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Pastrana charts unconventional course in motorsports landscape

MT. WASHINGTON, N.H. - They had all stopped squinting toward the summit by now. There was nothing to see but rocks and clouds, nothing to do but try to find a spot where their phones could pick up a cell signal in this picturesque and remote sector of the White Mountains. The quiet, the wake in the energy field created when Travis Pastrana exited, stage up, was palpable. Almost unnerving.

A breeze stirred at the foot of the Mt. Washington Auto Road along Route 16, tugging at the red-yellow-and-blue inflatable Red Bull starting gate that undermined the secrecy of the private rally car test this early September morning. The top of the 6,288-foot granite monolith was being buffeted by high winds, as usual, and a massive cloud bank would soon settle up on it. The mechanics, videographers and spokes in the publicity machine that keep Pastrana's exploits churning into public consciousness anxiously waited.

"Cleared the cragway," came a voice on a walkie-talkie.

Weather changes in moments here under Bernoulli's Principle, a convergence of three major weather systems, and the maddening three minutes since Pastrana and co-driver Marshall Clarke had skittered up the asphalt-tarmac-gravel glorified cart path in their Subaru rally car had allowed early autumn, fall, the first hint of spring and Indian summer to blow through. Snow and ice would temporarily close the road in just 11 days. No one knew that at the time, but they'd have believed it as they zipped their jackets up yet again.

"Cleared Mile Park."

That was both the point and the peril with this undertaking. Pastrana's Vermont SportsCar rally team and a film crew had been assembled to document his anticipated smashing of a 12-year-old record for ascending the 7.6-mile road through four climate zones and 149 years of human endeavor, creating a high-definition thrill ride to promote the renewal of America's oldest auto race, the Climb to the Clouds, next June 22-26. The bonus was another marketable moment and interesting day in a series of many for Pastrana, whose rare combination of daring and extroverted gregariousness has made him Millennial Superman, limited only by his imagination and well-tested recuperative powers.

"Cow Pasture, clear."

A champion motocrosser, freestyle motocross visionary, part-time monster truck driver, thrill-seeker, X Games legend, daredevil and crossover media star, a breaker of bones, professional Buck Hunter gamer and burgeoning screenwriter, the 26-year-old has become one of the most recognizable figures in action sports, a barnstormer, and perhaps one of the most important figures in modern motorsports, an arc between the last century and what the next generation will define and consume as competition and entertainment. He is something different to seemingly everyone.

"Living legend," said NASCAR driver Carl Edwards, who will compete with Pastrana for the American team in the annual Race of Champions global all-star challenge in November.

"One of the most talented guys in the world," said two-time Sprint Cup champion and former Indy Racing League titlist Tony Stewart.

"I wish I had the talent he does. I just don't," said Ken Block, an action sports pioneer who in 2011 will become the first American to compete for the World Rally Championship. "I've been around him long enough to know he's got talent that just goes way beyond normal people."

Even Pastrana gropes for a definition of self. So, as usual, he undersells it.

"Jack of all trades, master of none," he deadpanned. "I would have considered myself an athlete until I was about 21. Went from athlete to entertainer. And then to driver. For me, right now, X Games is all about entertainment. Obviously, you have to use the talent you have to do well, but bottom line, it isn't just competition. You have to put smiles on people's faces, make people stand up, show them what you feel inside."

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Motorists pay $23 to flog their cars up the mountain at a recommended 25 mph on an average 12-percent grade. Pastrana would have to average 72 mph to break Canadian Frank Sprongl's record of 6:41.99 to the top set, in an Audi in 1998. Pastrana has jumped Big Wheels off 75-foot ski jumps -- "that's not as hard as it looks. All you have to do is point it and hold on," he says -- and back-flipped into the Grand Canyon, but even his heightened sense of adventure and utter confidence would be quashed by a white layer of fog at 4,000, with no guard rails between an undulating, damp road and the face of God. They might get just one chance at this. So the dozen or so onlookers stared at their shoes, and occasionally each other. Waiting.

"Check point. Summit cleared."

Six minutes, 20 seconds, .47 hundredths, an average speed of 72 mph. Record set, first try.

The "why'd-we-even-worry" smiles abounded. The Subaru, emblazoned with Pastrana's ubiquitous No. 199 -- a truncated "10/99," a reference to his becoming a professional motocrosser on his 16th birthday on Oct., 8, 1999 -- clatters down the hill and to its makeshift garage area by a barn built for mountain maintenance equipment. The collection of onlookers is rapt. Pastrana, as usual, doesn't disappoint, hitting his mark again with a perfect sound bite, flawless on the first attempt.

"Working" for Red Bull develops in its athletes a knack for nailing a line first try, in odd circumstances, like sitting in a rally car about to hurl off a pier and onto a barge. Pastrana did that without a hitch in December, smashing the world record with a 269-foot leap in Long Beach, Calif.

After a well-staged exit from the car at the base of Mt. Washington, a removal of his helmet, and a quick check to see if anyone else was coming at him with a boom microphone, he paused to absorb the moment. Someone mentions how he reduced poor Sprongl, who completed his run without a co-driver, to a lesser footnote in the annals of Mt. Washington history.

