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What looks like risk management to Pastrana looks like insanity to most

Ben Liebenberg/WireImage

This is the moment in time Travis Pastrana is almost always asked about.

LONDON -- Casually navigating a bustling 10-mile trek in the European epicenter between Wembley Stadium and Hyde Park, a chauffeur mentions to his American passengers having once driven across the US on a sight-seeing excursion.

Asked his favorite experience he raves about the Grand Canyon. Breathtaking, he says. So massive as to be unbelievable, almost terrifying.

There is a brief pause.

"I flipped a bike into the Grand Canyon once," said a voice from the back seat, in a tone that suggests vague acknowledgment of how ridiculous the statement is.

But aside from a slight grin at the corner of his mouth, the chauffeur doesn't flinch. He knows it's legit. He recognized the marquee passenger earlier in the day, engaged sheepishly in conversation with the question, the one Travis Pastrana answers virtually every day, and will likely answer most every day for the rest of his life:

"Are you the gentleman that holds the world record for the double back flip?"

"Yes. That's me." Almost goofy this time.

There is another brief pause.

He ponders the thought of a triple. That is, after all, the newest most-annoying question in the universe.

"I'm sure you think it can be done," mutters Travis Clarke, Pastrana's business manager, nonchalantly.

Pastrana's outlandish ideas are old hat for Clarke -- not that flipping ass-over-teakettle on a 250cc sawhorse is any less bizarre to the man charged with spinning sanity from insanity to appease sponsors and partners and explain to the media what's going on inside his client's melon.

Average folks might consider Pastrana loony, pure straight-jacket material.

A justified depiction of his psychological fortitude -- fearlessness, if you prefer -- seems to require adjectives derived from four-letter words unwelcome on the TVPG rating scale.

Merely labeling him insane -- or absolutely, utterly, unequivocally, totally, completely, categorically, entirely or unquestionably insane -- simply doesn't carry enough oomph to give the man his due.

Spontaneous Combustion
Pastrana is a complex individual, quite intelligent -- he graduated high school at 14 -- and refreshingly honest. He is an international icon whose closest friends consider dorky.

He carries a genuineness that suggests obliviousness to the madness involved in his occupation and the resulting level of fame it has spawned. He admittedly lives in a fantasy world, a lanky kid from Maryland who just wanted to race motorcycles and now can't go watch motorcycles race without being pestered.

Not that he minds, necessarily. The whole shebang came from two-wheels, a motor and a heaping-helping of family support. The moment he loses respect for that is the moment it's over.

He's not much into relationships and detests baseless phone chatter. Pastrana says his reflection in the mirror is a "six" on a scale of 10. Seven on a good day.

"I show up at X-Games and pull 10-pluses," he said, laughing. "There are lines of 10-pluses. I'm OK with that."

Girls cry at autograph sessions. Often. And Pastrana has, well, overzealous admirers. When Pastrana's friend, AMA racer Kevin Crine was killed in an auto accident, Pastrana devised a fund-raising project that welcomed the highest bidder to hang out for a day at his home.

One young lady shelled out $6,000 -- then just sat and stared. Pastrana asked if she'd like to see the dirt track or the rock-climbing wall. She asked where the hot tub was located. She "knew they had a connection" by the way Pastrana looked at her. On television.

Then there's the Rally girl. Invariably when Pastrana arrives for a Rally America event there's a box waiting at the hotel check-in desk. Silk boxers. Snacks. She once left an iPod full of songs. Songs she likes.

He is also a businessman, partnering with film producer Gregg Godfrey to form Godfrey Entertainment. Together they create films featuring the Nitro Circus -- Pastrana's merry band of thrill-seeking brethren who entice bikes and buses and bulldozers and recreational vehicles and monster trucks and go-karts and your mom's sedan and thought-to-be-normal people to perform stunts otherwise thought impossible; set it to speed metal, add some real-time injury commentary and you have a thriller that knows no demographic.

Some of it is spontaneous combustion. Most, though, is impeccably choreographed.

The most recent example: the free fall.

Pastrana got the idea in his head that it'd be cool to leap from an airplane, sans parachute, a la Johnny Utah, the Keanu Reeves character from Point Break.

