A different course

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Travis Pastrana sat in his Davidsonville home munching on a banana and finishing off a bottle of Gatorade. He had just performed several tricks on his motorcycle for a photo shoot and was remarkably calm considering he was barely a week away from this year's X Games.

His new tricks were ready, he was healthy after a number of injuries and the defending freestyle motocross gold medalist was at ease. However, Pastrana was excited to talk about his newest passion and the other sport he will compete in this weekend at X Games 12 in Los Angeles -- rally car racing.

"It's a completely new challenge," said Pastrana, 22, who over the past two years has shifted much of his focus to a career in rally racing. "With motocross, I still love to ride and I love to play around, but I don't get that same rush, that same thrill. I don't get nervous or any adrenaline.

"With rally, I know what I can do in the car. I know what the car will do and I know what I want it to do, but with pedals and shifting and the wheel, it's new. It's exciting. I don't always get everything right."

In rally racing, drivers race street-legal modified production cars on closed sections of gravel or dirt roads that twist and turn through the woods, go up and down mountainsides -- and they race without ever having seen the course before.

They race with a co-driver, who actually is more of a navigator. The co-driver is armed with a detailed map and notes on the course, listing every turn and obstacle. The competitors run against the clock, with cars sent out from the start in one- to two-minute intervals. Each event is made up of 10 to 20 stages, with each stage as long as 25 miles. The driver with the shortest cumulative time wins.

The cars -- which sometimes pass each other during a stage -- race at speeds between 60 and 120 mph.

"What's cool about rally is you can do everything exactly perfect but the fact that you've never seen what's on the other side -- your heart's pounding the whole way because you just don't know," he said, noting that a rally career could last his entire life and that the car's roll cage decreases his injury chances.

Throughout Pastrana's motocross career, he's had countless injuries, including concussions, broken bones and multiple surgeries on both knees.

Pastrana began working toward a career in rally racing in 2004 when he participated in three events with Vermont SportsCar. His reputation had allowed him to bypass lower levels of rallying and land in the highest class, bringing skepticism.

"The first race when I showed up, there was a lot of animosity," Pastrana recalled. "They were all wondering, 'Why is a factory backing someone that they thought couldn't drive.' "

However, Pastrana proved he was a serious driver by finishing fourth overall in his first gravel rally, 2004's Rim of the World.

Now, in the middle of his second full season of rallying, Pastrana is a driver for Subaru Rally Team USA and leading the Rally America National Championship standings. Five of the eight total Rally America events have been completed this year, and Pastrana has made four trips to the podium as the second overall finisher.

"He has an amazing talent outright as an athlete with balance and speed and sliding a car. It's very unusual," said Lance Smith, founder and president of Vermont SportsCar, which manages Subaru Rally Team USA.

"Teaching him what rally is really about and the patience it takes at times is the hard part."

To help teach Pastrana the rules and technicalities of rallying, Smith asked veteran co-driver Christian Edstrom, who finished second overall among co-drivers in 2003, to pair up with Pastrana. Edstrom said he wasn't worried about sitting with a new driver and Pastrana'scompetitive nature has helped him excel.

"He wasn't afraid to walk right up to the limits of what the car could do," Edstrom said. "With a lot of other drivers, it takes them an event or two or three to get up to the limits of the car, and I think with Travis that took four or five corners."

So far, the pairing seems to be working out well.

"Christian has trusted me from the moment we got in the car," Pastrana said, noting how crucial it is to have a good co-driver. "The driver is almost a pawn in a rally car. The driver has the talent to maneuver the car in the way that the co-driver tells him to do it."

But Pastrana said he wasn't always comfortable in his Subaru WRX STI. It took practice and playing a rally video game that had a co-driver and stage notes to learn the system.

"It sounds really stupid, but it helps," Pastrana said. "Now I almost don't even hear [Edstrom]; I just know what's coming. He talks numbers, and I see track."

Crashes and rolled cars come along with rally, and Pastrana has had his share of them, though none that resulted in major injuries.

"When he does take chances, it's a calculated thing that he does," said WeeGee Smith, a car technician at Vermont SportsCar. "You don't know where the edge is unless you get there. He'll find a point in a rally car where he's fast and not wrecking."

Pastrana said he still has things to learn about the sport, but his goal is to win the Rally America National Championship and move on to the World Rally Championship to compete against the world's elite drivers as soon as possible.

But first things first, said John Buffum, the only American to win a European Rally Championship event, who has also worked with Pastrana at Vermont SportsCar.

"He needs to win here," Buffum said, "beat everybody in North America and then he has a shot at second, third, fourth even first in the world."

katherine.carrera@baltsun.com

X Games 12

When -- Today through Sunday

Where -- Los Angeles TV -- ESPN, ABC

LOCAL ATHLETE / / Annapolis native Travis Pastrana is competing in four events, including rally car racing, which is being included in the X Games for the first time. For the Games and television, many intentional jumps were created on the rally stage roads. "It's a shorter stage mile rally, which is tougher, but that means everyone has to drive wide open on every stage," Pastrana said. "If you want to win the X Games rally you're going to have to go all out." ONLINE / / www.expn.com

Pastrana file

Age -- 22

Hometown -- Annapolis

Car/motorcycle No.-- 199

2006 X-Games events-- Freestyle motocross, Motocross best trick, SuperMoto and Rally

X-Games history -- Five gold medals, all in freestyle motocross; nine medals total

Other career highlights -- 2006 Dew Tour (second place freestyle motocross); five Gravity Games gold medals; five-time national amateur motocross champion; world freestyle motocross champion at 14

2006 Rally highlights --Sno*Drift - second; Oregon Trail - second ; Rim of the World - first ; Susquehannock Trail - second; Maine Forest - second

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