Stuntman Travis Pastrana risks it all on rallycross
It was a typical Saturday morning emergency call in Fort Lauderdale, placed January 22, 2022. “Yeah, we’re going to have a level one trauma, adult male, to Broward Health,” a first responder said on the radio. “It’s going to be a fall injury.”
That was an understatement. The fall was a 46-story plunge from the top of Hyatt Centric Las Olas, the newest, tallest building in Fort Lauderdale. The free-faller was stuntman and rally driver Travis Pastrana, BASE jumping for his video crew as part of a stunt series he was performing across Florida. The other stunts went fine. Video shows this one didn’t. Pastrana seemed to lose control of the parachute as he approached the ground and instead of making a reasonably soft landing, he crashed onto a nearby plaza, amidst dog-walkers and coffee-sippers.
The damage: Broken L5 vertebrae, multiple pelvic fractures, and a broken sacrum. Pastrana—to whom injuries are by now just an inconvenience—was more annoyed that his doctor wouldn’t sign off on his plans to defend his American Rally Championship at the season-opening Sno*Drift Rally race in Michigan (just four weeks after his accident). He was able to compete in the next event, the ARA Rally in the 100 Acre Wood in Missouri, a month later. He might have won it, too, had his Subaru not suffered two flat tires.
It is unclear whether this accident adds to the 60-odd different broken bones that Pastrana has suffered, because the 38-year-old ironman has broken so many (multiple times) that he’s simply stopped keeping track. At least in the case of his pelvis, this is not the first—nor the second—time he’s broken it. But the bedrest did give Pastrana some downtime to plan the second season of his new rallycross series, Nitro RX. The season slate is ambitious and critical to the longevity of the sport in the United States.
The first year for Nitro RX was a tight schedule of five races, held close together near the end of 2021. Its season finale race was held in December at the Florida International Rally & Motorsport track in Starke, a town known primarily as the home of the Florida State Prison and “Old Sparky,” the electric chair.
“This was a proof-of-concept season,” Pastrana said. “To prove this was a viable concept for our fans and our sponsors, and potential broadcasters. And I think we’ve proved that it is.”
It’s no surprise that Pastrana felt that rallycross needed to be proven. Despite featuring 700-horsepower, all-wheel-drive compact cars careening around a track filled with jumps and tight turns on both dirt and pavement, the discipline has experienced inconsistent success. Like Pastrana’s pelvis, the North American rallycross failed multiple times. With Pastrana now at the helm, this is likely its last shot.
Rallycross is perfect for in-person viewing because, unlike traditional point-to-point rally races, it can all be viewed from one spot (as opposed to being scattered across acres of countryside). It’s perfect for television for the same reason. Sponsors are privy to one of the youngest demographics in all of motorsports, too. Unfortunately, Subaru is the sole manufacturer-backed team, which includes Pastrana and former F1 racer Scott Speed. Privateer entries round out the field, and have done quite well against the Subaru works cars.
Aside from Subaru, Speed, Pastrana, and TV personality and stunt driver Tanner Foust, there isn’t much left of the original stateside rallycross series. Global Rallycross (not to be confused with the FIA World Rallycross series) was born in 2011. In 2012, it was taken over by Colin Dyne, a flashy businessman, who once helped bring in clothing company William Rast to sponsor the Indianapolis 500-wining car of Dan Wheldon in 2011.
Dyne grew the series quickly, and by 2015, everything looked great: The series, rebranded as Red Bull Global Rallycross (GRC), ran 13 rounds at nine tracks, including the X Games at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Chevrolet, Citroen, Ford, Hyundai, Subaru, and Volkswagen were among the manufacturers competing.
Red Bull GRC drivers in the 2015 season included Speed, Foust, Pastrana, Hoonigan Ken Block, second-gen open-wheeler Nelson Piquet Jr., skateboarder-turned-racer Bucky Lasek, and motocross rider Jeff Ward. Rally stars David Higgins and Rhys Millen raced as well.
There was also a strong field of GRC Lite cars, lower-horsepower spec vehicles built by Olsbergs MSE. The entry-level series attracted young talent like 2022 Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric. The TV package may have been the best in all of motorsports, but it was expensive.
Things started to go sour in 2016. By 2017, Red Bull GRC was struggling. The series tried to schedule a 2018 season but failed, and lawsuits over unpaid bills followed.
In the eleventh hour, rallycross was saved by IMG, a conglomerate with holdings and licenses that included Miss Universe, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Professional Bull Riders Association, and Formula Drift. Finally, it seemed, rallycross had a backer that had capital and connections. The series was rebranded as American Rallycross (ARX). Despite the new digs, IMG seemed to lose interest not long after the American series’ debut—which, inexplicably, took place in England. By the end of 2019, IMG ditched ARX after two seasons.