He'd plummet a few hundred feet before a team of professional skydivers -- the Red Bull dive team was the initial thought -- caught him and returned him safely to Earth. He figured Red Bull, one of his biggest sponsors, would love the idea: a "Red Bull gives you wings" kind of mantra.

Not really. They freaked. In fact, Pastrana says the Red Bull brass informed the dive team that they'd be promptly relieved of duty if they complied with Pastrana's wishes.

There were other obstacles, too, namely Federal Aviation Administration regulations and insurance concerns.

According to Ed Scott from the United States Parachute Association, the FAA requires anyone intending to jump from an airplane to wear two parachutes. One of which, a reserve chute, must be packed by an FAA-certified rigger. Pastrana, again, wouldn't have one at all.

And then there's liability. Clarke said no drop zones in the States would assume the massive liability involved.

But an acquaintance of Pastrana's knew of an available drop zone in Puerto Rico, and a packed schedule offered just one day to shoot the stunt. So three hours later Pastrana and seven others boarded a plane to Puerto Rico. They shot it the following day.

Incidentally, Scott said that FAA regulations also apply to Puerto Rico, and that the USPA is currently investigating whether Pastrana used the proper approval process for the leap.

"If he didn't go through the FAA process, I'm sure they'd be interested in finding out what process he did use," Scott said. "And I'm perplexed that no one [in Puerto Rico] told them the same FAA regulations apply there as apply in this country."

For the record, Pastrana says they did consult the FAA before performing the stunt, and "they said we were idiots," but wouldn't cite them for any wrongdoing.

"People ask, 'Why do you spend money to do something that might kill you?' " Pastrana said. "Because it's cool and I'm confident. And man, wouldn't it be a cool picture for the living room?"

Indeed. He plans to hang a photo of the leap prominently in his home soon.

Worth The Risk

Bill Halsey

Travis Pastrana says his life is about risk management. So far, so good.

Pastrana considers his profession risk management, even has an elaborate equation to justify potential death or dismemberment in the name of otherworldly trickery. He has toed the precipice of both.

The injury report: more than 25 concussions, more than 60 broken bones -- legs, back, collarbone, wrist, ankles, shoulders -- torn knee ligaments to the tune of 17 surgeries; nine on the left knee, eight on the right; two surgeries on his left wrist, one on his left thumb; two back surgeries and one surgery each on an elbow and shoulder.

That's the small stuff.

In 2003, a week before X-Games IX, Pastrana reduced his right knee to spaghetti. Practicing jumps at home, he tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments, and dislocated and partially tore the posterior cruciate ligament. He could have died.

Pastrana went to see his local orthopedic doctor, Tom Dennis, whom Pastrana says is aggressively honest with prognoses. Dennis suggested Pastrana undergo surgery immediately.

"He said,'You shouldn't even be walking on that thing. If you step wrong, you've got 30 minutes before you bleed out,' " Pastrana said.

Unsatisfied, Pastrana sought a second opinion from Indianapolis-based knee specialist, Dr. Don Shelbourne. Same result. Reconstructive surgery was scheduled for the following day. Pastrana boarded a plane for L.A for the X-Games.

To thwart her son's departure, Pastrana's mother, Debbie, summoned armed guards to remove Travis from the plane. He tried to fend them off with a fib, but they were prepared. Debbie warned them he'd try to squirrel his way out.

But he was determined. Off he went, cast his leg ankle-to-hip in duct-tape and competed, landing a back flip 360 to take freestyle motocross gold. And Debbie showed up to cheer him on. The story is now legend.

He's lucky he even got that chance.

The biggie came in 1998, when Pastrana was 14 years old. While practicing for an FMX event at Lake Havasu in California, he misjudged a jump and landed short. The resulting crash nearly killed him. On impact his spine dislocated from his pelvis, leaving him in a coma for two weeks.

When he'd awaken, the pain was so severe he'd immediately pass out again. He needed six blood transfusions and was in a wheelchair for months. Presuming Pastrana was paralyzed doctors fused his back in the sitting position, Pastrana said.

"That's why my ass sticks out so far," he said, laughing.