"Well, this record is still unofficial, I guess, because this was a test and he was in a race. He's got the record in an actual event ... not in a Subaru," he poker faces.

A wide grin ends the facade.

"But I've got the record! I've got the record!" he crows, like a taunting child on a playground, and literally jigs away until breaking into a run. With Pastrana, there's no telling where he could be heading.

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He is at the same time supremely self-assured and humble, displaying an audacity that most of the sane would deem foolishness, but in him is a calculating nature that tempers his bouts of recklessness. Mostly. There are always caveats. He's so inconsistent on the 360-degree freestyle motocross flip he doesn't even attempt it anymore. He'd shelved the landmark double back flip trick he was the first to perform in competition at the 2006 X Games. That was until friend and X Games rival Blake Williams called him an "old man" and levied a bet on which one them would win the X Games Moto X Freestyle competition this year. Pastrana, who has largely focused on rally car racing the last four years, returned to the freestyle event for the first time since 2006, won the gold in just two rounds, and used the meaningless third to perform the double back flip for emphasis.

Pastrana will not be talked into a trick or a stunt, but watching another enjoy even modest success at it often prompts him to rethink his position. When friend/collaborator/rival Andy Bell landed a 35-foot foot Big Wheel jump into a foam pit on Nitro Circus -- the televised outlet for his manic creativity -- Pastrana couldn't stand it. So he jumped 75 feet.

"Why just beat it?" Pastrana asked. "Crush it. That was the same with the barge jump. I didn't want to take all that time just to break it. So we smashed it by 98 feet."

Despite concocting and performing these and other risky deeds -- jumping a motorcycle between rooftops, flinging himself from an airplane without a parachute and waiting for a buddy jumper to grab him -- Pastrana has no death wish or brazen disregard for his life.

"It's amazing how much of that stuff works, though, huh?" he counters. "If I've been trying to kill myself all this time, I'd like to think I'd have been a lot better at it."

Still, Pastrana has paid dearly for his craft. Ironically, most of his major injuries were sustained within the realm of organized motorsports, specifically motocross, and not performing the dangerous tricks that made him a star of Nitro Circus on MTV. He's broken every bone that matters at least once, including shattering his pelvis and dislocating his spinal column so badly in a motocross race at age 15 that he was wheelchair-bound for five months and is held together internally by two large screws. He has a left shoulder full of metal pins and plates, a bulging disc in his back that forces him to stand and stretch after prolonged periods seated, surgically repaired and re-repaired knees and a mind full of worry about a score of concussions, three severe enough to prompt him to briefly shut down his career. He has a mutual understanding with pain. Concussions are insidious.

"Concussions are something I pushed through a lot when I probably shouldn't have," he said. "You hit your head, you're throwing up, you're slightly dizzy, but physically you think, 'I can go race again.' I had three bad concussions back-to-back, and really that's the only time I really stepped out of it for a year and said, 'You know, this is something that could change my life completely.' I break both legs, I have lots of friends in wheelchairs, so be it. It sucks. I knew what I was getting into, you adapt, but concussions are the one thing I worry about."

Pastrana is virtually uninsurable. Even Lloyd's of London wouldn't take his hefty premiums without exceptions on his wrists, head, knees or back. "Well, that's a lot of me," he shrugged.

But he's willing to pay the price, nevertheless.

"It all comes down to if it's worth it to you," he said, the strange look of seriousness overtaking him. "At the beginning of the season, I was just training, because I still ride just to condition and stay in shape, and all my friends do it. I broke my collar bone. I had already had a plate in there, but I broke it through the plate, broke it with a compound fracture through the skin, and that was on Monday. Call up my doctor, got in Tuesday morning for surgery. On Thursday I was at Sno*Drift [rally in Michigan]. Friday, Saturday I ended up winning the rally. That was the first round of the season.

"You do what you have to do. Those are the days when what we do is a job and you have to be there. If you're in this type of sport, you have to be tough. Just because you have a broken bone doesn't mean you're not going to ride two days later. You think of your body, but you do your job."

Pastrana has always been able to rise from the wreckage, beginning with ultracompetitive pick-up football games against cousins who would eventually go on to play Div. I intercollegiate sports. His mutant management of pain and buoyant, yet resolute, disposition always seemed to steward him through the latest injury. As a result, injuries seem commonplace to his fans, the consequences diminished. But there is a toll.

"He's in more pain than anybody knows," his father, Robert, said. "He's bent-over and limping now."

This brutal calling has made him a rich man young, but it will end, he knows, one way or another, before he'd like. He very much aspires to becoming an old man, but he knows how uncomfortable those years could be. But he won't stop racking up tolls on his body.

"Not to make it all philosophical, but I'd rather live every day without being afraid of dying than to live my life in fear of not chasing my dreams," he said. "Basically, every single day I wake up with a smile. So many people say, 'Oh, I could have done this or done that' or 'it's just not that safe thing to do.' A Hail Mary's my whole life."

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Pastrana's ability to conveniently put aside the negative implications of his business may stem from two oft-referenced formative moments in his life. In both cases, he took away the belief that everything works out better when he suppresses fear with action.

