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Pastrana brings the X factor to NASCAR

Friday, May. 25, 2012

Travis Pastrana is taking media members for rides in his 600-horsepower all-wheel drive Dodge Dart. He speeds into a turn that’s as tight as a man who spends Memorial Day weekend with a metal detector.

Pastrana spins around an orange cone and skids beautifully until he smacks the back of the car into the chain-link fence in the ZMax Dragway parking lot.

Pastrana returns to his hauler, his crew does a quick check, and he takes off again. Soon he goes skidding majestically around a cone, tires squealing and smoke rising, and with the back of the Dart pops the fence harder than the previous time.

“I think I’m going to get fired,” he tells a passenger.

There will be no firing, Travis Pastrana. You’re an X Games star, 10 times a gold medalist at the Games and four times a Rally America champion. We owe you, Travis Pastrana. You took news gatherers accustomed to watching and allowed them to play.

All right, so the Dart is the same car in which you’ll compete Saturday night in the Global RallyCross (GRC) series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The race is GRC’s first of the season and the first ever at the speedway. The race will be televised live on ESPN3.

The fence is merely practice, Travis Pastrana. You’ll drive through water sprayed from a scaffold, fly over a jump and take eight separate turns on the .77 mile course.

You’ll do this in a car that, after the media ride along, is missing a piece on the back. The metal around the missing piece looks like a broken egg yolk.

Maybe you were trying to knock the fence down so you could drive on dirt.

“Yeah, I was trying to find some dirt,” says Pastrana, 28.

Some of the courses on which the drivers compete are dirt.

Pastrana will race Saturday night in the GRC – almost as soon as he finishes racing in the Nationwide History 300 – because the speedway is trying to find new fans. Specifically, it is trying to find younger fans.

Hip, cool and youthful are not terms you would apply Sunday to the crowd at the Coca-Cola 600.

“Honestly, everybody says with NASCAR that it’s fading,” says Pastrana. “But it still has a way bigger audience than the X Games. The difference is the X Games has the youth. When you talk to a 10-year-old about his favorite sport, it’s probably skate or motocross as opposed to conventional sports like football and baseball.”

Pastrana began to drive when he was little more than a toddler in his hometown, Annapolis, Md. His family owned a construction company. Debbie Pastrana, Travis’ mom, says he was terribly shy, and the family wanted to get him involved in something that would shake loose his personality.

“I actually rolled my first go kart when I was 3,” says Pastrana.

Hit a fence?

“I drove through the house,” says Pastrana. “I crashed my mom’s car at 10. Ran into a mailbox. Kind of the story of my life.”

The car he drives tonight will hit 110 mph, and some of the turns will all but demand a complete stop.

What’s the sensation like, the zero to 60 mph in less than three seconds and the sudden stops and starts and skidding three-wide through the water?

“You know it’s hard for me to imagine anybody that doesn’t have this sensation,” says Pastrana. “Growing up, always sliding stuff, drifting stuff, jumping stuff – it’s what my passion is.

“A lot of people get off on roller coasters but roller coasters don’t do much for me because I know they’re on a track. This is like a roller coaster where you have a chance to fly off the track. And something bad can happen.”

This is racing for fans with short attention spans. If you don’t like what’s going on at the moment you might like what goes on next.

The jump the drivers will take, a table-top jump, is about 4 feet high.

Pastrana once flew over a ramp 269 feet onto a barge in the Pacific Ocean. He’s done double back flips on a dirt bike. He’s jumped out of an airplane without a parachute.

Being in the air – what’s that like?

“It’s amazing because time actually slows down,” says Pastrana. “Some people search for it through meditation or, the opposite end, drugs or whatever. This is something I can do and be proud and feel good about myself.

“When you’re in a situation like that where you’re on the edge and you have that adrenalin, time slows down, and you’re just really clear. If you have problems or don’t have problems you don’t think of anything else. And that’s the clarity that racing gives me and I love it.”

Pastrana’s clarity, and conscience, enticed him to offer to pay to replace the four sections of fence he knocked down.

Speedway president Marcus Smith, whose idea it was to bring GRC to Concord, declined the offer.

Smith moves as quickly off the track as Pastrana does in the parking lot. A ticket-taker might already be at the fence, trumpeting the track’s newest entrance and charging customers to come inside.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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