LEAP OF FAITH – Travis Pastrana Jumps Back Into Racing at Daytona

You know who Travis Pastrana is. Your neighbor knows who Travis Pastrana is. Heck, my 84-year-old grandmother knows who Travis Pastrana is! The point is that despite not even stepping foot on a motocross or Supercross racetrack in almost an entire year, Travis Pastrana is a household name, and one of the most popular mainstream icons our sport has ever offered to the general public. As much as some people love Travis, others just love to gossip about him, but we all missed seeing the lanky, controversial, and certifiably nuts rider from Davidsonville, Maryland, on the racetrack where most feel he belongs.

Capable of achieving seemingly impossible speeds on his works Suzuki RM250, TP has unfortunately sat out of professional racing since last year, when he tweaked his already-damaged knee at the 2003 Gravity Games. Even though he’s remained in the spotlight ever since for a variety of reasons, the biggest question on every Travis Pastrana fan in the world’s tongue for the last six months was ‘when is Travis coming back to race?”

In a last-minute decision, Travis recently ended the speculation, deciding just days before the legendary Daytona Supercross that he would make his return to racing in the sands of Florida during Bike Week 2004. Within minutes of the news, Internet message boards everywhere lit up like Christmas trees, all discussing the big news that Travis was back. Some encouraged his return while others denounced it, but either way it was obvious that the world was ready for Pastrana to be back on the track.

No one was more interested in the return of Travis than yours truly, an avid fan of both racing and freestyle; in my brain TP signifies the ultimate MX hero by possessing the skills to win at either discipline of the sport. With that mindset and my American Express Corporate Card in hand, I wasn’t about to miss Pastrana’s comeback. I booked a last-minute flight to Daytona so I could go watch my boy Travis rock the house!

The plan of attack was simple enough: I’d follow Pastrana around throughout the day, find out what it was like for him to be back on the starting line, and generally pester him until he refused to give me his infamous ‘thumbs-up” anymore. What resulted is the following timeline of events from that fateful fifth of March in Daytona Beach, the day that Travis Pastrana returned to Supercross racing.

>>11:06 a.m.

After checking in and getting my credentials, I headed over to the track walk to look for Pastrana. It didn’t take long for me to spot Travis; it’s tough to miss him. With his famous tall-and-lanky demeanor and trademarked huge smile, Travis was the center of attention down on the infield. Between waving to random people and making small talk with most of his fellow racers about track conditions, Travis’s cell phone intermittently rang. Whether it’s with the racers, the fans, or his friends and family, there’s no denying that TP is one busy kid.

Despite all of the commotion and chaos spiraling around him, though, Travis seemed completely absorbed with the layout of the track, the composition of the dirt and the possible jump combinations that might be had come riding time. After seeing how intent and engaged he was in learning the track under his feet, I waited until he finished the entire lap before saying hi and asking him about his decision to race Daytona instead of the scheduled St. Louis round that he had announced earlier as his comeback race.

‘I’m so excited!” proclaimed Pastrana with his usual enthusiasm. ‘Up until a little less than four weeks ago, it’s been seven months since I’ve touched a motorcycle of any kind. But my knee feels great, my speed is up, and Daytona is my kind of track, so I decided to come back a little early and see what I could do here.”

Originally planning on entering the event on a 125cc machine in hopes of going head-to-head with class winner James Stewart, Travis instead came to Daytona with his usual RM250 under the Suzuki semi truck ning. ‘Throughout the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing a bunch of testing, and both Roger DeCoster and I decided that it would be better for me to ride the 250cc class. My lap times have been very good so far in testing in comparison to my teammates, and I feel surprisingly strong and in shape. I’m really looking forward to tonight.”After a few more minutes of conversation, Travis quickly got to the point of his real reason for choosing Daytona as his comeback event. ‘I originally said that St. Louis would be my first race this year, because I love the soft dirt there and also like the fact that it has some of the shortest lap times of all the tracks, somewhere around 45-second lap times. But the more I rode, the better I felt, and Daytona is also sort of special to me. I won it two years in a row on my 125, and I’ve grown up riding sandy, rough tracks. I also feel that my size is an added advantage on a track like Daytona, so I went with it and now here I am!”

>>11:41 a.m.As Travis and I made our way back towards the yellow paddocks we ran into Rick Johnson, Team Suzuki’s riding coach and race advisor. Johnson and Pastrana were quickly engaged in a conversation about the sandy racecourse that lay before them, and as they talked shop and discussed strategies I realized that it was almost time for Travis to ride—practice started in just a little more than fifteen minutes.