As a four-year-old, Travis convinced his father he was ready to make a 30-to-40-foot jump with many of his family members from the Eastport Bridge near the colonial downtown of his native Annapolis, Md. Once in position and staring down into the Severn River, Pastrana's inclination changed. His father's did not.

"He said, 'Well, this is your first lesson son,'" Pastrana remembered, "If you ever say you're going to do something, you gotta try it."

And off he went.

The second moment came when he shorted himself on horsepower, making the ill-fated 120-foot jump at an event on his 15th birthday at Lake Havasu, Ariz. His bike impaled in the ground, forcing his body to absorb the momentum -- "The whole spinal column basically blew my pelvis out," he said -- dislocating his spinal column, destroying his pelvis and spilling half of his blood volume into his stomach. He was in a coma for two weeks.

The lesson learned this time, besides learning the value of medicinal fainting under extreme pain? Go fast, except when bleeding.

"If it would have bled any faster, I would have died," he said. "It was just a mess-up on my part. I just didn't go fast enough."

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That isn't a concern anymore. In life and career, Pastrana is a man racing to catch a plane (and then perhaps leap out of it). He spends only about 25 days a year at home to relax before the X Games -- more only if he's recovering from an injury -- and is gone so much he hasn't bothered to have cable installed. He dates professional skate boarder Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins. As a reward for winning two gold medals at the most recent X Games, Pastrana is indulging in a skate park, but knows he'll hardly ever get to use it. That's why he so enjoys the fraternities he's established in his disparate career, the rally team, the gang of friends that follow him to freestyle motocross demos, the group involved with Nitro Circus. Pastrana assumes he is likely financially fit for life, but sheepishly admits to not knowing how much he even earns from most of his sponsors, and relies on once-yearly meetings with his accountant and agent to assess his business.

"That sounds bad," he winced, throwing his hands forward in emphasis. "I have a lot of trust in a lot of people, which is probably not a good thing. I basically don't spend a lot. Basically, wherever I travel, we have good times and I try to make sure my friends can come along. Never buy one pit bike. You buy four."

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Robert Pastrana is not a timid man. As a 19-year-old Marine sergeant in the Vietnam War, he and his engineering detail repaired fortifications and roads the Viet Cong had destroyed each night. "We shot just enough to get us out of trouble, but not enough to get us into any," he said. Offered the chance to re-enlist as a drill sergeant, he opted out for a job with the family-owned construction company that employs all six of his brothers because "we kind of knew once we stopped goofing off, that's where we'd end up." Done goofing off in Vietnam, he married a former college track athlete named Deborah and they moved into a house within walking distance of most of his family. He set up an office in the basement of his mother's home, where the 89-year-old still fixes "dinner for lunch" for much of his crew every afternoon.

Robert and Debbie had one child and named him Travis. But that's not suggesting that Robert Pastrana settled down.

As if determined to prove that Pastranas break but never bend, Robert once finished a downhill ski run despite fracturing both legs on the descent and has a fused wrist courtesy of the Harley. A year and a half ago, at age 58, he back-flipped off a 500-foot bridge platform in Idaho with no freefall training and barely four seconds to deploy his parachute. He wasn't going to come all that way and take "the sissy way out," he said.

Then there's the YouTube video from the late 1990s of an impressed and impressionable 15-year-old Travis, watching his father scale a high tree on a slat-and-nail ladder, shuffle to the end of a large branch and belly flop into a Tennessee pond ... twice. Described lovingly, respectfully by Travis as "a man with a real passion for pushing limits," Robert flung himself from a speeding power boat for an episode of Nitro Circus, shattering his pelvis. Daredevils do not age gracefully.

"I'm too old for that stuff now, but I guess I had some of that in me," Robert conceded.

Travis grew up watching such exploits and was soon as much of a participant as a spectator. He rode his first bicycle down the stairs at two, used the one-gear Honda Z-50 he awoke to Christmas Day 1987, to finish third in a race three months later and was soon driving old beater cars around vacant construction sites. He had his first sponsor by seven and by eight was on the verge of national stardom as a motocross rider.

There is no mystery as to where the gumption emanates. Or the toughness trait. But Robert Pastrana just can't watch anymore. He'll practice with his son for hours when Travis is home, but hasn't attended one of his competitions in more than a decade.

"I just turn my head. I can't watch it anymore," he said. "His mom always goes and she's a complete wreck from watching it ... When he leaves for the X Games or a rally car race, I just give a pat on the ass, tell him I love him and talk about something else. And don't watch until it's over."

This whole journey was nearly over several times: the Lake Havasu crash; when he had to convince his parents to endorse paperwork so he could participate in his first series of X Games because he was a minor; if he'd not landed his first full-time sponsorship by age 16.

The son remembers the commitment of his family, 15-hour rides to Florida to compete, his mother, who had home-schooled him since sixth grade, taking a job as a flight attendant to help offset the bills, double-mortgaging the house, selling the Harley and the family boat. He also remembers his father, ever the realist, encouraging him to pursue his dream but with the understanding he'd likely make his living one day working construction.

