The Wheel Man
Travis Pastrana is fearless, reckless
or just plain nuts.
At least that’s what I thought, having watched him defy physics and gravity for the last 20 years. Pastrana came onto the extreme sports scene as a teenager, just as this outlier of the sports world was gaining mass interest. He did things with a dirt bike that looked impossible, and quickly rose to the top of his field.
As his skills developed, he looked for new challenges. He jumped into rally car racing with Subaru, zipping cars through all kinds of terrain and earning respect from the racing world. He broke several of Evel Knievel’s records, jumping over 52 cars, 16 buses and the Caesar’s Vegas fountain—a total of 484 feet—in a single night, without crashing. He’s jumped out of a plane without a parachute (not recommended) and raced NASCAR. There’s little this thrill junkie has not done, except run an offshore racing boat. That’s about to change.
In early 2020, the Miss Geico Racing Team announced that Pastrana would be driving one of the world’s premier racing boats, a 3000-hp, 47-foot catamaran capable of eclipsing the 200-mph mark. Because he’s involved in multiple projects, Pastrana will be splitting the driving duties with his longtime friend, Brit Lilly.
There is no questioning the 35-year-old’s toughness. He’s been put back together again more times than an old outboard. He once dislocated his spine from his pelvis. But the funny thing is, he’s just about the happiest guy I’ve ever met, full of humility and a zest for life built upon pushing the edge. But how will that drive and his skills behind the wheel translate on the water?
I spoke to Pastrana via FaceTime to get his thoughts on the transition from track to sea.
How did this whole boat racing partnership come about?
Art Lilly, who is a couple-time world offshore racing champion, and my dad were really good friends. I’ve known Brit Lilly, Art’s son, since before I can remember. We were literally born in the same hospital. Brit went the boat route, so when I turned 15 or 16 we kind of split apart. He was working on boats, building his own stuff, racing with his dad. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, when our season was done, we’d hang out and he’d be like, “We’ve got to get you in the boat.” Last year, he said, “Man, it’s time. I’ve got a better boat, a bigger boat. I’m going to let you run it if you want it.” I thought he was joking so I said yeah, and it kind of went from there. I had a blast. It’s a chance to do something way above where I should be, especially jumping in with Miss Geico, which is like top tier. It’s scary but also really exciting. I haven’t had a challenge outside of my element since I started racing rally when I was 19 or 20.
You had no formal training? You just strapped in and went for it?
I grew up on the water. We had jet skis and 60-mph Checkmate boats, so I’ve been around boats my whole life, but when I was 16 we shifted to motorcycles and race car stuff. I have a good sense of how not to crash. I know I’ve crashed a lot of things, but through crashing things—everything from trophy trucks to go-karts to monster trucks—you get a feel for when things are going to roll. And then you work the capability of your vehicle. I have a world champion throttle man [Steve Curtis] who is going to put me into the corner at the speed the boat can do and we will build up our confidence together. Hopefully he will believe in me, and I already believe in him. Call it blind faith, but he’s not going to put me in a corner faster than what the boat can handle.
Do you think having had a partner in rally racing is a good primer for offshore boat racing?
My whole life, in individual sports, whether it was BMX or skydiving or whatever I was doing, when shit hit the fan, I blocked everything out and was in my own little bubble. Well, when you’re in rally and you put a tire over a cliff in the snow at night at 120 mph and you’re in a bottom-of-the-ninth situation and about to die, your co-driver is still reading notes because he knows the next course change is coming up just as fast. He’s assuming you’re going to make it. Every time for the first two years, when I had a moment, I almost had to stop and learn how to take in information. That helped me in NASCAR. It helped me be able to talk to the spotter and understand what he was saying and make those adjustments. I think it will be good getting in the boat and figuring out how to listen and take that information in.
These boats can run close to 200 mph. How fast is “fast”for you these days?
Speed is relative to what your surroundings are: 50 mph in really narrow trees in a canyon is scary, and 180 at Daytona is nothing. But on the water, I know just from growing up and getting pulled in a tube, the boat did 50 and I’m sure when we got swung around we were doing 60. Water hurts at 60. I can’t imagine what it feels like faster.
