Action Sports Legend Travis Pastrana Talks Innovation, Injuries and the Future of Driving Fast and Jumping Off of Things

Now a 37-year-old father of two, the pioneering athlete is far from done with testing the limits of human potential

March 23, 2021 8:43 am
Action sports star Travis Pastrana

Action Sports Legend Travis Pastrana Talks Innovation, Injuries and the Future of Driving Fast and Jumping Off of Things

One would be hard-pressed to come up with a more iconic figure in the world of action sports than Travis Pastrana. Over the course of a 20-plus-year career — a career that spans disciplines from motocross to supercross to rally driving to NASCAR — Pastrana has accrued countless contest wins, invented mind-boggling tricks, designed revolutionary vehicles and race courses, created his own tours and television shows, and generally done everything in his power to advance the world of things that go “vroom” and/or “braap.”

He has also broken more bones than most of us have had birthdays, recreated the iconic motorcycle jump over the Caesars Palace fountain that nearly crippled his childhood hero Evel Knievel in 1967, and once leapt out of a perfectly good airplane without a parachute. Suffice it to say that if the Grim Reaper has any Google Alerts set up, “Travis Pastrana” is likely atop the list.

Recently, Pastrana worked with longtime sponsor Red Bull on Discover Your Wiiings, an augmented reality project in which users can use their smartphone to scan a can of Red Bull (via the Red Bull AR app) and unlock a series of immersive games featuring Pastrana and a host of other Red Bull talent. Prizes for high scores include everything from a day surfing with World Champion Carissa Moore to a trail ride with legendary mountain biker Kate Courtney to a skateboarding session with phenom Zion Wright to a ride in Pastrana’s rallycross car.

We chatted with Pastrana about the ups and downs of his storied career, where he sees the world of action sports headed in the future, how he bounces back from injury and what drew him to the Discover Your Wiiings project.

InsideHook: Ok to kick it off, could you pick a favorite moment from your career? Or moments, plural?

Travis Pastrana: I guess two things. The year when I was 16, a first-year pro, winning the X Games, winning the Outdoor National Championship and representing the US in the Motocross of Nations. Those were three of the biggest things in my life and it was that moment of, “Holy cow. I might be able to make a living riding a dirt bike. That’s awesome.”

And then, I guess when [my TV show] Nitro Circus took off, and we were able to travel the world with our best friends and my girlfriend at the time, who is my wife now. And then, when we got a kid and then two kids, continually traveling with Nitro Circus, and getting to see everywhere that we want to go with the best friends and family. I guess it’s not really moments. It’s more just how things have progressed.

So get a little bit more granular, what about sticking a specific trick? Is there one where you remember the feeling in that moment?

You know what’s funny for me is that landing a trick, the second you land it, the only thing you’re thinking about is, “Alright, what’s next?” It’s weird. A superman seat grab was the holy grail. Like, “Oh my gosh. I can’t believe Carey Hart did a superman seat grab.” Then a couple years later it was the backflip, and then the double backflip, and then a flip with a 360, and then a double backflip with a 360. I think the mindset behind this is the great part, the fun part. That learning process is the journey I think. The journey is what I love.

What about the most awesome things you’ve seen other people do in action sports? Any moments spring to mind?

Oh yeah. The first one I actually missed, and that was the first time Carey Hart did a backflip on a dirt bike. I couldn’t make the Gravity Games that year, I was racing motocross, going for the championship. We had been talking about it for years, but I never thought I was going to see it. It felt like the world stopped. This is before YouTube and all that stuff. And the fact that we all were able to see this jump, it felt like it was live because people were just that excited. That was awesome.

Carey Hart lands the first-ever backflip on a dirt bike, summer 2000

Probably the second coolest thing was the first time I saw someone do a really big Kiss of Death Superman. It was Todd Potter — I called him magic man, because he just threw the bike over his head and was just flying through the air at X Games. And he’s just staring at the landing. Didn’t even win, but it was the coolest looking trick I’ve ever seen.