"I was never pushed," he said. "My father would say, 'Hey, you don't wanna go run? Sweet. I don't wanna drive to Florida this weekend. I'll get my boat back. We'll try to get some money back, pay the mortgage off.' I kind of got what I gave. And it taught me real quick what I had. I had so many friends who'd say, 'Oh, my parents are making me do this or that.' I wanted to do this, so I damned well better hold up my end or it could be taken away."

The father remembers the private conversations with his wife about having to tell their son they couldn't support his dream any longer. It was an especially painful prospect because had begun to beat kids much older by the time he was eight, and won the first of five amateur national championships by age nine, the world freestyle championship at 14 and had an X Games gold medal by 15.

"His mom and I took turns saying 'enough is enough,'" Robert Pastrana recalls. "Those first few X Games, when he wasn't 18 yet, he needed someone to sign. He was always coming off an injury at X Games time and she'd tell him he wasn't ready. He'd catch me behind the house and say, 'Dad, you've got to do this.' I'd tell him, 'Travis, this is going to cause so many problems.'"

His results in motocross and in finishing high school by age 14 kept spurring his parents to hold out just a little longer.

"I had to get at least four cycles a year and back then they were about $3,500 each," his father said. "It doesn't take long to get into financial trouble. We just kept stringing that carrot. All we had to do was hold on. He kept getting more sponsors, so he turned pro, everything is paid back the first year. I often told him, if he didn't get that big pro contract at 16, I told him we were out. We could barely afford it then and we wouldn't chase it past."

Travis was sitting in his wheelchair, recovering from the Arizona crash when his first full-time sponsorship offer came from Suzuki. Having seen how his son had already paid for his passion in blood and bone, Robert Pastrana hung up.

"They made almost the standard offer for Travis hoping that he would recover ($35,000)," Robert Pastrana recalled. "I told them, 'Look, we're not going with the standard contract. Triple that offer and call back and we'll start there.' And I hung up. Travis said, 'Dad! You can't do that.' I told him it would be fine. He said, 'I'm in a wheelchair.' And I said, 'You're still Travis Pastrana. They'll call back.'"

They did. Pastrana signed a $175,000 deal at age 16, the richest ever given to an entry-level 125cc-class rider at the time. He's remained with the manufacturer since.

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Travis Pastrana's flirtation with the brink works because he knows every step to the abyss, how much horsepower is needed to reach salvation on the other side. A double back-flip into the Grand Canyon and parachute ride is a matter of science. The Rodeo 720, the next evolutionary move on the FMX circuit, is an art form he has not yet mastered. And he's living with that, for now.

Between the self-effacing clowning and stream-of-consciousness jawing before stunts and the giddy celebration afterward, there is calculation and concentration. It makes daring look more haphazard, but glory hurt less. It's all sleight of hand.

"Travis is actually extremely focused," said Clarke, whose life was dependent on Pastrana's preparation and execution as a co-driver. "Although he gives off the facade of being a little bit crazy, he's very, very focused on what he wants to do and how he's going to get there.

"We spoke about it and I said, 'Look, don't be losing your focus or anything.' He said, 'Don't worry. I won't.' Obviously he can't do the things he does without being focused."

Pastrana jokingly describes his personality as "split." The capricious side is self-evident. The steely, serious side is often hidden under a helmet and too often has led detractors not to take him seriously. He doesn't like that much.

"One major misconception on TV, I'm goofy, I'm kind of a spaz. I'm all over the place," he said. "But when it comes down to it, I like to have fun, and winning is more fun than losing. So I work real hard at what I find a passion in doing."

Still, there are moments when that look envelopes Pastrana's face, like a puppy about to disobey. Idea has intersected nerve and opportunity, and anyone nearby is compelled to grab something solid for fear of being taken by the arm and flung out with him from the nearest window.

Such is the sensation riding with Pastrana up Mt. Washington in a street car the day before his record-setting run, when an unusually pristine, warm and clear afternoon had laid itself upon the White Mountain National Forest. Pastrana, who had not seen the road until a mapping expedition with Clarke hours before, wheeled the black car around tight corners and sections of deep shade and dappled sunshine until it burst into an open expanse that illustrated the beauty and danger of the road. No barriers, the occasional tree branch or protruding rock at the road side. A long way down. With the road still open to passenger traffic, Pastrana maintained a semblance of what he assumed the speed limit for mortals should be, but indulged in an exhilarating thrust of speed whenever he was able to pass the occasional struggling minivan or compact car. The Auto Road opened in 1861 as the Carriage Road, 18 days after the first Battle of Bull Run, and became the nation's oldest man-made tourist attraction, yet only three persons had ever died on its foreboding asphalt and gravel. The first in 1870, was a drunken stage coach operator trying to make his way back down the mountain although his passengers refused to mount up. The other deaths, the last in 2009, were blamed on mechanical failures.

"We're going 50 right here," Pastrana said, explaining a high-speed section of the road overlooking the valley. "You'll have to double that speed in the race. But you can to hit thiiiiiis (screech) corner perfectly, or you kill your average ... and yourself."