Pastrana said he is just the third known case in recorded medical history to have survived that injury. He was back on a bike in six months.

"I figured that's as much pain as I can take, I can never take more than that so I don't really have to worry about pain anymore," Pastrana said.

Insane? Yes. And Bill Gates is wealthy.

True Concern
Ligament damage and broken bones, though debilitating, finitely heal with proper care. Head trauma may not. Pastrana admits concern regarding the mounting number of concussions he's sustained over the years. Many former athletes have come out recently to describe the aftereffects of multiple concussions, including depression.

Travis Pastrana


[Doctors] say take time off to heal, but I don't think they know much about it. You can take time off, but who knows if you're really even healing?

-- Travis Pastrana

"Now that I worry about, actually," Pastrana said. "I've had three major, major concussions. I'm not talking about, 'Hey, I rung my bell.' I mean out, cold, wake up in a pool of my own vomit kind of thing."

Pastrana counts two concussions in 2007. For precautionary reasons he recently went to have his head checked, though he's uncertain it matters given the unknowns surrounding post-concussion syndrome.

"[Doctors] say take time off to heal, but I don't think they know much about it," Pastrana said. "You can take time off, but who knows if you're really even healing?"

Dr. Dennis, who has treated Pastrana for years, is concerned.

"I've known Travis since he was a little kid and it does take its toll, as far as brain damage," Dennis said. "A lot of the boxers, you know how they are later in life. You really don't know what he'll experience down the road, but he certainly has taken a lot more shots than I'd want my kids to take."

Pastrana needn't look further than his own family to see the residual effects of concussions. As a quarterback for the Denver Broncos in the late-60s his uncle, Alan, was knocked silly by two-time Pro Bowl player Bubba Smith of Police Academy fame. He was never the same.

"They say he's a very different personality than he was beforehand," Travis said. "This is a guy that, in college, was quarterback for the University of Maryland in his freshman year, was all-state lacrosse, never had a point scored against him in wrestling his senior year [of high school].

"So this tough, badass son of a bitch turned [soft] from a concussion. It worries you."

Stunted Growth
Pastrana's list of "he's done it" is unparalleled. His freestyle accomplishments make it easy to overlook his racing success. He is a motocross and super cross champion, but the willingness to chance disaster sets him apart.

"I've dealt with a lot of athletes over the years, and he's very unique," said Ken Block, Founder of DC Shoe Co., and a competitor of Pastrana's in his newest venture, Rally America.

"More than anyone I've ever met, he's always out there pushing, looking to do the next big thing he wants to do. He doesn't necessarily do things for [media] coverage, he does it because he has a genuine love for what he's doing."

He indeed flipped a bike into the Grand Canyon and, of course, pulled the double back flip in X-Games 12 -- the most famous motorcycle jump ever. Google "double back flip" and four of the first five results lead you to video of Pastrana's launch into history.

It was the culmination of three years of buildup, and 13,000 fans on-hand at Staples Center that day knew it -- not to mention millions more watching at home. It was a gripping tale of a nervous mother sobbing at the prospect of her little boy tempting fate and losing.

Pastrana landed the double-back months earlier in Spokane, Wash., and swore he'd never attempt it again. But to win he had to get rowdy.

"My mom was crying all day, and [ESPN commentator] Jamie Little is on camera saying 'Travis came up to his mom and said, "Mom, if I die, I die doing what I love," ' " Pastrana said. "So now there are parents rooting for me to land it just so my mom doesn't have a heart attack."

The scene was bedlam.

Convinced he would crash, Pastrana reminded himself to enjoy the moment. If he got lucky he'd remember it. The stadium was frenzied for several minutes before Pastrana dropped in, and remained so for several minutes afterward. He'd leapt into history.

"There's a lot of times I've felt that [elation] when I landed a trick, like that was the greatest thing in the world, but if everyone doesn't share, it's not the same," Pastrana said. "It reached out to a bigger audience. I sit on an airplane now and the 70-year old black lady beside me says, 'Are you the one that did the double back flip?' And I'm like, 'WHAT?' That's not exactly the target demographic."