Pastrana excused himself to go change into his new Thor race gear, so with that I decided to get some insight from Johnson into Travis’s return. I knew that Rick had spent the last few weeks testing and training with Travis, and alongside lifelong coach Gary Bailey would be offering his coaching services to TP throughout the day.

I asked Rick what it was like to work with Travis, how testing was going, and what he expected from the Boy Wonder. ‘The first day that we were out riding, I thought, ‘My God!’ He looked truly unbelievable. His speed in the sand, his composure in the soft corners, his consistency—he had it all! He was literally ten seconds a lap faster than some fast pros that were there that day. It was no fluke, either; he was running consistent lap times throughout his motos, all day long. It was pretty apparent that he was ready to race again.”

‘I really enjoy working with Travis, and think we are great together,” continued Johnson. ‘I use a lot of race car metaphors in my teaching, and he really gets them. After not much time at all doing time-testing, we were on the phone with Suzuki trying to make this whole Daytona thing happen based on his amazing speed. I honestly believe that if his fitness holds together, he will win tonight. Travis is that fast.”

>>11:56 p.m.When I say that Pastrana signs a million autographs a day, it’s not too far an exaggeration. Travis is the ultimate crowd darling, and he blows off no one. With only minutes to go before practice, Travis was still inundated with signing the hats, T-shirts and posters of the numerous fans that had gathered around him. How he maintains his tranquil demeanor at the races is beyond me, but Travis definitely knows how to play the game and treat his fans right. Pastrana signed autographs and chatted with the fans until the very last second, at which time he hopped on his RM and headed to the gate for practice.

>>12:02 p.m.With his boots snapped and his helmet fastened, Travis made his way down the infield of lush Daytona grass for the first time since being overcome with heat exhaustion in 2002’s Florida event. Before that, however, Travis owned the deep Daytona Beach soil for two consecutive years in the 125cc class, making it a special track to him. Pastrana kept staring over at the gnarled course to his left as he made his way down to the starting line, though I couldn’t tell if the intent gaze was one of strategy, excitement, or just plain nervousness.From the very beginning of practice Travis looked, as RJ had put it just minutes earlier, unbelievable on a bike. Incredible precision, smooth and flowing lines, and blazing speed down already chopped-out straights proved that Travis was indeed on his game today and ready as ever to race. After signing a million autographs while trying to exit the track and head back to his private ‘#199″ bus, Travis went to analyze his performance, mentally prepare himself for the race, and help his wrench-for-the-day Tony Berlutti make any final adjustments to the motorcycle before finally heading down to the qualifiers. Unfortunately for Travis, even rock stars with lap times rivaling or bettering Reed’s and K-Dub’s still had to qualify for the night show when entering with no 2004 AMA points.

>>3:24 p.m.Just one more lap remained in the qualifying heat that lined up prior to Pastrana’s, which meant that Travis could finally enjoy a brief few seconds of solitude and concentration before launching his bike down the grassy Daytona start straight. This is the time where he channels out all distractions and focuses on the job at hand. Travis chose to line up just to the left of the doghouse, next to a group of triple-digit riders who quickly realized why all of the flashes were firing and the media attention was on this third qualifier—Travis Pastrana’s first race in close to a year was about to begin!Of course it didn’t take Travis long to establish a gigantic lead over the pack of privateers, and it was a fairly uneventful runaway. After crossing the finish line well ahead of the pack, TP once again made some more fans’ days before heading back to—yep, you guessed it—sign more autographs at the Suzuki rig.

>>7:43 p.m.Over the course of the last few hours TP had to have significant hand pump from spelling his name so many times in a row on every poster that was shoved in front of him, but now it was time to race against the big boys.’I feel really confident going into my heat,” said Travis. ‘I know that my qualifier didn’t have the same caliber of riders that my heat will, but it felt great to be on the line again. I’m really excited to see what it’s going to be like racing against Windham and the rest of the factory guys now. The thing is, I know I have the speed because I proved it in practice with my lap times, but we’ll just have to see if I have 20 laps in me for the main!”

With that Travis threw on his lid and went to the starting line. Jumping off to a great start, it was Pastrana just behind Windham for the first several laps of the heat race. Giving K-Dub fits as he locked his radar on Kevin’s rear fender, Travis seemed to easily be running the pace. Still, with only a lap remaining it looked like the win was Windham’s for the taking until K-Dub made a very rare mistake and mistimed a jump section, catapulting himself off the track and Travis into the lead. Pastrana managed to hold on until the end, winning his first ‘real” race back against one of the riders he respects the most.

