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SBJ/July 25-31, 2011/People and Pop Culture
Pastrana's daring leap between demos
Will action star bring young fans to NASCAR?
Published July 25, 2011, Page 1
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“Hey, man,” the 9-year-old boy said to Pastrana. “I watch ‘Nitro Circus’ and I can’t wait to see you start NASCAR.”
Pastrana’s eyes widened. He’d never heard anyone mention ‘Nitro Circus,’ his daredevil reality show on MTV, and NASCAR in the same sentence.
Waltrip’s company gave Pastrana equity in the Nationwide team and spent last year working on a business plan for his arrival in NASCAR.
That’s what everyone across Michael Waltrip Racing, NASCAR and Wasserman Media Group, which represents Pastrana, hopes will happen when Pastrana brings his nice-guy image and thrill-seeking personality to the Nationwide Series this Saturday at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. It will be the first of seven races he plans to run in NASCAR this year.
Other action sports athletes, such as Ricky Carmichael, and accomplished drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya have made similar jumps into NASCAR. But few could mean as much to the sport as Pastrana does today, with NASCAR desperate to grow its fan base and eager to appeal to youth.
Pastrana, 26, connects with young people as well as any athlete in sports. He has 2.8 million fans on Facebook, 170,668 followers on Twitter and a show on MTV2. He’s so popular that a YouTube video he recently filmed with three scantily clad dancing grannies netted more than 250,000 views in its first week.
It’s that type of appeal that inspired Michael Waltrip Racing to gamble and give the action sports star equity in its Nationwide Series team, which was renamed Pastrana Waltrip Racing last fall.
“It’s not just a NASCAR initiative, or a Michael Waltrip Racing initiative,” said Waltrip general manager Ty Norris. “This is a youth initiative. The youth market is something so important to us going forward, and what we see in Travis is not only a guy with incredible passion and desire to be a champion … but one who also has a massive following.”
Executives with Waltrip Racing and Wasserman spent the better part of the last year working on a business plan that would put Pastrana in position to bring that following to NASCAR. In the span of six months, they forged an unprecedented partnership, secured sponsorship support, haggled with NASCAR over issues including car numbers, and worked with the X Games staff to schedule freestyle motocross and rally car events around the Nationwide race so that Pastrana could do both.
“The vision of where this Pastrana Waltrip team could go has been pursued with a lot of passion from a tremendous amount of people,” Norris said. “I’ve probably said Travis Pastrana’s name more than my wife and kids’ names combined in the last six months. It’s what I’ve been talking about because I know personally, and we know as a group, what Travis can mean to the sport. We hope that we can do it right. The sport needs it.”
‘Come drive our car’
On New Year’s Eve in 2010, Blake Bechtel, the 28-year-old who co-owns the Michael Waltrip Racing Nationwide Series team with his father Gary Bechtel, climbed in a car with a then unknown stock-car driver named Trevor Bayne and headed to Long Beach, Calif., to see Travis Pastrana jump a rally car 200 feet onto a floating barge.
Bechtel, who moved to California in his teens and became a fan of supercross, motocross and action sports, had always dreamed of bringing some of action sports’ cool factor to his NASCAR team.
During the after party celebrating Pastrana’s successful jump, Bechtel approached the X Games star and introduced him to Bayne.
“You need to come drive our car, man,” Bechtel told Pastrana.
“Really?” Pastrana said. “That’d be great.”
Pastrana had spent the previous three years pestering his agent, Steve Astephen, to find him a ride in NASCAR. Astephen thought it was a joke, but Pastrana was really interested, and Bechtel picked up on that. He left that night and called Waltrip Racing’s Norris to tell him about meeting Pastrana.
“I had no idea what the structure would be, but we knew if there was any way we could get him in a race car, that would be the best decision we ever made,” Bechtel said.
Bechtel stayed in touch with Pastrana’s representatives at Wasserman, and late that spring, he and Norris went to the agency’s Carlsbad, Calif., office to discuss Pastrana. The Wasserman team, led by Astephen and Pastrana’s business manager, Travis Clarke, said it was looking for investors for a Pastrana-owned supercross team. Norris had a different idea. What if, instead of a supercross team, Pastrana became an owner of a NASCAR Nationwide Series team?
“We’ll put Travis’ name on it,” Norris said. “Travis has to stay Travis. He can do everything … he wants to do. Ultimately, if we do this right, we can build a race team that’s an umbrella for all the race things Travis does — rally, supercross, motocross.”
The offer was better than Astephen and Clarke could have imagined.
“When we met with other teams, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, Travis would be great for our team. We’ll pay him a bunch of money,’” Clarke said. “That’s not what we were looking for. Ty was selling us on what we were selling everyone else. It was a no-brainer.”
The two sides cut a deal to create Pastrana Waltrip Racing. Gary Bechtel, who is the team’s primary investor, gave Pastrana a stake in the team. (Astephen wouldn’t discuss business terms, but said Pastrana did put in some equity.) The sales teams at Wasserman and Waltrip Racing then began to search for sponsorship.
Astephen and Clarke wanted a lifestyle company that matched Pastrana’s personality. The duo reached out to companies already sponsoring Pastrana, as well as some that had sponsored him in the past. Damion Roberson, a team manager at Boost Mobile, liked the idea and began working with Wasserman on the framework of an agreement before Waltrip Racing had even announced its partnership with Pastrana.
