- Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN whose assignments have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. (Follow @alyroe on Twitter).
Action sports icon Travis Pastrana is talking with a reporter at the Daytona International Speedway media center on Wednesday afternoon when his eyes dart to a guy in a blue fire suit walking his way.
“Jimmie!” Pastrana, 39, says as the man approaches.
“Travis. You made it,” seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 47, replies. He smiles wide and pulls Pastrana in for a hug. The two men, one a rookie, the other a great, are here with the same goal: to qualify for Sunday’s 65th running of the Daytona 500.
Johnson and Pastrana are two of six drivers hoping to race their way into the 40-car field. Four will make the grid: two on Wednesday night and two on Thursday. Despite their pedigrees, qualifying is not a given for either of them.
Pastrana is returning to the sport for the first time after an inauspicious couple of years in NASCAR’s Xfinity series in 2012-2013. He’s never driven the NextGen car NASCAR debuted last year. Johnson, who retired from the sport in 2020, is returning as a team owner of the rebranded Legacy Motor Club with fellow seven-time champ Richard Petty. He’s driven the NextGen car once, about a month ago, but never on the banked turns of Daytona’s infamous tri-oval. There is more excitement around this year’s qualifying field, which also includes IndyCar driver Conor Daly and current NASCAR Truck Series champion Zane Smith, than perhaps ever before.
“This is truly an honor, man,” Pastrana says. He’s dressed in a gray-and-white-flannel fire suit and black hat. “This is too fun.”
A media scrum gathers to watch their reunion. It’s been a few years since the two men were in the same place, and with their jam-packed schedules this week, they don’t know if they’ll have an opportunity for a private moment. So they ask about each other’s wives and daughters. “If I qualify, they get here Sunday,” Pastrana says. “My girls have a cheerleading competition Saturday night.” Johnson says his family arrives a day earlier. “Evie has a horse competition in Tampa on Friday,” he says.
“Are Jimmie and Travis friends?” one journalist asks the group. They shrug. “That would be cool.”
It would be more than cool. It would be the setup for the greatest motorsports buddy film of all time. Forget Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights.” Pastrana, a motocross racer turned freestyle star turned rally champion, and Johnson, a motocross and truck racer turned stock car driver with 83 wins in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, both attempting to qualify for Daytona would be part road movie, part action bromance, with a 20-year friendship at its core. Call it “Daytona Days,” the kind of movie that’s laced with humor, conflict, the self-discovery that arises from loss and failure and two of the greatest American motorsports athletes attempting to qualify for the Great American Race.
That story might read something like this:
EXT. STADE DE FRANCE, PARIS — DAY (FLASHBACK)
The first time Johnson and Pastrana really get to know each other is when they sign on to represent Team USA at the 2006 Race of Champions, an international event that pits drivers from various disciplines in head-to-head racing. Johnson is intrigued by his teammate, but he isn’t certain Pastrana has the driving experience or patience to help him bring home his second win. “I felt like we had a good chance, but I also felt like the guy was in full ‘send-it mode’ all the time,” Johnson says. “We were either going to win or it was going to be something everybody talked about for years to come.”
But a week before the race, Johnson calls Pastrana with bad news: He broke his left wrist. He’d won his first Sprint Cup championship a week earlier and after five days of sponsor and media requirements, he was ready to celebrate. He flew to Florida to play in a friend’s charity golf tournament and the drinking started on the flight down. It continued on the course until around 2 p.m., when Johnson climbed on top of his golf cart while a friend drove, perhaps too fast, and took a sharp turn. He fell. “I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t stick the landing surfing a golf cart,” Johnson says. “I hung TP out to dry.”
When efforts to replace Johnson fail, Pastrana gets permission to race the event solo, the only driver ever to do so. Johnson reshuffles his priorities to become Team USA’s head cheerleader and, “make sure we threw the best parties,” he says.
Four thousand miles from home and with few commitments outside of the races, the men begin to realize they’re more alike than they thought. Like how, at 4, they both received their first dirt bikes: a red and white Yamaha PW 50 for Pastrana and a 1979 yellow Yamaha JR50 for Johnson. Or their modest, blue-collar beginnings and how they each raced trophy trucks in the Baja 1000 but crashed out in spectacular fashion.