How do you manage the risk involved to do the things you do?
That’s an interesting question. In action sports, everyone always says you have to be crazy, but the crazy ones get hurt before they get good. The ones who can analyze risk understand when it’s worth it to take the Hail Mary and when it’s not. Risk and reward changes. I have two little girls now, and that’s become a huge priority for me. You have those moments where you can step up and it’s worth it. For instance, two years ago I wanted to do this trick I had been working on for literally 10 years. It was a double back flip and full twist on a dirt bike. There was no money on the line, just some people out back. It was the perfect setup. I’d been riding a lot and felt good. I knocked myself out on the first jump. I hit so hard that I actually shit myself. I’m sitting there with the wind knocked out of me, and I’m thinking to myself, “If I don’t get up and try this again right now, this trick will never get done.” Poop in my pants and all, I went up and did the trick for no money, no anything, and still to this day I’m the only person to do a double back flip with a full twist on a dirt bike. Does it matter? Absolutely not. But for me, I knew it was possible, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t try it. Now with boat racing, I have the chance to take on something that is definitely scary and does have risk, but I want to show my girls the family element that’s part of boat racing. You can have fun and work hard. As a father, I feel this is a good step.
I thought you’d say it’s the competition that fuels you.
To hear you say you did that trick for yourself, and not for some gold medal, is surprising. Don’t you hate to lose?
That’s what racing is for. I love freestyle, but it’s proving to yourself what’s possible. That you can do it. Even one-upping your friends or doing something that everyone says is impossible. Racing is awesome because style doesn’t matter—winning is winning. The competition drives everything. In the 2003 X Games I went out and had two tricks I wanted to do that I knew I could do, but I didn’t need to do them to win. So I didn’t do them. And I won. Sitting up there with the gold medal, I’ve never been so disappointed in myself in my entire life. Yeah, I got the money, but I had worked so hard for a whole year on these two tricks and I had to wait two more years before I ended up doing them. Not that anyone else knew. Not that it mattered to anyone, but for me, freestyle was about style. There’s no finish line.
What did it feel like when you first got in one of these race boats, with all that horsepower behind you and not much in the water?
I still don’t really know. I’m going to get in at the practice day without ever having really driven that boat. We will practice in other boats that are very similar, but they say it will be harder to drive the slower boat. Last year, I went down [to a race in Florida] to practice. They were having some trouble with a motor, and on my first practice lap the engine blew up again. We thought we were out of the race, but someone who had a boat there said, “If you can find a co-driver, you can go race this boat.” That morning we signed up and found a throttle man who was down there on vacation. I went into the first turn at a 110 mph, heading toward shore where the waves were breaking with a guy I didn’t know in a boat I had never driven in a race I had never done, and I just smiled the whole way, thinking this is the greatest thing ever.
I would think it’s nice to have a throttle man so you can focus on driving?
I’m crazy but I’m not stupid. I wouldn’t have signed up to do this at this level without having someone so experienced sitting beside me. He tells me how fast we’re coming into a corner. And as a wheel man, I honestly believe, like all drivers, that I can drive anything. This will be a great year to find out if that’s a reality or not.
To win I would think you have to be right on the edge, pushing it as far as you can.
Everyone on the Miss Geico team has been awesome. We expect Brit to be a little bit more competitive right off the bat, but with me they’re like, “Just don’t crash the boat.” It’s the same thing Subaru told me my first year in rally, and that first year didn’t go so well. I crashed in three out of five races, and they said, “If you do that again, you’re not going to have a seat.” They said, “We don’t want you to be top three, we want you to finish every single race.” I started out with a fifth and a fourth and at the end of year, I ended up with two wins, not because I was pushing or taking chances, but because I was taking what was available and capitalizing on other people’s mistakes and problems. Hopefully that’s how this year goes. We will do the best we can do as a team. Maybe water is something I won’t be able to figure out, but the more variables and the more that the driver has to compensate for, the better I’ve been able to do. Pavement has always been very difficult for me. I’m the guy who burns the tires off. I like rally, where you have different conditions and variables. You’re not going to be able to set the vehicle up just perfect, you’re going to have to drive through it. I feel the ocean definitely plays into my wheelhouse.