“We thought, regardless of his reception and traction with race fans, there were so many Pastrana fans squarely in the target for us,” said Tim Considine, director of sports marketing at Sprint, which owns Boost. “If he gained any traction in the sport and race fans got behind him, that would just be gravy.”
New look for NASCAR
On a fall day at around 6 a.m., as the deal was still being worked out, Pastrana and a handful of executives from Wasserman and Waltrip Racing met the NASCAR Media Group at Charlotte Motor Speedway to film a video announcing Pastrana’s move to NASCAR.
The video began with a black screen that read, “Is NASCAR ready for Travis Pastrana?” Then Pastrana appeared inside a stock car banging on the roof saying, “Come on, man, I know how to turn left. Let me out.” His friend Hubert Rowland pulled a tarp off the car, unveiling a yellow Toyota with skid marks and don’t-turn-right decals. The 90-second video debuted online and netted more than 200,000 views. ESPN showed it in its entirety.
Pastrana, shown driving in practice for a K&N Pro Series West race in February, will make his Nationwide Series debut this Saturday.
Norris liked the idea and took it to Astephen, who worked with X Games staff to schedule the freestyle motocross best-trick competition on Thursday and the rally cross event on Sunday. The schedule meant Pastrana could commute between Los Angeles and Indianapolis to compete in X Games on Thursday, NASCAR on Saturday and X Games on Sunday. The trifecta of Pastrana on ESPN was exactly what Norris had envisioned.
“Right out of the box, it’s exposing the sport to new people,” Norris said.
After the deal with Boost closed, Astephen and Norris began to talk about what Pastrana’s paint scheme would look like. Astephen wanted Pastrana to race in the No. 199 car. The number had been synonymous with Pastrana since his amateur motocross days, but NASCAR had never had a three-digit number before, and denied the request.
Astephen looked for an alternative. Eventually, he and Norris came up with the idea of ghosting the number into the side of the car. The resulting paint scheme features the faint outline of a black 1 filled in with grey Boost logos alongside two orange 9s.
The car made its debut in January in downtown Los Angeles. Afterward, Pastrana drove the car up Hollywood Boulevard and took it to Dodger Stadium, which was hosting a supercross race.
“When I saw Travis walking around there, I kept looking over to everyone with me and saying, ‘We have Dale [Earnhardt] Jr.,’” Norris said. “We were in awe of him. It confirmed for us he had the star power and the charisma.”
Pastrana’s transition to NASCAR will be filled with adjustments for both sides. After his debut in a regional stock car series race at Irwindale Speedway, Pastrana went into the stands to sign autographs and take pictures with fans. A NASCAR public relations official rushed over to take him to the post-race press conference, but Pastrana’s team at Wasserman intervened and asked them to let the other drivers speak first.
“This is what Travis does after a race,” Clarke said. “He goes and sees the fans. They weren’t used to that.”
Pastrana is expected to push the envelope in other ways. A BASE jumping enthusiast, he’s asked about the possibility of parachuting into a speedway for his driver introduction. And there’s always the possibility of him doing a motocross demo before an event.
Pastrana’s “Nitro Circus” finds a young audience on MTV2.
Pastrana doesn’t have high expectations for his performance this season, but he is committed to getting better. If he improves, then he will move from seven races in 2011 to 20-plus races in 2012, to full time in 2013. The ultimate goal is the Daytona 500 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2014.
The teams at Wasserman and Waltrip will be watching his performance closely. Their deal with Boost was a one-year agreement, and they have to sell those 20-plus Nationwide races and rally cross inventory in 2012.
Norris’ long-term vision is to turn Pastrana Waltrip Racing into a feeder system for young drivers and sponsors at Michael Waltrip Racing that allows both groups to benefit from Pastrana’s youth appeal and coolness factor. Astephen wants to turn the team into the umbrella motorsports program with supercross and motocross teams like Norris first pitched a year ago.
But everyone knows those plans will have to wait until after this Thursday’s X Games. Pastrana is planning to try again to land a freestyle motocross trick called the Toilet Roll. He failed to land it at the Staples Center in 2009 and wound up hobbling out of the arena. He said he is landing it 80 percent of the time in practice, and that margin of error is still a big concern for everyone behind the Nationwide Series team.
“His trick is not dialed for Thursday yet, and this whole f---ing thing could blow up in our face,” Astephen said.
Speaking last week during a press conference at Michael Waltrip Racing’s shop in North Carolina, Pastrana said he wasn’t thinking about that. He was concentrating on tackling one event at a time.
After he explained that to the press, he introduced himself to a 10-year-old named Jack Robinson, who was waiting for an autograph. Pastrana signed the boy’s Pastrana Waltrip hat and listened as his mom, Ann, explained that the crescent-shaped scar Jack’s cheek was from a dirt bike accident.
“They have their own ‘Nitro Circus’ in the backyard,” Ann said.
“Uh oh,” Pastrana said, grinning widely.
It was the second time in the same week he’d had a conversation about “Nitro Circus” and NASCAR. Maybe the demographics aren’t that different after all.