Sunday evening, Superman's smile returned.
An hour before the X Games RallyCross final, Travis Pastrana was lying in his Subaru team trailer, his splinted and wrapped right leg propped on a table. He was exhausted and in pain -- far from the thumbs-up flashing 27-year-old with the indomitable smile his fans have come to know and expect. "Am I glad I decided to drive today? I can't really answer that right now," he said, the usual vigor missing from his voice. "But I think it's the best decision at the moment."
In the days since crashing on a 720 attempt and breaking several bones in his right leg and foot, Pastrana has been less than his usual effervescent self, the disappointment visible on his face and in his voice, no matter how hard he tried to mask it. "Yeah, overall the week sucked," Pastrana says. "I couldn't have been more disappointed with myself for not landing the 720 and sabotaging the rest of the weekend."
A half-hour after the race, back in his trailer with his leg propped in that same spot and his mom Debbie sitting next to him, Pastrana reflected on all that's happened in the past four days. And that smile returned. "I'm just excited I had a chance to drive the car today," Pastrana says. "I was given an opportunity and I got to compete on this awesome course against my heroes and be fairly competitive. And ... I got to learn hand controls."
When Pastrana lined up for his first heat in the RallyCross final, it didn't matter how he finished. The Pastranathon story had already become more fairy tale -- or perhaps, Marvel Comics -- than the original script. The first draft wasn't bad. It had nonstop action, conflict and a likable leading man. But this new version had suspense. And heart. And a true superhero, in a firesuit.
"He's got guts to even come back here," says RallyCross gold medalist Brian Deegan. "People ask why he does what he does, and it's because that's who he is. He makes the rules. People want to know if he's committed to car racing -- we come from freestyle motocross, a sport that takes the kind of commitment to get in your suit knowing today I could break a bone. Today I could die. I was so glad he was able to race today. I don't know many people who would have done what he did. Would a NASCAR driver have raced with a broken leg?"
After taking second to 2010 gold medalist Tanner Foust in his first heat, Pastrana won his last-chance qualifier and a spot in the finals and seemed to be getting the hang of his hand-controlled throttle. He hung back for the first two laps of the final, staying out of traffic and keeping the car out of the wall. Then, on the final lap, trailing closely behind Tanner Foust and Marcus Gronholm, who were running in second and third, Pastrana saw an opportunity and took it, passing Gronholm for third. "I got so excited; I had just passed Gronholm. He's seriously a hero of mine," Pastrana says. "I was like, 'We're on the podium!' But I got excited and panicked and missed a shift and was coming in too hot, so I grabbed the clutch. Or I thought I did. I got confused because on a shifter cart or motorcycle, the clutch is on the right, but on this car, that was the throttle. My instincts took over and I throttled and hit the wall."
As the front end of his car buckled against the impact, Pastrana's first thought was the extreme pain shooting through his right leg. Then, seeing smoke under the hood, he climbed out of the car and hopped to the side of the track, where he watched the remainder of the race from the sidelines. "We were shooting for the finals," Pastrana says. "Anything else was gravy. I thought a podium was possible, but not very realistic. But to have it in my hands and lose it, that's tough."
Thing is, no one is going to remember that he finished fourth. It didn't matter where he finished Sunday night. The story is the fact that he was there at all. In the pits shortly after the race, the scrum around the Subaru tent was bigger than that around the medalists. When Pastrana returned to his trailer in the back seat of a golf cart, a camera documenting his every move, he did so to the loudest cheers.
"He is a unique athlete," says Trent Kamerman, a camera operator who has documented Pastrana's antics for years and has had as close a seat to his theatrics as anyone. "He's not like anybody else. Every time you think you can count him out, he rises. This story is special."
Because, in the end, it wasn't about an amazing race from Los Angeles to Indianapolis to set records and compete in three sports. It wasn't about winning and losing. It was about dedication and competitive fire and following through on a commitment. "You see the smile on my face when I came up just now?" Pastrana says. "Just being here, having this opportunity. That's what's been driving me all weekend."
The Pastranathon might not have had a perfect ending. But it sure had a happy one.