When news broke last week that Travis Pastrana was making the jump to NASCAR as driver of the No. 99 Nationwide car and co-owner of Pastrana-Waltrip Racing, it didn't take long for the message boards to heat up. (And yes, he reads them.)
How did it happen? Who dared him to do it? Is he doing it for the money? Does he have any idea what he's getting himself into? (And those were the nice posts.)
No one was more surprised by all the attention than Pastrana himself.
"I had no idea there would be this kind of media blitz," he says. "Even my grandparents found out on TV that I'm racing NASCAR. I guess I'm coming in a lot less under the radar than we'd planned."
What started as a New Year's Day conversation has become the talk of motorsports. And surprisingly -- or not, considering this is Pastrana we're talking about -- most of the negative commentary has come from the motocross racing community.
"I'm getting so much slack," he says. "They say, 'NASCAR's boring. He's selling out. He's doing it for the money.' But this is about a challenge."
And an opportunity.
When Pastrana jumped his Subaru Impreza from a pier onto a barge in Long Beach, Calif., on New Year's Eve last year, setting the world distance-jumping record of 269 feet, he did more than grab the attention of the tens of thousands of action sports fans lining the pier and millions more watching at home. That jump landed him a NASCAR ride.
At that event was 27-year-old Blake Bechtel, co-owner of Diamond-Waltrip Racing, with his dad, Gary, and two-time Daytona 500 champ Michael Waltrip. A few weeks before the jump, Bechtel had an idea.
"He told me we needed to do something fun, something different," Waltrip says. "He's a young guy and a fan of Travis', and his vision was to go to Long Beach, find Travis and tell him to drive for our team."
It was no secret around Charlotte garages that Pastrana was looking for an opportunity in NASCAR. But, says Pastrana, "I was looking for a team where I could do well, and still be me."
On Jan. 1, Bechtel gave Waltrip's card to Pastrana and told him to give him a call if he was interested. The Michael Waltrip Racing mission statement was printed on the back of the card: "To be a unique organization driven by performance, rooted in tradition and focused on delivering to our partners a personal connection with fans through innovation and entertainment." Beneath the statement is Michael Waltrip's signature.
"I read that and thought it was so cool," Pastrana says. "This was a team that was willing to do things differently. They encouraged me to continue racing as many other things as possible. But when I have free time, we test."
Unlike the other teams he'd talked to, MWR was encouraging Pastrana to be Pastrana.
"The fact that card got his attention told me everything I needed to know about him," Waltrip says. "It showed me that he gets it."
That Long Beach event showed him something else: The power of the action sports faithful, an untapped market for NASCAR. And the power of Pastrana. If thousands of fans would show up to watch this guy jump a car for five seconds, imagine the turnout to watch him trade paint with the best drivers in the world. The jump also signified something else about Pastrana: an intense vision, sharp mind and incredible work ethic.
"Travis has to be so highly motivated to figure out all these crazy stunts and execute a plan to get them done," Waltrip says. "I want to know how he does it, how he's gotten to this level in everything he does. And as an owner and competitor, I want to tap into that. I know it's going to be a long road. But can you imagine Pastrana not being a winner?"
For Pastrana, the draw to the oval was simple: He needed a new challenge.
"After the rally championship last year, I wanted to try something else," he says. "I don't think there is anything more fun than driving a rally car, but I made it to the top. I needed something new. All the best drivers in the U.S. race NASCAR, so if I want to be the best, that's where I have to go."
When Pastrana talked to his buddies Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers and asked for advice, they told him to enter some late model races, spend a year in the ARCA series, a year racing trucks and then go from there. He thought about their advice, planned to take it, raced a few late model events. And is headed straight to the Nationwide series. "I like being thrown in the deep end," Pastrana says. "Sink or swim. The best way to learn is to be thrown in against the best."
After two months of testing, which begins after he returns home from next week's Race of Champions in Dusseldorf, Pastrana will make his debut in the No. 99 car at the Jan. 28 Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale, Calif., and his Nationwide debut shortly afterward. (The original plan was to race the Phoenix Nationwide stop in February, but Waltrip says he doesn't believe there will be enough time to meet NASCAR criteria before February. A March or April race seems more likely.)
"I'm getting a lot of slack about skipping steps," Pastrana says. "But if you were given the opportunity to race at the top level, would you turn it down? I would rather fail trying than sit on the couch wondering if I could have done it."
If Pastrana is successful -- and let's be honest, even if he's not -- the upside for NASCAR is obvious. But the upside for action sports could be equally as great. He's hardly the only action sports star with NASCAR aspirations. Five-time Supercross champ Ricky Carmichael is racing in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series. Seven-time champ Jeremy McGrath has spent time behind the wheel of off-road trucks and stock cars. Freestyler Brian Deegan made his NASCAR debut at Irwindale in June and plans to race a mix of West and Truck Series races in 2011. And action stars from Dave Mirra to Bucky Lasek are testing the waters in rally.
Ricky Carmichael welcomes Pastrana's presence at NASCAR: "It's simple. If Pastrana does good, it will help his program and other athletes wanting to try NASCAR. And if it doesn't go good, it will hurt the program. I'm looking forward to seeing him at some of the races next year. It will be cool to have someone I've raced against in another sport out there with me."
If Pastrana does well, he not only proves it is possible to make the jump from two wheels to four, at the highest level of motorsports, he will open doors for every dirt bike racer, skateboarder and BMXer with dreams of driving in NASCAR.
"That's what this team is all about," Pastrana says. "To bring in new guys who've had success in the action sports world, and to find young guys and bring them up through the ranks. We have lofty goals and we know it will take results, but we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't believe it was possible."
So, does he know what it takes? Does he know how hard it is to win in NASCAR, how hard it is to make the jump into the sport at its highest level? And does he know the expectations being heaped upon him? Yeah, he knows.
"To be the best at anything takes a passion, a commitment beyond what 99.9 percent of people in the world would be willing to sacrifice," he says. "I understand what it's going to take. That's difficult for me to do right now when I have other stuff in my life that I enjoy and still want to do. But when I get in that seat, my competitive side will take over and it will be about figuring out what it will take to be at the top and doing it. Will I be a Jimmie Johnson? I don't think so. But will I do everything I can to try and get there? Absolutely."
And we'll all have a lot of fun watching him try.
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. In 2007, she wrote "The Big Jump: The Tao of Travis Pastrana," published by ESPN Books.