Who are your all-time action sports athletes? Any discipline.

Number one is Mat Hoffman, The Condor. That guy, such a legend. He still rides every single day. Someone I always looked up to. I also looked up to Shane McConkey. Even though I never got to meet Shane before he passed away, I just loved how he lived his life. Fullest as you could, every single day. Both of those guys were calculated but were also pioneers. They were pushing so far beyond anyone else at the time.

You’re obviously very focused on the idea of progression. As someone who has been a part of this world for so long, what’s it like to see how far action sports have come?

It’s really not the same sport. It’s like Evel Knievel doing distance jumps to when we first went to the X Games in ’99, when we were doing can-cans and stuff. Now there’s a kid that’s seven years old coming over to my house who’s learning backflips. That trick was the holy grail, almost no one in the world was doing that in 2002. Now, if you’re 14 years old and you’re just starting freestyle, you probably know how to do a flip. It’s just wild. It’s like the progression of the four-minute mile. Once someone knows it can be done, success leaves breadcrumbs. It evolves.

Especially now — back in 2000, a video part would come out once a year. Now guys are producing amazing content every single day. Whenever someone does something, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, the world sees it. Then you go on Nitro Circus tour and you’re with the best in the world. Every single day people are pushing each other. The landings are getting safer, and the bikes are getting lighter, and the riders are getting stronger and more agile. The air awareness is increasing.

I can remember watching Dave Mirra. I skipped my practice at X Games because I heard Dave Mirra might try a double backflip on a bicycle. It was one of the biggest moments of my life. And now on a jump three times that big, a 10-year-old is launching double back flips and landing them over and over again in my backyard. I’m like, “Whoa, what just happened?”

Pastrana’s Nitro Circus has become a showcase for some of the most insane tricks in action sports

You’ve competed in so many disciplines, from motocross to rally racing to NASCAR — are there consistent techniques you utilize across them? Training, methods of focus, things like that?

Yeah, action sports are more of a mental game than a physical game. I think the biggest thing is mentally being able to commit to something. And when all hell has broken loose, to be able to not uncommit. It’s like a being a quarterback when everyone’s running at you — it might not be exactly what you had planned for, but you still got to make the best of it and try not to get run over by 300-pound dudes. Only ours is the ground and dropping from eight, 10 stories at 70, 80 miles an hour.

The interesting part about what we do is that a lot of times it doesn’t go perfect, but you have to figure out how to make the best of wherever you are. A lot of times, those situations are, “OK. If I do this, this and this, I’ll only break my ankles.” And that’s something that most people — if the best outcome is broken ankles — they can’t change their trajectory, and those are the people that don’t survive very long in action sports. Car driving, you could be coming for a cliff or a tree, and sometimes you have to make the decision at 100 miles an hour to aim for the tree because it’s better than flying off a 100-foot cliff. And that’s something that most people aren’t able or willing to do. I feel like I do best in the sports that put you in situations where you have to make really bad decisions to figure out how to best get to the next stage, or the next rally, or to not be in the hospital for the next event.

So, connected to that, how would you describe your relationship with fear?

Interestingly enough, I started because I wasn’t strong enough or fast enough physically to hang with my cousins and my uncles. [Ed. note: Pastrana’s uncle was quarterback for the Denver Broncos and his cousins were Division 1 wrestlers and lacrosse players.] I was younger and a little smaller, a little bit of a runt. So I used fear to be able to win, and that’s still how I operate, really. You have to know what it’s going to take to win, understand before you enter if you’re willing to take those chances, and if you are, do the best preparation you can. I know that’s very vague, but I think that’s huge.

What’s the most scared you’ve ever been prior to an attempt of something?

For me, I don’t get scared after I’ve decided I’m going to do something. Once I commit, I’m all in. The scariest part is deciding if you’re going to do something or not. The scariest moment of my life was X Games 2006, because I really wanted to do a double backflip. I had all my heroes waiting, because BMX Vert best trick was next. Everyone’s there to see what I’m going to do.