The double-back is his legacy, and he will spend the rest of his career trying to outrun it.

"The double back flip is one of the most ridiculous things ever done on a dirt bike," Block said. "Winning the Indianapolis 500, to me, is the sign a great driver. But it doesn't have the risk [level] of the double back flip. That sets it apart. Events like that stick out in people's mind forever."

Turn The Page

Lars Gange/subaru.com/rally

Travis Pastrana has traded in two wheels for four and is now a two-time Rally America champion.


Pastrana's new passion should help him outrun the double-back. The bike is on standby for special occasions these days, replaced by a Subaru Rally car. But the results are similar. In October, Pastrana clinched his second-consecutive Rally America championship, winning a series-high four events along the way.

Rally America is a the U.S.-based version of World Rally Championship. Pastrana's emergence as a driver has helped infuse the series with mainstream exposure and sponsorship dollars. Interest grows annually, as does the competition level.

"Three years ago you wouldn't be calling me talking about it," said J.B. Niday, CEO of Rally America. "We're at a much higher level, and that starts with Travis. [The media] follows Travis, and where Travis goes [media] find stories. We have some great stories."

Established competitors initially considered Pastrana a novelty, presumed he'd be gone as quickly as he arrived. His first race didn't change that sentiment. He crashed in the first corner.

But he quickly proved he was serious, and Rally America has benefited tremendously. Pastrana deflects credit for the series' growth to the X-Games, which added Rally racing in 2006. (Niday says X-Games added Rally because of Pastrana's inclusion.)

He credits Block, saying, "[Block] legitimized Rally to a huge market of people that would really never consider it to be socially acceptable, for lack of a better term." Block's influence in the action sports world, namely skateboarding, has been critical to Rally America's growth.

Pastrana also credits other action sports stars who've followed his path to Rally, like Kenny Bartram and Chad Reed. BMX star Dave Mirra ran his first Rally event last season in Canada, and is expected to run the full Rally America slate in 2008. Niday also expects FMX star Carey Hart in a car soon.

"The biggest thing is, kids growing up, they see NASCAR as the pinnacle, which I think it will always be in the States," said Pastrana, who has no interest in attempting NASCAR.

"Honestly, I've been fortunate to make a living doing something else, and to me there's nothing more exciting than Rally. I'm not a precision guy. I don't like to hit the same marks every single lap."

World Rally is the ultimate goal, but Pastrana admits he must improve if he's to achieve it. He is turning greater focus to the mechanical side of Rally racing, how the car works and how to take pinpoint course notes. He doesn't yet trust his own note-taking ability, which in Rally can mean the difference between winning and crashing.

"NASCAR, the cool aspect is it is racing, which Rally is lacking," he said. "But Rally, you go over the course in World Rally twice, but the course completely changed by the time you get there, you haven't seen it in two days. And in US Rally you never see them. You might remember one corner in 100 miles of the course. You're going to be sideways, you're going to be heading for a tree. I love that."

To compete full time in WRC, Pastrana would likely have to relocate to Europe. He's not sure he wants to do that. He is in the enviable position to do what suits him. He can take it or leave it. In fact, Pastrana is so influential to sponsors that Suzuki and Thor will back him financially in 2008 with knowledge that he may not even get on a bike.

It's a huge undertaking, and he'll use 2008 as a barometer to determine his racing future. Pastrana made his first career WRC start in 2007 and finished 15th overall, the best finish by an American in two decades.

For now he's shooting for a third-straight Rally America title in 2008.

Asked what he'd like to be in the future, Pastrana paused.

"Better."

And with that the chauffeur eased up to the hotel and dropped off his passengers. Pastrana walked into the lobby, past the towering Christmas tree and toward the elevator. He pushed the up arrow and offered a closing thought:

"My biggest problem -- and it's a good problem to have -- is that I have a lot opportunities," Pastrana said. "I've had the opportunity of a lifetime a lot of times."

He's lucky to have gotten to No. 2.

ESPN The Magazine writer Alyssa Roenigk contributed research to this story. Her book, "The Big Jump: The Tao of Travis Pastrana," co-written with Pastrana, is available in bookstores and by clicking here.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.