A Fortunate Break, In At Least One Way
The aftereffects of the crash still are evident each time Travis Pastrana takes a step, when he hobbles around like a man much older than 28. Nearly nine months after fracturing his right foot and ankle attempting his last big motorcycle trick before refocusing his attention on NASCAR, the extreme athlete-turned-stock-car driver is only now able to raise himself on his toes.
"People think, ah, he broke his foot, he broke his ankle. Let me tell you -- he sent me a video from when they were taking the pins out, and it was really shattered," said Mike Greci, Pastrana's crew chief for his testing and K&N Pro Series efforts. "I don't know how many pieces -- 20, 30 pieces. This is not a normal break. You see the poor kid in shorts right now, and his foot is all bent and twisted."
The impact of that July 28 accident extended far beyond the dirt floor of the Los Angeles arena that Pastrana pounded in frustration after unsuccessfully landing an attempt at a 720-degree rotation trick during the X Games. It was supposed to be a grand finale, a heroic transition from the sport that made him famous into his new career path, another extreme sports championship on one night followed by his first start in the Nationwide Series the next. It was designed that way, for maximum effect. The crash changed everything. Pastrana's No. 99 car was withdrawn from his scheduled debut in Indianapolis, the driver went in for surgery and rehab, and plans were put on hold.
Next week, though, the time comes again. Pastrana's Nationwide debut was pushed to the April 27 event at Richmond International Raceway, a race that looms only days away. For the driver, who is clearly growing weary of the buildup and is ready to get behind the wheel, it's been an interminable interlude. And yet, while the reason for this delay clearly has taken an unfortunate toll on Pastrana physically, the additional time will make him more prepared to take his biggest and most difficult step yet in NASCAR. Since July, he's done more testing, spent countless additional hours on iRacing simulations and conferred more with Greci and driving coach Matt Crafton. Indy felt like a made-for-TV event. This feels like the beginning of a racing career.
"Yeah, it sucks that I got injured," Pastrana said on a conference call with reporters. "But honestly, I think I'm better off for it at this particular juncture. Were we rushed last year? No. I felt like we had a good plan. We were prepared and we were ready. Maybe not as ready as we are now, but we'll never be fully ready to compete. So no matter what happens on race day, you always wish you had a little more time."
Even so, from a career advancement standpoint, in some ways it could be seen as a fortunate -- although clearly painful and, to this point, somewhat debilitating -- break. Pastrana didn't return to a stock car until early February, and when he did, he understood how tenuous his grasp of the terminology had been. "Even Mark Martin or anybody, when they say something, I just wasn't understanding exactly what they were saying," he said. Looking back, he realizes it was a recipe for frustration had he gotten behind the wheel. Now, he speaks more of the language, his education assisted by all that down time during rehabilitation, much of it spent watching a lot of NASCAR on television.
And then there's the simulator, which Pastrana is wearing out. When he finally got back in the car, Pastrana found that his repaired right foot made it difficult for him to get fully into and out of the throttle, necessitating an adjustment of the accelerator pedal in relation to his seat. But the iRacing rig features a gas pedal that doesn't require as much pressure to push, and Pastrana was able to get back on the virtual track as soon as he had recovered enough to be placed in a walking boot.
"He's been on the iRacing machine tremendously," Greci said. "He calls me up and says, 'My car is doing this and this on the computer. What do I do to fix it?' He's been running Richmond a lot right now. He calls me up and I say, 'Jeez, Travis, I'm going to have to get one of these computers so I know what's going on.' But he's on that thing constantly. He does have other obligations, but when he comes to Richmond, he's trying to be prepared. I'll give him a lot of credit for that."
Every little bit helps, especially when it comes to real seat time. Although Pastrana was out of the car for more than five months after the accident, he estimates that he's doubled his seat time in the weeks since, a span that includes not only testing but also K&N Pro Series East events at Bristol and Greenville-Pickens. Testing sessions, usually comprised of 250 to 300 laps, have included two days at Nashville in a Nationwide car. Greci said Pastrana is an apt pupil, studying the telemetry data from Crafton's turn behind the wheel so he knows what the car is capable of before he gets on track. Although the speed has been there, Pastrana still has issues racing around other cars -- something that will only come with more event experience -- and managing things like tire fall-off.
"I can run one lap as good as anybody. But the problem is, I drop off," Pastrana said. "Like Matt Crafton will drop one-tenth of a second every 10 or 12 laps, and I'll drop double that. So by the time the tires are worn out, I'm just completely going backwards. I'm learning when to be aggressive and what is important. I'm just trying to make game plans that help me race better. In practice, everyone looks good in practice, and we can turn in some good lap times. It's just a matter of being consistent. Yeah, I think ... [it's] definitely good to get more seat time this year, and really understand what I needed to work on. Because you can go test every day, but if you're by yourself and not sure what you're doing wrong, you're just going to enforce bad habits."
The testing regimen will continue beyond Richmond, where Pastrana also will run the K&N Pro Series East event on Thursday night. "We've got some other places lined up for him," Greci said. "We'll keep him going."
Despite the hype and the anticipation, next weekend is really but a beginning for Pastrana, who will be locked into the Nationwide event thanks to the recent affiliation between his Pastrana-Waltrip team and RAB Racing, which fields a car that currently ranks 24th in the owners' standings. He has sponsorship for seven starts on the Nationwide tour this year but hopes to add more. But it all starts next week at Richmond, where the Maryland native estimates he'll have more than 100 friends and family members on hand, and where his relatively modest goals include finishing on the lead lap.
"I just hope I don't hit a wall, don't hit anybody else, don't make anybody upset, and hopefully we can end up on a lead lap, and I think it will be a really strong goal for me," he said. Greci, who will work with RAB crew chief Scott Zipadelli on Pastrana's car next weekend, thinks finishing on the lead lap "is a realistic goal" for his driver. If it happens, it will be the result of meticulous work on the part of an athlete who doesn't get enough credit for walking away from a career in which he was a megastar to chase one of the most difficult pursuits on the planet. And it just might be helped by the additional preparation time gained though a break that's proven painful, disruptive and aggravating -- but perhaps fortunate, in at least one way.
"I think in the long run, I wouldn't go as far as [to call the accident] beneficial. I'm sure I could have learned more out on the track than I could have from TV," Pastrana said. "But it was definitely something that I think is going to help this season, and help my first race be better. I'm hoping that's the case."