(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Travis Pastrana Returns to NASCAR, Not Slowing Down

In a surprise announcement last Thursday (July 23), Travis Pastrana announced his return to the NASCAR world after nearly three years away, driving for Niece Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway last Saturday (July 25).

The 36-year-old has competed in just about every motorsport imaginable – supercross, freestyle motocross, rally racing, super trucks and more – and he has racked up an impressive resume in all of those disciplines. Pastrana is also a longtime X Games competitor, landing the first-ever double backflip on a motorcycle in competition and winning 17 medals overall. He’s also broken countless bones and suffered a number of concussions in his career, but he isn’t slowing down after more than 20 years of doing what he loves.

Pastrana’s NASCAR debut didn’t come until 2012 – despite originally slated to attempt a 2011 race, injuries at the X Games that year postponed those plans. He made nine starts in 2012 before joining Roush Fenway Racing for a full season in 2013. His time in the No. 60 car netted him four top-10 finishes and a pole at Talladega Superspeedway, with his best overall finish of ninth coming in the spring event at Richmond Raceway.

After a few intermittent Truck Series races over six years (one with ThorSport Racing in 2012, another with NTS Motorsports in 2015 and a start with Niece in 2017, all at Las Vegas Motor Speedway), Pastrana’s return marked his first race in nearly three years. He brought the team’s No. 40 Chevrolet home in 22nd, finishing strong despite suffering a flat tire early on in the race and a spin later in the event.

Frontstretch talked with Pastrana a few days after the race at Kansas to catch up with the motorsports superstar. The Maryland native discussed his decade in NASCAR, how his other endeavors factored into competing in NASCAR and his relationship with Niece Motorsports.

Adam Cheek, Frontstretch: How did the deal to drive for Niece at Kansas come about?

Travis Pastrana: Well, Cody Efaw, a good friend [and] my car chief at Roush, awesome dude – he started Niece Motorsports, and they were getting it going – they had T.J. Bell and some other guys that were doing some stuff for them, they hadn’t really had any sponsorship back in 2017. I brought in some guys to have some fun, brought in a few bucks to race [Las] Vegas, and that was kind of their first sponsorship. So they said, ‘Look, we appreciate it,’ and that race, we actually had something really simple mechanical go wrong on, like, lap 3. So, we fully paid for a ride and they were just starting out, and [team owner] Al [Niece] came up to me, gave me a handshake to — ‘Thank you for kind of helping us get on the map, and we want to give you a race in the future – once we get our trucks to where we’re competitive, and we have a couple trucks, we’re gonna reach back out.’

[Then] Ross Chastain almost wins the title for him last year. I’m so pumped for the guys, and I had a call on Wednesday (July 22) – ‘Hey, Chastain won Kansas last year, and we’ve got an awesome truck, and because he’s going for the Xfinity Series championship, he’s not going to be sitting in the truck on Saturday. So, what are you doing in three days?”

I said, “Sign me up, coach! Put me in!’ So, that was a little scary, thinking about it like, ‘I haven’t been in a truck since 2017, going to the first turn, probably going to be three-wide, 160 miles an hour, I have no practice or qualifying, like yes, this is gonna be awesome.’

Cheek: It’s been three years since you last competed. You jumped in a truck with no practice or qualifying, and you had only the pace laps to re-acclimate yourself. What was that experience like?

Pastrana: Yeah, iRacing is good, but unfortunately you don’t get [the feel for] speed. So my goal was just look – I really like as a driver, especially as one that doesn’t race a lot, the stage racing, because it gives you a chance to figure your stuff out in that first stage. So, my goal was just don’t get lapped. I’m like, ‘As simple as that sounds, don’t cause any cautions, figure out what the truck’s doing, pushing it hard enough to know if it’s sliding in the front or sliding the rears – tight or loose, as they say in NASCAR, and work up from there.’

I’d love to be top 15 – Cody’s like, ‘Shoot, we want to give you your best NASCAR finish, let’s get up there, but we got to do it by not messing up.’

Unfortunately, we had a tire go down in the first stage, so I got put a couple of laps down but made some good adjustments there in the middle. Ross [Chastain] had already had the truck [the previous night] – he pretty much proved it was the fastest truck on the track the day before. So, I definitely wasn’t running it nearly as well as he did but was still running 10th-15th-place times that second session. I wasn’t very good at passing, and unfortunately every time a yellow came out, I’d start at 36th, then I get up to like 20th. And then the yellow would come out, all the lead lap cars would go back by, and I’d be back in 34th or whatever it was and you get up to like 23rd, and then you’re back, and I’m like, ‘Oh, God, I’m passing the same trucks over and over again!’