The win got both Pastrana and Suzuki on top of the podium for the first time in forever, and the pair wore huge smiles. At the end, Travis’s heat race wound up being over four seconds faster than the second heat race that Chad Reed won, making him seem like a definite favorite as far as raw speed was concerned. The sudden gossip in the pits about Pastrana was now about how smooth and polished he looked, and the majority of people were banking on at least a solid podium finish from him.

>>9:29 p.m.While the various consolation qualifiers got underway, Travis ended his brief celebration and headed back to the rig to go over race footage from his heat, talk with DeCoster, and charge up with some healthy food to keep him going in the upcoming main event.

Walking into the Suzuki pits, I got a strange vibe; both of happiness from the heat race win and nervousness and anxiety from the main that was scheduled to start in a half hour. It was clear that although the team was stoked on the win, they knew the night wasn’t even close to being over with.

I quietly tiptoedible precision, smooth and flowing lines, and blazing speed down already chopped-out straights proved that Travis was indeed on his game today and ready as ever to race. After signing a million autographs while trying to exit the track and head back to his private ‘#199″ bus, Travis went to analyze his performance, mentally prepare himself for the race, and help his wrench-for-the-day Tony Berlutti make any final adjustments to the motorcycle before finally heading down to the qualifiers. Unfortunately for Travis, even rock stars with lap times rivaling or bettering Reed’s and K-Dub’s still had to qualify for the night show when entering with no 2004 AMA points.

>>3:24 p.m.Just one more lap remained in the qualifying heat that lined up prior to Pastrana’s, which meant that Travis could finally enjoy a brief few seconds of solitude and concentration before launching his bike down the grassy Daytona start straight. This is the time where he channels out all distractions and focuses on the job at hand. Travis chose to line up just to the left of the doghouse, next to a group of triple-digit riders who quickly realized why all of the flashes were firing and the media attention was on this third qualifier—Travis Pastrana’s first race in close to a year was about to begin!Of course it didn’t take Travis long to establish a gigantic lead over the pack of privateers, and it was a fairly uneventful runaway. After crossing the finish line well ahead of the pack, TP once again made some more fans’ days before heading back to—yep, you guessed it—sign more autographs at the Suzuki rig.

>>7:43 p.m.Over the course of the last few hours TP had to have significant hand pump from spelling his name so many times in a row on every poster that was shoved in front of him, but now it was time to race against the big boys.’I feel really confident going into my heat,” said Travis. ‘I know that my qualifier didn’t have the same caliber of riders that my heat will, but it felt great to be on the line again. I’m really excited to see what it’s going to be like racing against Windham and the rest of the factory guys now. The thing is, I know I have the speed because I proved it in practice with my lap times, but we’ll just have to see if I have 20 laps in me for the main!”

With that Travis threw on his lid and went to the starting line. Jumping off to a great start, it was Pastrana just behind Windham for the first several laps of the heat race. Giving K-Dub fits as he locked his radar on Kevin’s rear fender, Travis seemed to easily be running the pace. Still, with only a lap remaining it looked like the win was Windham’s for the taking until K-Dub made a very rare mistake and mistimed a jump section, catapulting himself off the track and Travis into the lead. Pastrana managed to hold on until the end, winning his first ‘real” race back against one of the riders he respects the most.

The win got both Pastrana and Suzuki on top of the podium for the first time in forever, and the pair wore huge smiles. At the end, Travis’s heat race wound up being over four seconds faster than the second heat race that Chad Reed won, making him seem like a definite favorite as far as raw speed was concerned. The sudden gossip in the pits about Pastrana was now about how smooth and polished he looked, and the majority of people were banking on at least a solid podium finish from him.

>>9:29 p.m.While the various consolation qualifiers got underway, Travis ended his brief celebration and headed back to the rig to go over race footage from his heat, talk with DeCoster, and charge up with some healthy food to keep him going in the upcoming main event.

Walking into the Suzuki pits, I got a strange vibe; both of happiness from the heat race win and nervousness and anxiety from the main that was scheduled to start in a half hour. It was clear that although the team was stoked on the win, they knew the night wasn’t even close to being over with.

I quietly tiptoed into the rig, where Travis and his teammate Sean Hamblin were discussing the track. The two were kind enough to let me snap a few shots of them in the rider’s lounge of the semi, and just after I got the pictures I needed DeCoster came in with a face so serious it looked like it was made of stone, booting me from the bowels of the Suzuki rig to have a one-on-one strategizing session with the one person who had a legitimate shot at delivering a yellow 250cc main event win in 2004.