Pastrana had been a fan of Johnson’s for as long as he could remember. Johnson, like so many motocross fans, once believed Pastrana, a champion by age 16, was destined to be the next great Supercross star. “Then I started hearing about his freestyle motocross interest and the inner racer in me was like, ‘What is this guy doing?'” Johnson says. “He’s supposed to be the greatest talent the sport’s seen. I wasn’t a hater. I just didn’t get it.”
In Paris, Johnson starts to understand. He’s talking to Pastrana about tactics during a break between races when a track official interrupts. “He says, ‘Travis, you’re up,'” Johnson says. He turns to see the track crew has set up a metal ramp on the floor of the arena. In addition to racing every round, Pastrana is also the entertainment.
Pastrana jumps on his bike, hits the ramp and does a backflip. He comes back, hops off and picks up the conversation with Johnson right where he left it. “I watched him switch from goofy Travis to the guy who can go and nail something that can kill him, back to goofy Travis. I would be s—-ing my pants worrying about that backflip. On top of it, he had to focus and race again. His brain works so differently.”
Over two days of racing, Johnson sees Pastrana as a student and competitor. No one considers him to be a threat. But he takes Team USA all the way to the final, where he finishes second to the Finnish team. Johnson loses his voice cheering from the stands. While he watches, it sinks in why a rider with Pastrana’s talent would walk away from racing full-time. The guy he watched land a backflip in the middle of a two-day car race would never be happy buckled down by one sport.
“When I got to know Travis and truly understand his DNA, I realized he was destined to be a freestyle, showman-type person his whole life,” Johnson says. “He wasn’t a racer who quit. He was a showman who was trying to make it work in racing.”
At the bar and team parties, Pastrana sees Johnson as more than the buttoned-up phenom who always says and does the right things. “It was really cool to have my hero cheering me on,” Pastrana says. “I got to see that Jimmie’s so much fun. From that point, we became good friends and had mutual respect.” He saw No. 48 let his hair down, but only behind closed doors.
“I surprised Travis with how relaxed I could be and how much fun I could have. But because of my journey, I couldn’t do that publicly,” Johnson says. “In motorsport, we’re so concerned about chasing the corporate dollar, self-promotion, taking the high road. But that came at a price. Travis is one of the early thinkers who was listening to his heart and said, ‘That’s not my lane.'”
INT. DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY — WEDNESDAY, FEB. 15, 3:30 P.M.
Pastrana steps onto a red carpet lined with broadcast cameras as rows of journalists raise their tripods to accommodate his height. At 6-foot-2, he is one of the tallest drivers in the field. At each stop, they ask three main questions:
Why Daytona? Why now? Can you make Sunday’s race?
Pastrana answers with consistent details and varying degrees of flair. When he drops into storytelling mode, he does not use an inside voice. He moves as if each memory is stored in a different part of his body and a jolt of an elbow or a nod of his head might knock it loose and send it careening out of his mouth. “I grew up watching the 500 with my family,” he says. “It was a holiday in my house. Racing the 500 is a bucket-list item. It’s my childhood dream.”
But he doesn’t have to do this, set himself up for public failure by returning to a sport the public watched him fail at a decade ago. But Pastrana is not in Daytona to prove anything to anyone. He’s here for the same reason he wanted to land the first double backflip on a dirt bike when no one believed it was possible: because he believes he can. Because he would never forgive himself if he didn’t try. Because this might be his best and only chance.
Over the past few years, Pastrana’s had more seat time and success than ever in his driving career. He’s gotten better on pavement, has sponsors who are willing to support his dream and is ready for the opportunity. And there’s something else pulling him toward this moment: the life he wants after it. “My biggest focus after Daytona is to be the best dad and husband I can,” he says. “And that’s going to take me stepping back from at least some of the racing I’ve been doing.”
