Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine and the author of "The Big Jump: The Tao Of Travis Pastrana" (2007, ESPN Books).
Travis Pastrana is having a midlife crisis. And he's doing it on live TV.
That might seem like a strange statement to make about a 26-year-old who spends his days living out most men's fantasies, including his own. But Pastrana years are like dog years. He packs so much into every day that, in Pastrana years, 26 feels pretty midlife. He was a freestyle motocross champion at 14, was a Supercross champ at 15 and won his first of three Rally America titles at 23. He filled in the gaps BASE jumping into the Grand Canyon, skydiving sans parachute and proving it is possible to double backflip a 220-pound dirt bike and land safely on two wheels. By high school graduation he graduated at 16, by the way the stamps in his passport spanned four continents. So what's a guy in crisis to do? Lord knows he doesn't need a sports car.
Born: Oct. 8, 1983
Hometown: Annapolis, Md.
Nickname: TP, Wonderboy
Known For: Double backflips on a dirt bike, near-perfect FMX freestyle runs, 15 X Games medals, the driving force behind MTV's "Nitro Circus"
He does precisely what most guys in midlife are rebelling against: He grows up. Matures. And begins putting trust in the people around him. So when Red Bull asked Pastrana how he would like to celebrate the 2010 new year, he weighed his options, thought about the stunts his friends had pulled off the past two years and decided he would push not only the limits of his own mind but the minds of dozens of engineers, mathematicians, mechanics and ramp builders. "The motorcycle stunts have been pushed so far that people expect impossible feats in order to be entertained," Pastrana says. "I wanted to think outside of the box, away from the motorcycle, and explore boundaries that haven't been pushed. I don't want to be labeled as a stunt junkie or a daredevil. I want to do things more professionally now and get people thinking about what's possible in another realm. I wanted to take a standard car and figure out how far it is possible to jump it. I've surrounded myself with really great people and put a lot of trust in them."
Not that jumping cars is new. In 2006, DC Shoes founder Ken Block set what is considered the distance-jumping world record of 171 feet in his rally car. (Pastrana's already has crushed Block's record in testing, in the same Subaru Impreza WRX STI. But only the New Year's Eve jump counts for the record books.) Professional daredevils such as Spanky Spangler have been jumping cars since the early 1980s. "You can go onto YouTube and find some rednecks who jump their cars pretty far," Pastrana says. "But with wavering success." Little forethought went into those jumps, however, and rarely did anyone drive away from them. Distance was gained by trial and error, so most of the jumps were done off ramps into water, soft piles of dirt or cardboard boxes. The jumps were spectacular and dangerous. But they weren't truly pushing the limits of what a car and driver with a whole lot of money and support behind them can do. They were simply entertainment. "More preparation and thought has gone into this jump than has gone into anything I've ever done," Pastrana says. "But it's the least amount of thought by me."
Until this jump, Pastrana had no interest in distance jumping. Not on a dirt bike, anyway. He left that up to daredevils such as Ryan Capes, Robbie Maddison and Trigger Gumm, guys who were willing to trade their bodies for distance records. For him, it has never been about improving upon what someone else had already done. It's about seeking out new limits and deconstructing the unknown. Distance jumping wasn't worth the risk. Until now. Because, for Pastrana, the fun is in the figuring out. "We understand the physics of flying a motorcycle," he says. "With a car, we figure out something new on every jump." The most valuable tests were those he did on Day 1. And, ironically, they were done on a dirt bike. "We hadn't done the math yet," he says. So, to begin the calculations, Pastrana grabbed his bike and, wearing only tennis shoes, a half-face helmet and his PJs, hit the dirt takeoff and landed on the downside of a dirt landing 240 feet away. "That was the farthest I've ever jumped on a bike," he says. The next day, he started jumping his rally car, after his sponsors removed the passenger seat so he wouldn't be tempted to take anyone along for the ride. And although the math proved fairly dependable, there were many factors Pastrana figured out on the fly.
The car needed a counterbalance to keep it from flipping sideways while airborne. To keep the front end from dropping, he must accelerate through the takeoff, just like he would on a dirt bike. At the same speed off the ramp, the car flies approximately 30 feet farther if he accelerates through the takeoff and 30 feet shorter if he is decelerating. If the car doesn't land on four tires simultaneously, it will bounce and roll. This he figured out on Day 2 of testing, when he trashed what was Dave Mirra's 2009 X Games rally car. It is all about the takeoff.
All these lessons will prove invaluable on New Year's Eve, when Pastrana jumps his Subaru from the Long Beach, Calif., pier onto a floating barge more than 200 feet away. But they also are providing the best rally driver in the country with even more ammunition for 2010. "Knowing what I know now, I might be able to double jumps in a race that I would have singled last year," he says. "Next year will be interesting."
He's sure starting it off that way.