>>10:08 p.m.It was now main event time, and although Travis didn’t deliver the holeshot that his team was on the sidelines praying for, he did jump off to a respectable start and by the end of lap one he was already in second place, directly behind Team Yamaha’s Chad Reed. Things were getting really interesting really quickly; Travis seemed to be running the pace with ease, and with Windham getting a bad start the two quickly opened up a sizeable gap on the rest of the field. Travis was proving everyone that had doubted him over the last week or two wrong, sitting in serious contention for a surprise, upset win.

‘I had a really good pace going behind Reed, one that I felt totally comfortable running. I knew I had to be smart out there and not push it too hard in the beginning—the track was getting so rough!” said Travis afterwards. ‘It was just before the halfway point that I ran into trouble, and it hit me quickly. The next thing I knew, my tongue was dragging in the spokes and I was barely able to hang on. It’s so weird; I could go for days on the roughest track while testing and preparing for Daytona, but in the race it’s a whole different story.”

As Travis began to deflate and work his way backwards through the pack, he showed incredible maturity by making sure to hang on and not get hurt. Pastrana put the cruise control on for the last half of the race, but thanks to incredible lap times early on he managed a top-10 finish at the checkers. It may not have been the podium finish that he was thinking he would leave Florida with, but the race was still a huge success for Travis and the entire Suzuki squadron.

‘My knee felt really good the whole time, and overall my body held up great, which was good considering how rough this track is. Still, I really thought that I had more under the hood than I did,” Travis admitted after the race while signing more autographs. ‘I proved that my speed is there, I just need to get back into race shape so I don’t fade. I really thought I had a shot at the podium, but the race did tell me that all I need to do is get back in shape and I should be right in the mix.”

Travis’s performance at Daytona was one he should be genuinely proud of. He was smart, conservative (for Travis, anyway), and most importantly, fast on his motorcycle. Whether or not he’ll be on the line at any more Supercross or National races this year remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Racing is a hell of a lot more interesting with Travis Pastrana back in it! iptoed into the rig, where Travis and his teammate Sean Hamblin were discussing the track. The two were kind enough to let me snap a few shots of them in the rider’s lounge of the semi, and just after I got the pictures I needed DeCoster came in with a face so serious it looked like it was made of stone, booting me from the bowels of the Suzuki rig to have a one-on-one strategizing session with the one person who had a legitimate shot at delivering a yellow 250cc main event win in 2004.

>>10:08 p.m.It was now main event time, and although Travis didn’t deliver the holeshot that his team was on the sidelines praying for, he did jump off to a respectable start and by the end of lap one he was already in second place, directly behind Team Yamaha’s Chad Reed. Things were getting really interesting really quickly; Travis seemed to be running the pace with ease, and with Windham getting a bad start the two quickly opened up a sizeable gap on the rest of the field. Travis was proviing everyone that had doubted him over the last week or two wrong, sitting in serious contention for a surprise, upset win.

‘I had a really good pace going behind Reed, one that I felt totally comfortable running. I knew I had to be smart out there and not push it too hard in the beginning—the track was getting so rough!” said Travis afterwards. ‘It was just before the halfway point that I ran into trouble, and it hit me quickly. The next thing I knew, my tongue was dragging in the spokes and I was barely able to hang on. It’s so weird; I could go for days on the roughest track while testing and preparing for Daytona, but in the race it’s a whole different story.”

As Travis began to deflate and work his way backwards through the pack, he showed incredible maturity by making sure to hang on and not get hurt. Pastrana put the cruise control on for the last half of the race, but thanks to incredible lap times early on he managed a top-10 finish at the checkers. It may not have been the podium finish that he was thinking he would leave Florida with, but the race was still a huge success for Travis and the entire Suzuki squadron.

‘My knee felt really good the whole time, and overall my body held up great, which was good considering how rough this track is. Still, I really thought that I had more under the hood than I did,” Travis admitted after the race while signing more autographs. ‘I proved that my speed is there, I just need to get back into race shape so I don’t fade. I really thought I had a shot at the podium, but the race did tell me that all I need to do is get back in shape and I should be right in the mix.”

Travis’s performance at Daytona was one he should be genuinely proud of. He was smart, conservative (for Travis, anyway), and most importantly, fast on his motorcycle. Whether or not he’ll be on the line at any more Supercross or National races this year remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Racing is a hell of a lot more interesting with Travis Pastrana back in it!