circus.' Couple that with the addition of Danica Patrick, NASCAR's first sex symbol and a sometimes tempestuous presence, and NASCAR could have the ingredients for much-needed rejuvenation.
"Travis is part of that evolution," says Darrell Waltrip, Michael's brother, who is Fox Sports' color guy and a three-time champion. "He's fun, he's a little bit of a crazy guy, sort of like we were when we were kids. And the sport can use him. Whether or not he's ready? We'll just have to see about that."
Nothing about Pastrana's 10 years as a motocross ace and another five driving a Red Bull Subaru for Rally America will count for much on the oval blacktop.
"Travis drove rally cars," says Jimmie Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup champion who also grew up in motocross. "That's on dirt, and they're four-wheel drive, and they have all kinds of traction control, so they slide completely different. As far as I know, there's no successful precedent for going from four-wheel drive to NASCAR."
"I know everyone thinks they can drive NASCAR," Pastrana says. "The problem is, it's easy. And that's what makes it so difficult. Everyone's within two-tenths of everyone else. The problem you try to figure out is, how do I get my car to go just a tenth of a second faster?"
There are many who haven't been able to find that tenth of a second. But Pastrana has a daredevil's instinct that might serve him well. He does everything to excess: motocross, BASE jumping, wakeboarding, daredevil stunts. Johnson concedes that Pastrana's past will give him a mental edge. "On a dirt bike, you learn a courage and commitment that you won't get anywhere else," he says. "You face real danger all the time. If you make a mistake in motocross, you pay for it. It scares away riders with lesser stuff."
Still, it's not likely that Pastrana, who has jumped 269 feet across Long Beach Harbor onto a barge and leaped from airplanes without parachutes, and BASE jumps on his off-days, is going to shift gracefully into the closed cockpit or endear himself to the heartland fans his sponsors need to court. At least not without a high-gravity aerial tantrum or two.
I realize this one day, far out on a peninsula in Panama, where Pastrana has opened Nitro City, an action-sports version of a spa. Guests partake of kitesurfing, CrossFit, wakeboarding, and motocross on a half-mile waterfront track. "I love it here for a lot of reasons," Pastrana tells me. "There aren't a whole lot of laws, so we can sort of get away with doing things." Which is to say, he can invite his tweaked-out retinue of death junkies who call themselves the Nitro Circus – a more competent and athletic offshoot of the Jackass crew – for a week of idiotic risk-taking on his no-rules action plantation.
The night before the opening ceremonies, the crew is drunkenly playing "Sting-Pong," which penalizes ping-pong flubs by having a ball served at a player's bared stomach. A train-wreck circus member, Street Bike Tommy, acts as a slovenly master of ceremonies, drinking from a liter-size glass goblet of vodka mixed with Red Bull and glowing-red ice cubes. Tommy downs the liter of vodka and then pukes onto the pool table. To the horror of just about everyone, he picks a few bits of shrimp out of the vomit for a showstopping snack. "Yeah, Tommy isn't always like that," Pastrana explains. "He's going through some things at home."
Pastrana may be the ringleader of the hard-partying world of the Nitro Circus, but he's no longer willing to play its daredevil clown. He's married, sidelined, and even – it pains us to say – somewhat mature. If anything, he's transitioning into the role of spiritual leader to the action-sports world. And he's trying his best to refrain from things like BASE jumping.
"I knew a lot of amazing guys who were doing that," Pastrana says. "Notice that I use the past tense when I talk about them. Eventually the odds are going to play against you. When you screw up, you're screwed."
Despite his ankle injury and a NASCAR team that is banking on his staying alive, Pastrana kind of can't help himself. He is already conceiving of a follow-up to his notorious parachuteless jump. This time he's going to do something to promote his new line of underwear. You can see where this is going.
"I'm going to jump out of a plane, but this time not just without a parachute. This time I'm going to just be wearing my underwear," he says, "and I'm going to land on a trampoline. It's going to be intense."
Then something occurs to him. "Listen, don't tell Michael Waltrip," he adds. "I'm not doing this until NASCAR season ends."