The near-summit of the mountain seemed to mesmerize him. Perhaps it was the nuclear-strike bleakness that marked the mountain once above 4,000 feet, where jagged outcroppings of granite and tiny, freakish 100-year-old pine trees called Krummholz lined the road sides. Those trees were of particular interest, and potential utility.

"Those things would make a nice foam pit," he joked, apparently, "in case you go over the edge. "Now, if you go over the edge where there's no trees .... you're dead."

Pastrana accelerated through a straight section where he theorized cars would leap from the pavement near the finish, then whirled into a gravel parking lot. After several of these painfully slow 10-minute rides on the mountain this day, he was in the mood to stretch, hit up the gift shop for a souvenir before a photo shoot atop a rock pile where the mountain's official elevation sign rested. His eventual take, a T-shirt reading "Bears like people. They taste like chicken."

He'd once tried to shoot a bear, but missed. Hit a deer with a rally car, but that doesn't count.

"Bad day for both of us," he said.

Back in the rental car, Pastrana was flabbergasted to learn the fastest wind speed ever recorded by a human -- 231 mph -- had been registered at this summit. Then that look came over his face again.

"231?" he said, emphasizing each digit. He stared through the windshield and began gesturing.

"In 231 mph you get in a birdman suit and tether to the ground here and just keep reeling yourself out until you're way up there," he said, pointing in the general direction of Montreal. "That would be cool."

These are the spaces in which Pastrana thrives. Once an athlete, now an entertainer and yearning with each minute behind the wheel of a rally car, monster truck or Late Model to become a racer, he possesses a Chuck Yeager-meets-Evil Knievel curiosity for the cusp of human limits. His five-year association with boundary-pushing, image-making Red Bull has created a fertile opportunity for such shenanigans. The association has been mutually beneficial because Pastrana possesses an innate ability to separate, yet combine the theater from the reality.

"Who sits around and thinks about jumping out of a plane without a parachute? That's what intrigues him," Jimmie Johnson asked. "He's a different guy all in all."

Sitting at a large table of Red Bull employees, Vermont SportsCar mechanics and videographers later that night at a Gorham, N.H. diner called J's Corner Restaurant and Lounge, Pastrana became transfixed on a discussion about Felix Baumgartner's and Michel Fournier's competing attempts to become the first to break the sound barrier with their bodies during a 23-mile freefall from the edge of space. Logistics were discussed as if closer to the realm of understood science than merely theory. That Baumgartner's mission is being underwritten and highly publicized by Red Bull added not only a rooting interest but the possibility of future one-upmanship for Pastrana.

"I think what's neat is finding stuff that makes people's jaws drop," he said. "And it's hard to think that far outside the box and find stuff that's not just gonna kill you. Everybody, goes, 'Oh, oh! I have an idea! You should ...' and I can't imagine how that would possibly work. But when you come up with it yourself, you're like, 'OK, this is why it's going to work," and it's fun trying to figure it out.'

Red Bull's corporate mindset and marketing mission enables bold thinking and engenders a competition between its athletes each year to devise the best stunt to which the company will attach a mass promotional effort. Robbie Maddison's exploits, including a 120-foot leap to and plunge from the top of the Arc de Triomphe attraction Las Vegas in 2008 have set a high standard. But Pastrana nabbed the top trick last year with his barge jump.

This space jump idea would bury Maddison.

"What would really be cool," Pastrana said, prompting each head at the table to turn toward him, "would be to actually do it from space. And while you're doing it, nobody knows where you're going to land. It's your choice, California or Florida."

There were nods and knowing looks as beers tilted and Pastrana considered the last of his plate of calamari and steak and Caesar salad. But he couldn't stand the silence, probing someone at the table about a long-distance marathon he'd run before spinning a tale about a cross-country off-road trek he'd taken, then making a quick arc in thought process to one of the most arduous events he's ever contested, a hill-climb in Austria in which competitors literally drag their motorcycles up a rock pile for the final miles. One on such slog, he recalled, two locals emerged from the tree line and extended a large water bottle. He swigged the clear liquid. It was peppermint Schnapps. Pastrana left his breakfast on the mountainside. The table roared.

Pastrana's blessed habit of cramming numerous thoughts into one mouthful while meandering around a conversation bemuses everyone around him. He quotes movie lines, especially from racing films probably more than he knows. The Fast and the Furious is a favorite.

"The stuff this guy says, the sayings, the stories about bears or whatever. He's making up words. It's hard to even focus in the car," Clarke begins, chortling, "He says, 'Slow down. I can't hear that fast.' What the hell does that even mean? I'm almost vomiting in my helmet I'm laughing so hard."

The less-rigid rules of conformity in action sports and Pastrana's own nature allow, enable his freedom to be as goofy as possible while managing his fame. Though his fan base is largely comprised of minors, he asserts his right to drink beer across Mexico and have an opinion on the best clubs and hot tubs in Las Vegas. "It seems like nine out of 10 people know me in Vegas," he said. "Lots of free drinks. That's fortunate ... or unfortunate." He jokes that he has a "gambling problem," because "All my friends are gamblers, but they don't have a problem because they always win." Pastrana did collect $5, at least from Williams for the X Games medal.