Last year, Pastrana suffered one of the worst injuries and two of the toughest losses of his life. In September, his longtime friend Ron Meredith died after a crash at a motocross track. Four months later, Ken Block, his close friend, mentor and rally competitor, died in a snowmobile accident. “So much of what I’m able to do is because Ken built a sport around having fun sliding cars,” Pastrana says. “When he and Ron died, I realized life is fragile. I love everything I do, but I need to spend time with my kids because tomorrow’s not guaranteed.”
As for his goals with 23XI, the Michael Jordan-owned team that’s giving him this opportunity, “First, my goal is to qualify. That’s a win,” Pastrana says on the red carpet. “This is the only event I’ve ever entered without the expectation to win. I want to be part of Sunday’s grid, race confidently and smart, get to the end of the race and not cause drama on the track.”
“Oh no. Did I hear Pastrana say, ‘drama?'” NASCAR champ Brad Keselowski says from the other end of the carpet, loud enough for the room to hear.
“I said, ‘NO drama,'” Pastrana says.
A few minutes later, Pastrana walks by Johnson, who’s giving a live TV interview. “It’s surreal to say the least,” Johnson says of his return to NASCAR. He speaks with the calm, measured focus and precision of a politician, pausing on key moments to allow the listener space to feel their impact or laugh at a well-timed joke. The announcers lean in to hear him. “Just when you guys thought you were going to get rid of me,” he says, “I’m back.”
Off-camera, Pastrana catches Johnson’s eye and starts jumping up and down, waving his arms, making faces, trying to get him to break.
But like any great NASCAR driver, Johnson rarely breaks.
INT. PASTRANA’S HOUSE — NIGHT (FLASHBACK)
Pastrana has gathered an A-list crew of action and motorsports stars at his home for a weekend of debauchery he dubs the “Nitrothon.” Two-man teams of NASCAR, IndyCar, Monster Truck and action sports athletes are competing for bragging rights in go-kart driving, truck racing and, of course, drinking. “People are flipping cars, jumping rental cars into the foam pit,” Pastrana says. “It was the rowdiest party ever.”
Johnson is amidst an unprecedented five in a row Cup Series championship run, in the middle of NASCAR’s 2008 playoffs, and his schedule this weekend is tight. He has less than 24 hours between testing and a TV appearance in New York City. No one really believes he will show. No one but Pastrana, that is.
Johnson is a day late to the party when he arrives at Fuji, a Japanese steakhouse not far from Pastrana’s home in Davidsonville, Maryland. “I walk into the restaurant, and the guys tell me to close my eyes and open my mouth,” Johnson says. “They put an uncooked egg in my mouth and told me I had to eat it.” He does.
After dinner, the group returns to Pastrana’s house for the “Barstool Olympics,” a triple crown of beer pong, foosball and the arcade game Big Buck Hunter. Pastrana loves the game so much he worked a tournament into his bachelor party and competed in the Big Buck Hunter World Championship in Chicago, where he finished eighth. “There were also bonus points for the team that stayed up the latest,” says Johnson, whose flight to New York leaves at 5 a.m.
Right on script, the competition comes down to two: Team NASCAR vs. Team X Games. “I beat Travis in a heads-up shootout on Big Buck Hunter and he loses his mind,” Johnson says.
“It was one of the most devastating moments of my life,” Pastrana says. Win secured, Johnson heads to his hotel for a few hours of sleep before his flight to New York City. Right?
“No way. Now we’re going for the bonus points,” he says. “And guys are dropping like flies. Travis talked a big game, but I’ve noticed he’s not the strongest in the drinking department.”
Sure enough, around 2 a.m., Johnson realizes Pastrana has disappeared.
He gathers a few of the guys and they embark on another round of Big Buck Hunter, only this time, Pastrana is the hunted. They find a sledgehammer, a leaf blower and a pair of boxing gloves in the garage and return to the house. But Pastrana has locked his bedroom door.
One guy sledgehammers the door open, another blows the comforter off Pastrana. Johnson puts on the boxing glove. When Pastrana sits up?
“I punch him in the face,” Johnson says.
EXT. DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY — WEDNESDAY, FEB. 15, 6:30 P.M.