I knew I could do [the double backflip] and I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t perfect on it and the jump wasn’t perfect. The landing was super hard and I knew if I crashed I was going to be injured for sure. Broken, at best. But for my career path, I really wanted to race rally. I was finishing up the motorcycle side. I had my whole rally team there, and I had to prove to them that I was going to be a guy they could trust not to get hurt in big situations. And I was only a half second behind Colin McRae going into the final stage of rally.

So thinking financially, I’m sitting third. I’m already collecting a check, if you will. And I’m setting my career up to be able to race rally. I put everything on the line just because I thought maybe I could land a double flip. It worked out, but I took so long to decide on that. It was literally rock, paper, scissors as I was going up to the roll-in on that one. Because I was like, “Man, there’s nothing that I can gain from doing this, and I have so much to lose.” But I still made the wrong decision, and it worked out correctly. So that was perfect.

Travis Pastrana lands the first-ever double backflip in Moto X history at X Games 2006

You’ve recreated a couple of Evel Knievel’s iconic jumps, is there anything that you’ve done so far or that you would like to do that you hope someone else might be recreating years from now?

No, I mean, the Evel Knievel thing was awesome because it gave us a chance to bring my dad’s generation with my kids’ generation all together. And to show that older generation where the stuntman had gone. My dad’s always like, “Aw, there’s no stuntman like Evel Knievel.” And I’m like, “No. They’ve just evolved. Now they’re doing X-Fighters, and X Games and Nitro World Games. It might not look the same, but they’re still just as crazy.”

But for me, you know what? If I can do the best that I can to keep pushing the sport, then yeah, maybe one day someone recreates some stuff. But as fast as everything’s evolving right now, it’ll be pretty simple for them to do pretty much everything that was even the pinnacle of what my career is today.

HISTORY Airs 3-Hour Live Event "Evel Live"
Travis Pastrana jumps the fountains at Caesars Palace during HISTORY’s Live Event “Evel Live” on July 8, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Getty Images for HISTORY

At this stage in your life, do you look at the idea of a “huge stunt” differently? Chuteless skydive, double backflip, Ceasars Palace fountains. Are you still looking for that next massive thing?

Yes and no. I think back to when Josh Sheehan came over to my house and we worked for probably two or three years on this triple backflip, and all our sponsors pretty much gave up. Red Bull had put so much money in — different ramps and designs and airbag landings. And Nitro Circus did the same thing. Eventually it’s just Josh and I out there welding our own ramps.

We were going about 110 feet off the ground on a 45-foot-tall takeoff ramp. As fast as my bike would go, almost 70 miles an hour up this 87-degree takeoff. And I stopped, and I’m like, “What am I doing? I’m scared to go to an airbag.” From that moment, I just was like, “You know what? I’m going to help the next generation learn from all my mistakes and hopefully stay healthy.” For me, it’s all about giving the next generation the opportunity to chase their dreams like I was so fortunate to be able to chase mine.

In terms of insane stunts, it doesn’t get much crazier than skydiving without a parachute

I’ve heard you say in interviews that your favorite thing is when someone tells you something is impossible. I feel like a huge part of what you or any action sports athlete does is envisioning a thing that seems impossible and then executing it. Is there any one project where the journey from idea to reality was especially crazy or gratifying to you?

Yeah, 100% — the double backflip 360. I started doing it on a trampoline back in 2000 when I was 16. Then on a bicycle in 2002 into the foam pit. It took me until 2012 or 2013 to land it on a bicycle. Then it took me another three years to get it on a motorcycle, which was just wild. 

I had been working so long on the [single] backflip 360, but it just wouldn’t work. I kept thinking back to the trampoline, like, “Shoot, I bet it’d be easier to add another flip.” Everybody looked at me like “Literally, you’ve shattered your ankle and your leg and your foot. You landed so hard you knocked yourself out and you pooped your pants.” Literally at X Games, full poop in my pants trying the backflip 360. When I told my wife, “You know what? I can make this easier. I’m going to add a flip.” She just looked at me like, “Oh my god, you’ve lost your mind.”