Pastrana adopted an annual rallycross event under his Nitro Circus umbrella in Utah. He refined the format and took it on the road for the aforementioned five races last year, which were run on a comparatively smaller scale to the previous decade of GRC and ARX.
“This was my goal,” Pastrana said, “to have tracks similar to the European tracks and to the off-road truck tracks. Tracks that are smooth, wide enough for plenty of passing, challenging for the driver.” He also wants varying surfaces—tarmac, dirt, snow. Some would likely favor a certain driver in the lineup. “Every driver here has different backgrounds. Take, Scott Speed. He comes from a Formula 1 background, and a track that has a lot of pavement is right in his wheelhouse.”
“Phoenix, for example, was more like a motocross track. It was definitely a benefit for guys like Connor Martel, who has a motocross background. Then you see guys like [NASCAR stars] Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott come in and do an amazing job, just from sheer talent.” Busch and Elliott? Yes, inviting big-name guest drivers is new aspect of Nitro RX.
Indeed, theatrics are everything. Elliott agreed to run in the Nitro RX if Pastrana would jump from a borrowed Cessna that was being flown by Elliott at the start of the weekend. Pastrana made that jump without incident.
“Right now, we’ve got the tracks down pretty good, but we need to make them better, where they’re damaging fewer cars. We need to finish the track earlier than the day before the race. Last year, we were still making adjustments after practice,” Pastrana said. “We’re learning what works and what doesn’t. It’s made it challenging and interesting, but at the same time we’ve got to give everybody time to practice and make this as fair as we can.”
Cars qualify two at a time (essentially match racing). Pastrana realizes that young people don’t seem to have the attention span of older motorsports fans, so the races are bite-sized and perfect for TV packaging.
Pastrana was hoping that his traveling Nitro Circus stunt act would fund the kickoff of Nitro RX, but fate had other plans. “COVID hurt that series, and attendance still hasn’t picked back up where it was,” he said. “Business has been tough. It’s been really tough to make the changes we know we need to make.”
“Whenever there’s downtime, for example, I want a DJ in the stands. I want people selling t-shirts. I want a Nitro Circus show at halftime. We don’t have the budget because of what’s going on in the world right now. We do have a proof of concept. The racing has been awesome.”
Pastrana doesn’t want Nitro RX to be just another race, though. “I can’t go anywhere that my kids don’t want to go,” Pastrana said. “They love going to a Nitro Circus show, but as far as racing, they’re not into that yet. I want this to be as exciting as a stunt show.”
Fellow Subaru driver Scott Speed jumped from Volkswagen in the last season of ARX. He said that Pastrana may be the one man who can save rallycross. “He’s really great at entertaining, and he understands what it takes—the cars need to be in the air, and you need to keep the racing exciting,” Speed said. “He’s really been a great leader for everybody, and I think the example he sets kind of trickles down to everybody.”
As part of the 2022–23 season, a spec electric rally racer will join the series, separate from the gas-powered cars. Called the FC1-X, it’s the most powerful vehicle in rallycross. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph faster than a Formula 1 car. “I think the EVs are going to be really great for our championship,” Pastrana said. “The manufacturers want to go electric, and they’re kind of waiting to see what we do. We have to prove that it can be exciting.”
The FC1-X will compete in the new Group E division, part of Nitro RX’s expanded class portfolio, which will also include the return of the 700-horse Supercars and a developmental NRX Next class that features a Swedish spec car. There are also side-by-side Can-Am ATV races and run-what-you-brung spectator races that often features airborne minivans.
As for the 2021 championship, it ended at Starke with Pastrana and Speed tied in points, with Pastrana taking the championship due to more wins. But typical Pastrana: After sipping champagne from his shoe and tossing into the crowd from the podium, he announced that he was calling for a ruling from the judges.
“Scott Speed had the fastest car here all weekend,” said Pastrana, “and I overshot and ran into him in the first corner, ruining his race. I think that should result in at least a five-second penalty on me, which would give him this championship, which he deserves.”
The stunned crowd was silent. Then the chant began: “Travis! Travis!”
Evidently, the judges declined to issue a penalty, and Pastrana ended up winning the Nitro RX title. “We have the number one plates for the American Rally Association and Nitro Rallycross,” Pastrana said later, “and we don’t plan on giving them up without a fight.”
This summer, fully healed from his crash landing in Fort Lauderdale, Pastrana will look to nab another number one plate at the conclusion of ten international Nitro RX dates.
For more info, visit www.nitrorallycross.com