Two hours before qualifying, Johnson is back at his bus relaxing and getting centered, enjoying a rare quiet moment alone. Pastrana is walking the track’s front stretch, the only driver to do so. Maybe it’s his motocross and rally background. “Track walks aren’t really a thing in NASCAR,” Johnson says. Pastrana wants to stand on the track, feel its steep curves and find a visual cue for his turn in point for pit lane.
“See that yellow Sunoco sign?” he asks. “If I’m behind other cars, there might be tire smoke, the sun might be setting and I can’t see the yellow line. I know that sign is 20 yards in front of the commitment line, so if I don’t see my lights by then, I know I’m going too fast or too slow. It gives me a reference.” He’s only driven the No. 67 car on this track in an iRacing simulator.
He stops, looks back toward the 31-degree bank of Turn 4. “You see where the bank drops down?” he says. “Right where that last line is, you’re going to start to get tight, so you need to turn a little sharper before the white line, especially if you’re three wide and heaven forbid, four wide on Sunday. I’m going to shorten that up, run where my tires are on that white line.”
He realizes he’s already talking about Sunday. “I have to get there first,” he says.
Pastrana’s had opposing experiences this week. Most drivers have been supportive, offering their time and tips about driving this track. Many fans have told him they’re thrilled he’s here, bringing new energy, new sponsors and new supporters.
Then there’s the Twitter trolls. “I know not everyone understands why I’m here or knows my background,” Pastrana says. “They just see me as a TV star and stuntman.” They don’t see the student who sat alone outside of his RV this morning reading the nearly 200-page document Toyota provided to him on drafting techniques — for the second time. Or know that he’s self-funding any of the damage he causes to the car. (Or the truck. He’s also racing NASCAR’s Truck Series race on Friday.)
“He could have said, ‘I want to try to qualify and race the 500 to check a box,'” 23XI president Steve Lauletta says. “It’s the farthest from that with him. He came to the shop four times to study, drive the simulator. He worked hard to be prepared to give it his best shot. What we’re trying to do is different and to have somebody who’s been as innovative in his career as Travis has, it’s been a good fit.
“And yes, of course, Michael knows who Travis is,” Lauletta says of Jordan. “Everybody knows who he is.”
INT./EXT. AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY — NIGHT (FLASHBACK)
Pastrana is on his first date with his future wife, skateboard star Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins, when he asks Johnson a question that’s been burning a hole in his brain.
They’re at the 2009 Pepsi 500 in Fontana, California, at Johnson’s invitation. When he wins, Johnson invites them back to his new rig to celebrate with his wife and team. “We were already a few drinks in,” Pastrana says.
“I remember he was trying to shotgun beers, poking the hole with his thumb,” Johnson says. “I didn’t want my carpet smelling like beer or for him to bleed out in my new bus. I was like, ‘Dude, let’s go outside.'”
Outside and free to thumb-punch as many beers as he wants, Pastrana decides this is his chance. He has this dream he’s been thinking about forever, but saying it out loud means committing to it.
“What would it take to race the Daytona 500?” he asks Johnson.
The two men sit down. Pastrana sobers up immediately.
“He said, ‘You probably have the driving skill right now,'” Pastrana says. “He broke down what NASCAR was and what it would take to be successful.”
“I remember the conversation,” Johnson says. “Daytona is its own animal. I told him the commitment it takes to run three-cars wide in the big pack at 200 miles an hour is a no-brainer for him. I felt like it would be a great experience and one that he could grow into and have a great showing come race day.”
“It was a pretty good heart-to-heart,” Pastrana says. “I don’t know if he knew it at the time, but that conversation set everything into motion.”
EXT. PIT LANE — WEDNESDAY, FEB. 16, 8:15 P.M.
Johnson’s and Pastrana’s teams push their cars into place on the track 15 minutes before qualifying begins. A lucky draw sees them next to each other in line. Johnson looks calm as he talks with his crew chief and poses for photos. Pastrana looks like a tall ball of nervous energy. They walk toward each other and meet in the middle.