That was the longest process. Having to go through so many injuries and then adding an extra degree of difficulty to make it finally come to fruition was a wild outcome.

Travis Pastrana successfully executes the double backflip 360, a trick over 15 years in the making

Speaking of injuries, you’ve said that you don’t remember most of them because there have been too many. Have you found consistent techniques in terms of coming back from injury and getting back on the horse?

That’s a really interesting question. Because everyone says, “How do you come back from an injury?” I have so many people that have injuries and they’re like, “Oh man, I’m scared, I’m gun shy.” I never had that. The second I got back on the motorcycle, the bicycle, the whatever, the second I was able to do what I love to do, I was all in. I’ll warm up after being six months off with a broken back, and my first jump will be a backflip. Maybe I’m overconfident, or I guess just crazy, if you will, but it’s what I love.

I had my wrist fused and I just got on the bike and I’m like, “Wow. Well, that changes things.” So now, my left wrist doesn’t bend. The wrist is solid to the arm. Luckily it’s on my left side, not my throttle side, or I’d look like a chicken when I ride. But I’m like, “This will change the dynamic of some of the tricks, but it’ll be exciting.” Because instead of thinking, “Oh, I can’t do this,” it’s like, “Okay. What do I have to change to make this work?” You’ve got to relearn a lot of stuff. My ankle’s partially fused as well. My knee doesn’t work, so I can’t bend it as far. So, certain tricks you can’t do, and certain tricks it honestly makes you stronger for it.

A lot of times you’ll learn how to stretch your strength in one thing and that that makes something else better, or you can fix the other injury. It’s definitely both mental and physical. But I feel like the only boundaries … like, when you see a guy that has spina bifida doing backflip 360s on a wheelchair going down a 60-foot-tall, almost vertical giganta-ramp, you kinda got to stop thinking, “I can’t.” You know?

I’d like to talk a little bit about the role of Red Bull in the world of action sports. I feel like as an entity, Red Bull has been so massively, almost weirdly instrumental in furthering the cause.

So far and beyond what anyone can even imagine. When you think about Dietrich [Mateschitz, co-founder of Red Bull] coming into action sports, he wanted to start a lifestyle. Action sports was where he wanted to go — this is a guy that has a MiG as his private plane. Someone that likes to BASE jump and just embrace living and to have energy to do it.

But by selling the can, selling something that helped promote people to get off the couch and to be a little bit more focused, a little bit sharper when they needed to be, he also promoted a lifestyle. And that was cool because it wasn’t just about, “What’s in it for us?” It was about, “How can Red Bull give you wings?”

For instance, Red Bull New Year No Limits. Everyone was like, “Oh, that was cool. It was a car jump. You set the world record. Great.” No. Red Bull reached out to a lot of the top athletes and said, “How can we help you to do better for your sport? And how can we turn that into something that’s a spectacle?”

'Red Bull: New Year. No Limits' Event
Travis Pastrana breaks the world record for the longest distance jump in a rally car on December 31, 2009 in Long Beach, California at the ‘RedBull: New Year. No Limits.’ event. Pastrana jumped in his rally car off the Pine Street Pier onto a floating barge anchored in Long Beach’s Rainbow Harbor, establishing a new record of 269 feet, shattering the existing mark of 171 feet.
Getty Images for Red Bull

And I said, “Look, Ken Block, he switched from Subaru and he’s put so much money into his cars to be able to do this video series that he’s been doing called Gymkhana. When he goes to the races, he doesn’t have to let off the gas over these big bumps and these holes. He can jump twice as far, he’s getting all the photos and all the publicity and all the fans, and he’s not breaking his cars. And he’s setting amazing stage times. We physically can’t do that with the vehicles we have, because they’re just not made to fly.”