Pastrana insists his inclination to fill emptiness with conversation, to entertain, to accommodate has nothing to do with growing up an only child and "the worst athlete in the family" that produced a former quarterback of the Denver Broncos, Division I football and lacrosse players at Maryland, Duke and the Naval Academy, Golden Gloves boxers and an Olympic hopeful swimmer. Pastrana found his niche on wheels, like his uncles and father. He found his career by understanding from a very young age that his talent and desire to spend the rest of his life playing would be made possible by being what his sponsors and fans wanted and needed, exactly when they wanted and needed it. So he spent the hours riding to far flung motocross events as a child memorizing his sponsors -- as many as 40 of them -- in alphabetical order for recitation from the podium.

But the suggestion during a Nitro Circus shoot that the show "needed someone to have a little thing" with co-star/action athlete Jolene Van Vugt reinforced in him that "I don't want to be on TV. I just want to be able to do fun stuff. If I could do the fun stuff without being on TV, that would be awesome. But I can't."

There's no doubting that Pastrana, as everyone around him insists, is "nice." The simple little word is used so often to describe him it becomes not trite, but more powerful. Only the adjectives differ, from "so darned" to "incredibly," to "very, very, very, very" according to onlookers at Mt. Washington. He is genuine and introspective, but can almost preternaturally sense when he's needed to shill, charm or thrill.

"Travis is very aware of what he is supposed to be saying," his father said. "He is that [nice] person, but right now he is so tired of signing autographs and waiting in these lines, but he understands this is what it takes. The racing is fun. The autographs are part of it. He understands shaking hands and autographs keeps them up front and where he wants to be. It's part of the deal. If given the choice he'd rather go out back and play on his motorcycles instead of sitting in those autograph lines, but when he's there you'd swear he'd not want to be anywhere else in the world but right there talking to you. He has that ability to put himself on the back burner and really be 100 percent attentive to where he is. He's always tried to please everybody else first. And he still does that. He amazes me ... He always finds a way to be content where he is, in the present. Whatever he's got to do, he does it, and makes the best of it."

Pastrana's force of personality and proved, yet still-untapped marketability make him a sought-after, and important figure in the future of motorsports. Vermont SportsCar marketing manager Chris Yandell, sought him out as the young star to spark interest in American rallying in 2002 after he had declared a day at a rally school a thrill of a life time and a potential new career path. Pastrana, then 17, had impressed his teachers after being given a trip to a rally school from sponsor AlpineStars as a reward for winning a motocross championship. His age and background engendered resentment and cynicism immediately.

"Everyone thought I was just going to come in, because I went to the top class -- hindsight, really stupid -- but I just sink-or-swim situations and I had a lot of sponsor backing," Pastrana recalled. "The rally guys thought I was going to make a bad name, come in, have a car that was way too powerful for me -- which it probably was -- crash, die and hurt the sport. Or crash and give up, whatever. But for me, having all those people who said I wasn't going to make it, that I couldn't do it, made me really sit back and just learn as fast as I could."

Very fast.

"We did this private test session, we had David Higgins, who is a multi-time British rally champion and instructor, took him for a ride, then Travis did some driving and Travis was driving this $200,000 rally car, and we're looking at each other, fingers crossed and hoping this 17-year-old isn't going to crash," Yandell said. "So David Higgins gets out of the car, comes over to [Vermont SportsCar owner] Lance Smith and says, 'The kid can drive. Sign him up.'

"So we went from thinking this is a media thing to like, whoa, we could do something with him. We should put some effort into it.'"

After a spate of expected early crashes, Pastrana improved markedly over time and won his first of four consecutive Rally America championships in 2006. He finished third this season because he missed two rounds due to Nitro Circus commitments in Australia. He's dabbled in WRC under series but not committed to rally's big leagues.

"Travis has a lot more to give in rally," Clarke said.

Pastrana was a ready-made promotional tool when Vermont SportsCar and officials at Rally America decided to resurrect the Mt. Washington hill climb after a 10-year dormancy -- renewing an event that preceded the Indianapolis 500 by seven years. If the opportunity to leverage his fame and credibility to further his hopeful future racing regimen wasn't enough, the chance to reset a record made it irresistible.

Rally racing, in which cars compete alone on a course for the best combined times over several "stages," is immensely popular almost everywhere but in the United States, but Pastrana, in just eight years, and several other action sports converts have raised its profile to the point where the series has to actually consider crowd control in race plans.

"The sport has grown exponentially with him," Yandell said. "The fan appeal has been amazing. Miles and miles out in the woods in the middle of nowhere there's like 3,000 people sitting on a corner to watch a car slide by."

Paul Giblin, marketing director of the American rally sanctioning body, said American rally racing is enjoying its greatest growth since 1973, and while other major series like NASCAR and the IZOD IndyCar Series grapple with their own relevance issues, modified versions of spry little street cars may be connecting with modern fans, he said.

"It's huge. It's enormous, having him here. There is definitely a Travis effect to have him at your event," Giblin said. "Rally Cross racing has brought a new demographic out to see not only the cars but him. We have a solid 18-to-34-year-old fan base. Before Travis, Dave Mirra, Ken Block, those guys getting involved, the demographic was much older, but those guys coming in, Tanner Faust, we've dropped that age considerably."