“Jimmie, tell me the truth,” Pastrana says. “Am I just going to spin out in the first corner and look like an idiot?” Pastrana is trying to figure out what to do about his steering wheel. He’s tall and the car’s frame is tight, so he chose to use a 13-inch wheel, which allows more space for his long arms and legs. He’s heard from older drivers that 15- and 17-inch wheels are smoother. The younger drivers have quick hands and use 13s. But he wants to be smooth. He’s worried he made the wrong call.
“You’ll be fine for qualifying,” Johnson says. “Don’t think about it right now. Do not worry about it. But after you qualify, get a bigger wheel for Sunday.”
In Daytona, Johnson and Pastrana are competitors. But that doesn’t stop Johnson from wanting to help his friend. His racing goals have evolved, too. Growing Legacy Racing Club is his new challenge. He is also committing to fewer races, but he knows how much he can help his team, on and off the track, by making Sunday’s race. Becoming a team owner, he hopes, will allow him a consistent schedule and, “to be more in sync with my family,” Johnson says.
“Travis has been such a great friend over the years and I know how much this means to him,” he says. “There’s a feel-good energy that comes with having him here. As I get older, meaningful moments have a lot more weight to them and our friendship is making the 500 really special.”
They return to their cars, pull on their helmets and climb in.
EXT. NEW HAMPSHIRE MOTOR SPEEDWAY — DAY (FLASHBACK)
Pastrana and Johnson sit on the wall at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Louden. Pastrana is between heats at a 2012 Global RallyCross race he will eventually win, and Johnson is drawing on the white speedway wall like Steve Kornacki breaking down NFL playoff scenarios.
“At Louden, he was asking me how to run the line because it’s a real narrow sweet spot,” Johnson says. “I pulled out a Sharpie and was showing him the line and explaining certain turn in marks. I was so happy to have him around.”
NASCAR is also in town. After Johnson told him he had what it takes to race the Daytona 500, Pastrana put together a program that would allow him to give his NASCAR ambitions a try and later in the day, he will line up for his fifth race in the Xfinity series. Johnson will contest the Cup race the next day.
Throughout the season, Pastrana leans on Johnson for tactical advice and help navigating his new sport.
“I remember having intense conversations with Travis around driving technique at various tracks that year,” Johnson says.
Before Pastrana’s debut in the series, Johnson even films a video spoofing his role as Pastrana’s NASCAR mentor. In it, he dons a mullet wig and teaches Pastrana the “five steps to becoming a NASCAR champion.” At the end, he picks up gardening shears and gives Pastrana a matching haircut.
NASCAR proves a steep learning curve for Pastrana. He has some success in his two seasons, including four top-10 finishes in 2013 and a pole at Talladega, but he is also largely funding his efforts. He becomes a dad that season and starts to weigh his NASCAR dreams against his daughter’s college fund. He never wins a race and leaves the sport after 2013. “NASCAR chewed me up and spit me out,” Pastrana says. Johnson sees it differently.
“I told Travis early on, ‘Find a situation where you can have five years to learn,'” Johnson says. “I know that’s a big ask of a team and a sponsor. But it took me five years to understand the tracks, the cars, the setups, where the sweet spot is of a car, how to drive it. I advised him not to front-load his contract with expectations. The more races he ran, the better he got. I wish he had a chance to make it to that five-year mark because I think he could have had his NASCAR dream come true.”
EXT. PIT LANE — WEDNESDAY, FEB. 16, 8:45 P.M.
“No. 48! Jimmie Johnson!” On cue, Johnson peels out of pit road. When Johnson crosses the finish, he is the fastest driver of the Open teams, with only Pastrana and Chevy’s Austin Hill, who races full-time in the Xfinity Series and part-time in the Cup, to go.
The two fastest Open teams will qualify tonight on speed. Johnson’s unsure if his time will hold up. It didn’t feel like he got everything out of the car. When Pastrana crosses, he hears he’s .008 behind Johnson’s time, which means Johnson has qualified for Sunday’s race. Pastrana doesn’t believe his time is good enough to hold off Hill.