I didn’t want to crash. I didn’t want to give all the people that are giving me a hard time, like, ‘Oh, you’re always backwards.’ I’m not going to give them that video. And, sure enough, when I was trying to pass, I was too scared to pass on the outside so I had the wind taken off me a little bit. I thought I could have saved it, but I’m like, ‘Man, that’s my teammate, if I try to save it and don’t, I’m turning hard right and we’re both going into the wall, and then Al’s gonna be so bummed that I just took out two of his trucks.’

So I kind of half-tried, then just sent it down the infield backwards, and even that was exciting, to be perfectly honest, but not where we wanted to be. So [it’s] disappointing, like I said, to have the flat and then have the spin, but at the end of the day, I had a blast.

Cheek: You mentioned before the race that finishing in the top 25 would be a win for you, right?

Pastrana: Without a doubt. That was the goal. … I just didn’t think so many people were going to crash, like we were kind of the first car that wasn’t like in the race. I mean, we were in the race, but I went two laps down originally and then went another lap down with the spin.

Cheek: How did your interest in NASCAR come about at the beginning of the decade?

Pastrana: So, interestingly enough, I just won four U.S. rally championships, and Subaru was my main sponsor, and they pulled out of the WRC [World Rally Championship], which was my kind of my goal at that point, to race in WRC world rally car. When Subaru pulled out, I thought, ‘Well, do I want to pursue that, try to go the Red Bull route and move over to Europe?’ Or, with everything going on and with my wife [skateboarder Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins], she just won the world championship last year in 2019 and skates still. I’m like, ‘Do we really want to?’ Like, it’d be fun but kind of much.

I [eventually] followed Trevor Bayne to [Michael] Waltrip [Racing] at the time, and then they started talking, ‘You can’t just jump into the Daytona 500, you have to prove yourself, you have to figure out how to drive,’ and [Michael] Waltrip nailed it on the head. He said, ‘Look, chances are, when you start getting into this and by the time you’re good enough to race the Daytona 500, you’re going to be hooked.’ At that point, I [wanted] to see if I could do it, and [I was] kind of all in for a little bit.

Unfortunately, I broke my foot really bad, shattered my ankle at the X Games, right before what was supposed to be my first race. Then, Waltrip [became] sponsored by 5-Hour Energy, I was still Red Bull, so everything kind of went away as far as what we were allowed to do there. So I jumped in with RAB Racing and [crew chief] Scott Zipadelli, and those guys were awesome, really cool to work with. But I wasn’t sure that the vehicle was as good as it would have been at Waltrip. In hindsight, it probably was very close, but after a year racing at RAB, I just said, ‘Look, we’re going to go ahead and fully fund one race.”

At the time, the winningest car out there was in the [No.] 60 car for Roush Fenway [Racing]. So I said, ‘Well, let’s give that a go.’ Trevor Bayne was going that direction. I thought [Ricky] Stenhouse Jr. was awesome to work under. I really, really liked [Greg] Biffle and Carl Edwards. [Edwards] was an all-time hero, I got to race with him at Race of Champions. So this is kind of where I want to go, and everyone [called it the] “Evil Empire” but every time I talked to those guys, I loved every bit of it.

We ended up quickest in practice at the one race that I did in Richmond and then qualified fifth. I got shuffled back a bit in the race and ended up like 14th or something like that. Maybe it was worse than that, but [we] ran out front for a good portion of that race, and I thought this just proved that we’ve got the speed and this is where I [wanted] to go.

Cheek: You mentioned working with Biffle, Edwards, all of the Roush drivers, what about Jack Roush himself?

Pastrana: It was awesome. Like I said. I kind of got the [“Evil Empire” impression]. Even Jack himself, he’s like, ‘Yeah, everyone says that.’ Jack wants to win, but I think Roush Yates [Engines], the motors, we proved it – we were front row, Bayne and I, at pretty much every superspeedway that year, or one of us was was pole or at least in the front row. That was really, really awesome to know that we had a great motor, the guys with [crew chief] Chad Norris and everyone were just awesome to work with.

I definitely had a lot of fun. Qualified second for Kentucky [Speedway], the one time I went to the race thinking I was actually gonna win it. It was kind of naive and optimistic, but unfortunately we crashed early. We may never know how that would have ended up – well, I mean we know how it ended up, but how it could’ve.

Cheek: During your time in NASCAR, you’ve had plenty of eye-catching paint schemes. Did you have a hand in creating any of those?

Pastrana: The Boost [Mobile] scheme looked so sick, like up close, when on the track, it just looked like a plain black car. You know, everything was kind of ghosted and really technical, like a motocross helmet. My dad’s like, ‘Dude, I don’t know where to find you, except for the really bright green car is Danica Patrick. … I can find her, and you’re usually a couple ahead or behind her.’ So I was like, ‘Thanks, dad!’