Ford, which already competes in WRC and will field Block's effort next season, uses rally as a tool to hook 20-something car-buyers. Jamie Allison, the company's director North America Motorsport, calls rally the "perfect demonstration of the credibility and agility of Fiesta reaching the very audience we were targeting."

Block, co-founder of DC Shoes, said, "not only are five-to-10 times the amount of people showing up to signings and events, but DC is selling rally-related products of mine and Travis we thought would never sell. Now it's an incredible business. It has a cache."

The gateway sport for an American public heretofore ambivalent toward rally may eventually be RallyCross, which pits five cars on a miniature version of a rally course at one time, with much greater amenities for spectators. An even more concise version of the sport was contested at the X Games inside L.A. Coliseum this year.

Pastrana sees rally as his outlet for competition as he transitions out of the younger man's freestyle motocross competition. He also yearns to "be a real racer." He wants his victories starkly proved by stop watches or checkered flags, not the subjectivity of judges, as is the case with FMX. And he is willing to try virtually anything to find that validation.

"No matter how much freestyle I do or how much fun I have in Nitro, nothing will ever relate to that feeling to win, and not for someone to say that you won, for someone to say 'Wow, you were the best,'" he explained. "'It doesn't matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning is winning.' Vin Diesel said that in Fast and the Furious. That's where my heart is."

That includes "enough NASCAR to maybe try the Daytona 500," but he doesn't think stock car racing would be compelling enough to hold his attention full-time. He's driven, but officially not tested, a stock car, but an opportunity almost certainly would be there when he desires. That's because he's talented, and because he's at the forefront of a new movement in motorsports in which traditional series are grappling with their future viability at the crossroads of a terrifying economic and demographic situations.

"Guys such as Travis and Dave Mirra that come in and have that fan base and appeal and actually have the personality and style that attract those kids in those younger demographics," Block said. "It's really kind of strange when I look back at it. I think there's so many teams out there that are just so cookie cutter. They get a budget and they go race and that's it. Somebody like Travis Pastrana comes along and he's got a TV, and he's out jumping his car, and flying down to Australia to do his demo tour and he just does things different, and in such a fun way that it attracts that younger demographic."

While NASCAR is struggling to retain the coveted 18-to-34-year-old sector, Pastrana and fellow actions sports stars like Shaun White are making lucrative livings of it. Motocross starts Ricky Carmichael and Brian Deegan are now attempting NASCAR careers. Pastrana said he was surprised to find how many teenage girls began to recognize him once he became a regular on MTV, but a plane ride last year proved the growing reach of the X Games and action sports.

"I was sitting next to this nice little old black lady, she must have been 85," he said. "She goes: 'You're that boy that crashed real hard at the X Games. I can't believe you got up from that one.'"

They can't believe it. And they can't stop watching it. Pastrana's career therefore has benefited greatly by coinciding with the rise of personal media and viral video. He's featured in more than 5,400 YouTube videos, from the "Crusty Demons of Dirt" series he performed in as a teenager, to highlights, interviews and professional-grade productions such as the one made for his Mt. Washington run. The first 20 items alone on a Pastrana YouTube search yield clips with more than 50 million views.

The Google Traffic Estimator reveals him to be one of the most-searched athletes in the world, with an estimated 1.62 million searches by the end of this year. Danica Patrick: 2.41 million; Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon: 1.08 million, each; Jimmie Johnson: 594,000.

According to the Q Score which measures the familiarity and appeal of a brand, company, celebrity, or television show used in the United States, Pastrana was known by 32 percent of 12-to-64-year-old respondents in 2010. According to the Davie-Brown Index, which tracks a celebrities' ability to influence brand affinity, Pastrana, has a likability factor of 79.73 percent among those who know him, ranking him 292 of 2,700 athletes an on par with actress Ashley Judd. That dwarfed other, though more recognized drivers such as Patrick, (74.65), Johnson (70.34) and Earnhardt Jr. (68.47).

Additionally, 68.48 of respondents said they aspired to be like Pastrana (putting him in "a really nice neighborhood in celebrity terms" with Reba McEntire, White, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, Dolly Parton and Joe Montana, said Davie-Brown spokesman Chris Anderson). Only 62.94 of those polled felt the same about for Patrick, 61.63 of Johnson and 58.31 for Earnhardt Jr. In a crucial category for sponsors and sports like rally attempting to leverage his influence, 62.24 said they trust Pastrana's "word and image," compared to 59.38 for Patrick, 58.32 to Johnson and 54.92 to Earnhardt Jr.

Simply put: Pastrana is a force. And he figures to become more so, Anderson said, as the legion of younger fans that follow him mature into more influential positions to affect what is offered for sale and consumed in this country. In essence, their interest in Pastrana and his ilk could create a new mainstream and redefine what motorsports are in the next few decades.

"It's pretty interesting," Pastrana said. "I think everyone is starting to recognize that action sports aren't just going away. In a couple years when people say traditional sports and action sports, traditional sports are going to include action sports."

