HUNTERSVILLE, NC - JULY 20: Travis Pastrana, driver of the #99 Boost Mobile Toyota, speaks to the media during a press conference held at Michael Waltrip Racing on July 20, 2011 in Huntersville, North Carolina. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for Michael Waltrip Racing)
It seems like Travis Pastrana is the answer to every motorsport's popularity woes these days.
The extreme athlete, powered by a healthy Red Bull personal sponsorship and a not-so-healthy adrenaline addiction, recently became an co-owner (and, on July 30, a driver) in NASCAR, leading the sanction's Scene Daily to wonder:
Is there anything to the hype or is he just another convenient story? Someone who will drown out the real drivers? In other words, does Pastrana have what it takes?
Directly on the heels of this NASCAR feature story came the news that Pastrana was one of four drivers who applied to participate in the IZOD World Championships at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16th.
So now two sanctions are waiting breathlessly to see if Travis Pastrana's crossover appeal and personal magnetism can somehow jump-start their pop culture popularity.
It seems like Pastrana himself is larger than life, and so is his backstory. A highly-decorated X Games athlete with more gold medals than he knows what to do with, he has tried just about every extreme activity there is, from motocross to BASE jumping to rally racing. He's been injured so many times he says that he's forgotten most of them - except for one instance in 1998 when he separated his spinal column from his pelvis, an injury that only had two antecedents in medical history and the recovery from which was so remarkable that it was televised for posterity.
His preternatural ability to control racing machines is well-documented. But it is his legendarily-sized fan base that NASCAR and IndyCar are keen on hooking. You can't walk into a cutting-edge clothing store these days without seeing some variant of Pastrana-branded gear. That coveted 18-24 demographic is squarely in Pastrana's wheelhouse, and since both NASCAR and IndyCar are having serious struggles appealing to that target, it's no surprise that they are shoving each other out of the way to secure Pastrana's services.
It is a testament to Pastrana's visibility and appeal that so many people are already putting so much into his basket. Pastrana's stock car career is so abbreviated and free of distinction that, were it anyone else, the idea of him participating in Nationwide Series races would be laughed right off the table. Double the speeds and remove the fenders, and the incredulity level increases exponentially.
But Pastrana is such a big get for both sanctions that they are treading lightly over those concerns. It helps that Pastrana himself seems to understand his limits, telling Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star, "We're definitely not expecting to set the world on fire, but if I can be safe and fairly competitive, then I think it's a worthwhile experience. If I can't keep up the pace, I'll pull out. This is a serious deal."
It is somewhat disquieting for harder-core fans to see their series returning to the stunt-casting well. Long-time fans believe that fundamentally improving the core product will do more for the health of the series than a "shock-and-awe" campaign that provides a brief, artificial attention spike.
Believers, of course, counter that when you set out to fish, you can sit all day in the boat without a strike if you don't have the right bait. And there is no question that Travis Pastrana is some of the juiciest bait in the box.