The next year I went to the design guys, I was like, ‘Hey, I just I want to stand out, like just make it so everyone knows where we are.’ And they came out with kind of the pink design. Man, I looked like the Easter Bunny, especially that first Alpinestars suit. Everything came out in pastel colors. I mean, I’m like, ‘Holy crap, we better win now!’ So it was a little like, ‘anything looks good out front.’ But I was a little embarrassed coming in NASCAR with the pastel Easter Bunny car. But [in] hindsight, it is pretty funny.

Cheek: In that 2013 season, you had a best finish of ninth at Richmond and qualified on the pole at Talladega. Other than those highlights, did you have a favorite memory during your first full-time season?

Pastrana: Yeah, I thought I was pretty much the first car that wasn’t in the hunt, if you will. So say there were 18 to 20 solid cars and 25 solid drivers, maybe even 30 solid drivers out there. I mean, figuring if I could just stay up on the lead lap, usually running right around 12th or 13th, and if anything went my way we get a couple extra spots.

We finished Daytona [International Speedway] backwards in 10th for the opening round, crashed out at Phoenix [Raceway] on like lap 2, and then finished Vegas in 10th as well. We were thinking, we’re not too far off for at least the start of the season, but then just didn’t really find that speed, if you will. I was always battling guys that were up racing near the front the week before, the week after.

Like, I’d be battling with with [Brian] Vickers one weekend, and then he’d win the next weekend, and I’d be battling with [Kyle] Larson and [Chase] Elliott, and then they’d be up front winning the next weekend. I’m like, ‘Man, we’re just not quite there. We’re not getting those good results.’

I was so disappointed. I just never found that speed. And when I had a car that was capable of it, I just couldn’t seem to pull it out of the car.

Cheek: When you returned to race with Niece at Kansas, did you work with the other drivers in the team’s stable to prepare?

Pastrana: That whole crew – I mean, Al Niece just loves to be out there, and he doesn’t put anyone on his team that isn’t super passionate. Ross, even though he had to get up the next morning and race for the championship in the Xfinity Series, he was at the track until they closed the garage down with us. We were trying to get me fitted in the seat, and we were watching Hailie Deegan race, and he was talking me through everything. That was the coolest thing, and then the next morning, he didn’t have to be there at all and freaking [Matt] Crafton’s there at sunup. Like, I think I was there at 6:15 a.m. to get fitted and by 7 [a.m.], Chastain’s there helping me out, just talking to Chad, and you got Crafton over there. Ross was amazing. First time I got to really meet him, and he [went] above and beyond.

But Crafton, he got out of his truck – he was already getting in. Like, I was 36th on the start, and he’s all the way up front, and he comes running back to me as they’re saying “Gentlemen, start your engines,” and he goes, “Hey, I forgot to tell you, there’s only five or six laps [at the start], you’re gonna spin the tires real bad, because this track, they just wear out quick, so just be real careful on the starts,’ and ran back and jumped in his truck.

I just feel like that is what NASCAR is about. It’s that camaraderie and friendship that is above and beyond what I’ve seen in any other form of racing, and [I’ve] been very appreciative to all the guys that helped me out along the way.

Cheek: And, finally, do you have any more starts planned in the future with Niece, or, if you do, will you surprise us like you did with Kansas?

Pastrana: No, I mean, I love it. I would jump back in as much as possible. My schedule’s always tough and I think that’s – you know, [in] 2017 I was still thinking maybe one day I’ll make a run. Maybe one day, we’ll go back. We’ll do K&N, we’ll do ARCA. I’m going to do it, what Larson did, kind of just run 120 races a year, and, I mean, that’s what I would need to do. I need to do pavement stuff, and I’d need  to do more go karts, and not just shifter carts, but like, you know…figure out that roll speed and how to carry more momentum through the corners and understand how the trucks work better and the cars and everything else. You know, so the thing is like, Cody Efaw’s amazing and such an awesome crew chief, and we have a lot of fun together. But, at the end of the day, I definitely don’t want to take a spot away from an up and coming kid that that has a shot to really go out there and wants to put in that time and effort because at this point in my life, like as much as I want to do NASCAR, I’m not good enough to do it at the level where I am right now. And I, you know, even if I bring the money in to do it, just as far as bring the sponsors or pay out of pocket or whatever the case may be, I feel like Cody and how they definitely need to look out for their future and to put in the guy that’s gonna help them grow their program, like Ross has exponentially at this point. So, you know, it’s always fun. I would jump in in a heartbeat. But at the same time, I am not prepared to do what it’s going to take to be a championship contender, at least at this point in my life so probably not worth it for them, but definitely always worth it for me.

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Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Entercom Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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    If David Schwimmer tried to race, this would be the result.

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