+++

Maybe Johnson is right, that Pastrana "can't make a commitment to something that's so long term. He likes living for the individual moment." Maybe that's why he's a world-class dabbler, a forward-looking throwback as a barnstormer.

"First everyone said 'Don't do freestyle. You'll get hurt. There's nothing in it. There's no money, no sport, no future,'" Pastrana said. "That opened up. Then there was cars and everyone said, 'Go do NASCAR, not rally cars.' Well, I'm passionate about rally cars. And then Subaru has really stepped up, and all the sponsors I got in the X Games. This has worked. I truly believe if you're passionate enough about it and you're willing to do it no matter what, you'll find a way."

Pastrana has seemingly tried everything motorized already. Aside from motorcycles, he's competed in a Monster Jam, rally, rally cross, desert racing in the Baja 1000, represented the United States multiple times in the annual the Race of Champions, and competed against a field comprised mostly of NASCAR drivers this summer in Tony Stewart's Prelude to the Dream. It would be no surprise to see him in a dragster or an Indy car, although neither is currently on the "bucket list" with attempting the Daytona 500. With current drivers so beholden to sponsors committed to one form of racing at a time, he's the closest thing motorsports has had to a true barnstormer since the days of Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney, and has the talent, Block said, to redesign the template of the modern racer hero. Or, he might be too damned talented for anyone to attempt the trail he's blazing.

"I don't know how many other people can go out and pull that off," Block said. "What he does, he does because he's so talented and he has the personality and he picks the right things to do. I'm just not sure they would succeed at trying to do what he does. Another things is I'm not sure a lot of people have the foresight. I think the old formula is just so set in stone, a lot of other people couldn't go out and be that innovative and really do it."

+++

Therein lies part of Pastrana's appeal. He's a muse for mud-crusted kids on dirt bikes, a vicarious pleasure for mortals working in cubicles that dream brave dreams but know they're unwilling to pay the tolls in pain. But atop all that, he's obviously so completely glad to be a part of this culture he's helped create, and that conveys especially in impromptu interactions, such as when a minivan slows to see what's happening during a photo shoot atop Mt. Washington. Pastrana turned away from the rally car he'd been leaning upon and the professional photographer to wave at the curious couple as they snapped a photo of their own. A few minutes later a young couple actually drove into the shoot, and a young woman strode up to chat with Pastrana about her youth in Upper Marlboro, Md., and her experiences on some of the same tracks where Pastrana grew his legend.

"Can I take a picture?" Jodie Grubbs asks, sheepishly.

"Sure," Pastrana responds. "You want me in it?"

Of course she did.

After changing out of his fire suit behind a pickup in the 30-mph, 50-degree gusts near the photo shoot just below the summit, Pastrana slid back behind the wheel of the Subaru street car and began the descent, all the while fiddling near the steering wheel, trying to deactivate the car's traction control. He couldn't. But he was able to slide through a particularly hairpinish hairpin curve anyway.

Then he turned to the passenger.

"What were you thinking? How fast did we drive up the hill?" he mocks.

A while earlier, as he wasted time before the photo session, Pastrana had listened with wide eyes as Ryan Triffitt, the Auto Road marketing director explained the "100-mph Club" ritual in which meteorologists working at the summit attempt to walk the outside porch without use of a rail ... and try not get blown into Maine. There are fewer than a dozen members.

"That's so cool," Pastrana said, impressed by the science types' action credibility. "At 120 you go airborne."

A lull in the conversation ensued -- a odd-feeling rarity around Pastrana -- so a reporter filled the space.

"How fast were we going up the hill?"

Triffitt's eye brow raised.

"30 ... ish," Pastrana responded, shooting a disapproving look to the reporter.

+++

Pastrana seems completely comfortable with the Peter Pan existence. He doesn't know how his story ends, but says it won't be with one final stunt. He seems determined to somehow, despite the high trajectory and lick of flames underneath his career, fade away and not just burn out. He will quit when he can no longer compete and win, he said. He can see himself "at 90 in the geriatric ward," no doubt jumping bed pans on his Rascal.

So there he was, two hours later, sliding a $5 bill into a video game, and calling to the child on the stool, 'All right. You and me. Let's go.'"

The man in the Reds hat -- out of place in this part of New England -- had been staring at Pastrana for several minutes as the driver and his team unwound over a few drinks at J's, the only place open this time of night on a Wednesday. Finally able to catch someone referring to Pastrana by name, the man walked to the table and begged him to come meet his son, who appeared to be about four years old, apparently idolized him, and for whatever reason was playing video games in a bar at 9:30 at night.

Pastrana obliged, as usual, complimenting the shy child on his Super Monkey Ball prowess, then reached for his wallet to find only two $5 bills. Pastrana fancies himself such a good Buck Hunter player he's entered regional competitions trying to make the national championships. This game is new to him. But he spent 15 minutes with the child as his team continued to unwind, set the record and saved it under the boy's name. Arms thrust in air, Pastrana returned to his boys and his beer. His life.

"My goal is to never grow up," he said, "kind of mature at 18 and that's about where you live the rest of your life."

His greatest trick yet.

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