So Red Bull says, “Okay. We’re gonna give you a platform and a budget to go build the strongest, most durable car. We’re going to let you try it over these jumps. Go as big as you want to go. Go as big as you can go. Go bigger than you think you could ever go. And then at the end of this testing, we’re going to have all of this knowledge for Subaru to make the car that much stronger.” And I won the next three consecutive championships in rally, basically because of the New Year No Limit program.

Also what was so cool about that was it allowed this sport to really go that much further, to where I started believing that we could do rallycross, which is when X Games came in with jumps and all that stuff. And now Nitro Rallycross, which is my biggest focus going forward. So, stuff like that is stuff that the public doesn’t really know, but they really help support their athletes to be the best that they can be. Whether it seems like it’s going to be beneficial for the brand or not, as long as it’s beneficial for the athlete and the culture.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of creating the Discover Your Wiiings program? What drew you to the project and what do you hope people get out of it?

I think what’s so cool about it is just having a couple athletes come together from various sports, various different backgrounds and everything, and to be able to have this game — like for me as an athlete, it’s awesome to be able to go into a store, take a picture of the can and play a rally game. It’s cool for me because that’s the track that I helped design. I was out there and actually was on the dozer building it.

A look at Travis Pastrana’s Red Bull Discover Your Wiiings AR rallycross game
Red Bull

Just to expose more people to just all these different sports. Giving everyone an opportunity, where if they play these games and they put their mind to it and they’re the best at it, they actually have a chance to meet or do what they want to do with the athletes that they might look up to, or might want to beat one day. I just think that’s really neat.

For my daughter too — or both my daughters, but one especially, Addie who’s into the car racing — she was so pumped to see that. And then she wanted to play the surfing game, Carissa’s game [Ed. note: world champion surfer Carissa Moore], because she’s like, “Well, she’s a girl. I’m a girl. It make sense.” So now she’s got a new favorite surfer. She never watched surfing ever, but that made my wife stoked because my wife loves surfing. She’s like, “You know, I surf too.” And Addie was like, “No way!” It was just a cool way to bring our family together.

Speaking of your family, I feel like your concept of “working from home” is probably much different than it is for most of us. What’s going on over at Pastranaland currently?

So winters, we slow down a little bit because there’s still a bit of snow on the ground here. But it’s our time to build ramps, to weld new stuff, to work on airbags, get the place worked on. Then get the vehicles, the Can-Ams and the Subarus that we’re going to do the stunts with for the rest of the year up to what we need. Put some roll cages in them, and let ‘er eat.

travis pastrana action sports motocross rally red bull discover your wiiings
Just another day at Pastranaland.
Red Bull

Must be quite a playground for the kids. Do you feel like an “action sports parent?”

I don’t know if you heard, they were yelling and screaming as they went by just now. But they were on the trampoline, doing flips. Everything that I thought I was teaching them for action sports is actually preparing them for cheer. Both my daughters are on a traveling cheer team and going to national championships. But it’s honestly very similar and I’m so proud of them. They’re stretching two hours a day. They go to the cheer gym three and a half hours, three days a week, plus everything they do at home. As long as they’re having fun and happy, I’m stoked.

But my oldest is seven and she loves driving. And she just … I don’t know if we can say this, but she was just so bored with the kids toys. The kids are supposed to be 8, 10, 12 years old to drive those, and she’s out driving a Can-Am 1000. We welded the pedals up closer so she could reach them. We’ve got a full different seat in there for her so she actually fits in there and she’s stable. It’s the safest that we could possibly make it. As a parent, I feel like my job is to, whatever they do, keep them safe. But she’s ripping through the woods in 1,000 CC Can-Am. Thing does 70 miles an hour, and she’s seven years old.

So, I’m proud as a parent, but also very … every time she gets in that thing, I go through a five-minute speech. And she’s like, “Yeah, dad. I know. I’m going to be safe. I’ll look at the crossovers. I won’t come back on the road too fast. I’m not going to do the big jump unless you’re there.” She’s like, “Why do you have to tell me this every time?” And I say [laughs] “Because you’re seven. And I love you.”

Hero image: Oli Scarff / Getty Images