“Wow. Going around a corner at 180 mph with no suspension and your teeth chattering, you don’t feel that in the simulator,” Pastrana says after his lap. “But I shifted up early from second to third. I double pulled on the back stretch because I didn’t let off enough to shift. I went three-feet wide on that exit off turn 4. All of that adds up to a car length and a half, so I didn’t think it was enough.”
But it is. Against all odds, Johnson and Pastrana are the two fastest of the Open teams. They have both qualified for the 2023 Daytona 500.
Johnson later admits to feeling relieved, but in the moment the two-time Daytona champion appears cool. Pastrana leaps from his car with his widest smile of the weekend. He hugs everyone within reach who will let him. Team members, photographers, track officials.
After many, many interviews, he runs toward pit lane and jumps the wall, where his family and friends are gathered. There’s his dad, Robert, who taught him to ride a dirt bike and drive just about anything. “My phone was blowing up from friends and family who watched it all on TV,” Robert says. “They said they’ve never seen Travis look happier.” Lyn-Z agrees. “You could feel his happiness through the photos,” she says. There are the sponsors who believed in him and a few friends from home. And there’s Lucy Block and two of her three children, Kira and Mika. When Pastrana sees them, his eyes fill with tears. “Thank you for being here,” he says as he hugs Lucy.
“Ken would have been here,” she says.
“He would have,” Pastrana says. “But he also would have told me I’m an idiot for trying to race a car I’d never driven.”
INT. A FLORIDA HOSPITAL — DAY (FLASHBACK)
Sixteen years after Pastrana raced alone for Team USA, he and Johnson are trying again at the 2022 Race of Champions in Pitea, Sweden. But this time, it’s Pastrana who has bad news.
He broke his back and his hips and has extensive internal bleeding after a BASE jumping accident in Florida. “I was in intensive care for a week,” Pastrana says. He’ll require the use of a catheter for four months. “I was just trying to survive.”
A day after the accident, he texts with Johnson. “He was high as a kite,” Johnson says. “First and foremost, I told him I was just thankful he was OK.” The two speak a couple times before Johnson flies to Sweden to team up with replacement driver Colton Herta. The races largely take place on snow and ice. Johnson and Herta, who both grew up in California, have little experience on either. “Colton and I decided if we weren’t going to win on track, we were going to win in the bar,” Johnson says. “We damn near won the whole thing on the track, and we also won in the bar.” Once again, Team USA finishes second.
Johnson doesn’t believe that’s the end of his Race of Champions story. “I feel like my journey is incomplete,” he says, “and it will only be complete when I get to race it with TP.”
INT. TRAVIS PASTRANA’S RV — FRIDAY, FEB. 17, 10 A.M.
Pastrana has just returned from a morning workout at the drivers’ gym, where, atop a spin bike and an elliptical machine, he and Johnson talked race tactics for Sunday. Now he’s having a coffee with Lyn-Z, who flew in last night after coaching cheerleading practice.
Pastrana says he remembers the day in December when he found out Johnson was returning to NASCAR and attempting to qualify for Daytona as an Open team, making Pastrana’s chances slimmer than they already were. “I texted him the middle finger emoji,” Pastrana says, “and wrote, ‘f— you.’ He texted back three laughing faces.”
At the time, Pastrana saw his friend as a roadblock. This morning, 48 hours before they take the green flag at the Daytona 500 together, Johnson’s return feels more like a gift. “We’ve never been in a race together,” Pastrana says. “To start side by side with the seven-time champ and have a chance to run with him is extremely beneficial for me.”
Last night in the 60-lap duel races, Pastrana had his first chance to race the No. 67 in traffic. He played it safe and hung near the back, but he wasn’t able to avoid a crash up front and suffered damage to his car. It’ll cost him some money. But it was a good reminder that, even when you play it safe, nothing is guaranteed. Sunday night after the race, he’ll drive with his family to Orlando, Florida, where his girls have a cheer competition next week. Johnson will drive to Sebring for two days of testing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, then fly home to Charlotte, North Carolina, and drive his daughters to school.
“”We’re playing with house money from here. Both of us will savor the experience,” Johnson says. “That moment before the green flag drops, we’re both going to soak it in the best we can.”
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