Travis Pastrana’s bucket list has a lot crossed off. He’s won championships on both two wheels and four, raced motocross, supercross, rally car, and off-road. He’s jumped cars with Ken Block and braved mountains at Pikes Peak. He isn’t even new to NASCAR, racing both the Craftsman truck series and the Xfinity series. But in all the flips, spins, and burnouts of Pastrana’s career, there’s one race he’s never had a chance to start: the Daytona 500.
For the 2023 running, Pastrana, with help from 23XI Racing [That’s 23-eleven], Black Rifle Coffee, and Toyota, hopes to check a Cup car ride in NASCAR’s most famous speedway off the list and take the green flag in the number 67 Toyota Camry TRD. It’s not a done deal though; NASCAR fills out the four open spots in the Daytona field through a qualifying effort, and Pastrana will be up against racers including Jimmie Johnson fighting for a spot. In typical Pastrana fashion, he’s just thrilled for the chance to do something fun in a car.
We caught up for a quick chat about going fast in a stock car.
C/D: With everything you’ve done, what’s the draw of Daytona?
TP: It’s the great American race. I think it’s every redneck American’s dream from the time they’re young to . . .[He pauses, clearly concerned about his wording]
I use redneck with . . . I mean, I’m definitely a redneck.
Used with love.
Yeah! It was the one event that my whole family got together for. Friends, family, relatives, long-lost relatives. It’s always had a real special spot in my heart. Also, Daytona, that was my first win in Supercross, in that infield, so it’s a cool place and I’ve always wanted to be a part of it.
You race a lot of kinds of motorsport. That was normal in the ’60s, but then racing became very segregated by specialty. Recently there’s been more swapover. For example, Tony Stewart going drag racing, Indy drivers looking at F1, stock car drivers at Indy, and so on. Are we going to see more people moving around from one kind of racing to another again?
Unser and Andretti, racing it all. That is what racing was all about. It used to be you only had a couple of big events a year, in the NASCAR series or the Indy series, and drivers just wanted to drive. They loved driving. They had so much passion. But now, how many races do the NASCAR guys have in a year? I see it with motocross, they are working so hard and it costs so much and you have to do it all, be an amazing driver, speak very well, promote. By the time you get to the top, you burn out. But I think what we’re seeing is that the drivers who have established names, when they get toward the end of their career, they’re saying, “You know what? This has become a job. I really want to have fun. I’ve loved racing my whole life and I’m going to do it for the passion again.”
Is that what racing the Daytona 500 is for you?
Well, I was disappointed at the end of my first NASCAR season when we ended up crashing at Daytona. I was almost crying. My dad goes, “I’d give my left arm to have had the opportunity to do one lap around Daytona at 200 miles an hour. And sliding backwards through the infield, making it through that safe? I would’ve given my other arm, my right arm, to have been able to experience what that felt like.” Only he didn’t say “arm.” So, yeah, you know what? I’m almost 40 years old and I would rather not do well—I mean, I’d feel horrible if I do anything to make someone else’s race worse—but worst-case scenario, I tried. And I feel like for me to go down there and try to be part of this race is so much more important for me than to hold on to my reputation and one day say, “I was really good over here doing this, but I never gave that a shot.”
Okay, so you have a healthy attitude toward this, but you still have to qualify. Are you worried about it?
That’s scary. I didn’t realize how many great drivers and how many great cars were going to be trying to qualify in this year, but I want to earn my way in.
What’s really tough is that my first time ever in a Cup car at Daytona—at least, my first time in a Cup car outside of second gear, I did pit practice the other day—will be my qualifying run. It’s all down to how well you get through those gears and how smoothly you run those two laps. Any movement in the wheel, it drops you 10 spots in qualifying. It’s going to be extremely difficult for me having never driven that car. It’s extremely difficult for anybody anyway. But hey, my first race there, in the lower class [Xfinity series] I finished backwards, but I still finished in the top 10.
Is driving a stock car radically different from driving a rally car, or racing a bike?
In motocross, they say, “When in doubt, throttle out.” Same thing with all-wheel drive. When things get too sideways, you aim and that right foot just goes to the floor. So whenever I got nervous in NASCAR, I had a tendency to want to give it more gas to solve the problem, and that is not what works on pavement, it’s not what works on rear-wheel drive, and, honestly, it’s not what works at 190 miles an hour. Things happen too quick. Things step out fast.
When I raced stock cars before, I struggled with rear-wheel drive, with aerodynamics, understanding the draft, and with pavement. I’ve had a lot more experience on pavement the last 10 years. I’ve been really successful in Rallycross. Scott Speed being on my team, with F1 experience, helped me understand how I needed to think differently to be competitive. I’ll never have a career in NASCAR, but I believe that I can drive well enough, and I’m with a really solid team.
Tell us about 23XI. What attracted you to them, or them to you?
It’s a team that really wants me to do well, that’s going to give me the best possible way to go forward. Denny Hamlin has won three Daytona 500s. He is probably the most successful restrictor plate racer out there. He has so much knowledge to give and it’s a new team that’s still looking to build their brand. This is an opportunity. It’s a team that’s not going to fall back on hierarchy, not going to say, “You’re our fourth driver, you get the fourth-best motor and the fourth-best of whatever.” I came in and they said, “We have the same crew chief that’s going over everything. We’re going to start all the cars the same. Whatever Bubba [Wallace] gets, you get.” For a driver to know that you have equal equipment and that it’s on you to prove yourself, that means a lot. I think this is where I can put my best foot forward.
What else is on the list? Do you have a bucket list of different driving you want to do and this was on there?
There were only two things on my list that didn’t have the word “win” before them. One was driving a Top Fuel dragster, and I was able to check that off the list with Scott Palmer [in 2022]. This was the other one, race the Daytona 500. I’d love to win the Baja 1000 in a trophy truck. I think that’s something that’s attainable that might happen down the road. But as far as my bucket list of things I want to be a part of, maybe Dakar is the only other race that I haven’t done that I truly think would be an amazing experience. But to have the opportunity this year at Daytona to try to be a part of it is a dream come true.
Well, you’re somewhat famous for making it all look like a lot of fun.
Because it is a lot of fun.