Travis Pastrana: Sim racing could be a game-changer for crossovers

Garth Milan/Red Bull Content Pool

Travis Pastrana’s captivating and exuberant versatility – motorbikes, rally cars and, lately, power boats have been among his pursuits — also is rooted in excellence.

The action sports superstar seemingly succeeds in virtually any form of racing he tries — with a few notable exceptions.

NASCAR would be one. iRacing could be another.

“They’ve called me ‘piss poor Pastrana,’ ” Pastrana told NBC Sports with a laugh in a recent interview about his virtual racing ability. “I’m a midpack guy.”

Pastrana and some other fellow racers sidelined by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic found fun in celebrating their mediocrity as charter members of the “LCQ League.” Conor Daly, James Hinchcliffe, Ed Carpenter, Alexander Rossi, Chad Reed and Pastrana raced on three tracks and three series every Monday with Daly’s Twitch channel streaming the events.

“LCQ” stands for “Last Chance Qualifier.” It’s where the drivers and riders often landed while trying to get their racing fix through iRacing and other sim racing that boomed during the early stages of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Travis Pastrana competes at the 2019 Nitro World Games at Utah Motorsports Campus in Salt Lake City, Utah, last Aug. 16 (Garth Milan/Red Bull Content Pool).

The Red Bull Homestretch was created as another offshoot of trying to make virtual racing a more carefree experience. Using Gran Turismo Sport on a PlayStation 4 as its platform, it pitted many of the same racing stars against unusual competition. The Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant; gamer Naomi Kyle; WNBA start Breanna Stewart; NBA slam dunk champion Zach LaVine were among the participants.

But with real-world racing – and sometimes just real life – intervening, the sim racing trend seems to have cooled. After three rounds in May, the Red Bull Homestretch has been on hiatus without a definitive return date.

Pastrana, though, sees the sim racing phenomenon having positive reverberations because bridges were built between racing worlds that never would have crossed over in the past.

Travis Pastrana (Cate Norian Koch / Red Bull Content Pool)

“I think coming out of this quarantine, there’s going to be a lot of drivers racing the off-road trucks, or the NASCARs, or Rallycross, that are really going to put a big effort forward going that direction to at least try a race or two,” Pastrana said. “I think that’s great for the racing industry. And a lot of connections were made for all of us to jump into a different sport or at least if we have interest to go and watch it and make connections there. It’s been really eye-opening for a lot of us. Everyone has a genuine respect for the other racers.”

While creating some new ties across racing series, it also has reaffirmed the talent level at the top.

Pastrana, who made 42 Xfinity starts from 2012-13 with a best finish of ninth, is well aware of how difficult the transition is to stock cars, even for someone who honed their vehicle control on dirt.

“Despite what you might think or see on TV, where I know all my friends think that if they got a NASCAR drive they could definitely go out there and win every race Ricky Bobby style,” Pastrana said. “But they’re some of the best drivers on the face of the Earth with the most seat time. To beat a guy like Kyle Busch who’s a phenomenal talent and who’s driving a car four or five days a week.

“I think the guys that would do the best (in other racing series) are those guys. Both Busch brothers, even Logano and Chase Elliott. I think those guys would do very, very well. A guy like Scott Speed who jumps into Rallycross and wins his first race at X Games. The guys in the dirt, they have maybe the best car control, but I’ve found (NASCAR) racing, it’s not about car control as much as it is working with your team, understanding what the car is doing and how to make those miniscule adjustments.

“Everyone’s within a few 10ths of a second. And the easier the race looks, the more difficult it is to make up time. Those guys, that’s what their skill is just to be perfect every single lap. That is very different for a guy who’s used to dirt where it doesn’t matter if he misses a line by 2 or 3 feet, he’s just going to put more throttle in and more crossed up and let her eat. So I definitely struggled on the pavement.”

Pastrana will be staying active in sim racing Saturday when he will be racing at virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Torque Esports’ The Race All-Star Series powered by ROKiT Phones Legends Trophy.

He was invited to join the field by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who is among several champions in the field. “It’s such an honor to even be considered to race with these guys, so of course I didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity,” Pastrana said in a release.

NBC Sports caught up with Pastrana a few weeks ago to talk sim racing, his more limited lifestyle during the pandemic and what else is ahead for him in the real world:

Q: How did the Red Bull Homestretch concept begin?

A: “With all the sim racing stuff going on, it got so competitive and professional, that Red Bull just said, ‘Man, let’s just have some fun.’ People just kind of want content. Let’s get some guys together that would never be racing together. It’s pretty cool to take top athletes from all across different sports.”

Q: So did sim racing become too serious during the pandemic, and racing on a console-based game such as this was a way of reintroducing the irreverence that’s somewhat inherent to gaming?

A: “I’m not saying it’s too serious. That’s why we race. That’s why we compete, but at the same time, for a lot of the drivers and stuff, (sim racing) actually became the job. Which has been awesome for sponsors like Subaru and Yokahama. You’re supposed to be driving, and now you’re actually getting on ESPN2 or NBC or Fox or wherever it is that they’re playing these sports. It gives the drivers a chance to get back out there with good entertainment.

“I found myself watching a lot more eNASCAR than maybe I ever even watched NASCAR, so definitely seeing Dale Jr. back up front was really cool. Obviously, you want to see sports going, but I think a lot of people had down time.

“With video games, it just brought it outside the sim realm where you could say, ‘OK, anyone can do this. This is just for fun.’ And it still gets competitive, but at least it’s not spending 50 hours a week on a sim working on the next track. Because Red Bull Homestretch, they don’t tell you what cars you run in, they don’t tell you what tracks you run. You’re learning the track on the fly. Catchup mode is in full effect. And when you know you can’t beat somebody, you just take them out. So it’s been pretty comical.”

Q: You were part of the “LCQ” group of racers who formed a weekly league. How did that become a thing?

A: “Yeah, we were getting on Conor Daly’s Twitch feed with Rossi, Daly and Hinch and Chad Reed. We were having so much fun, but we were always in the Last Chance Qualifier. We were fighting for that last spot on the grid against some of the top sim racers, so we kind of made a joke about it and just started having fun, and everybody was like, ‘Well, that is really entertaining. We’re not trying to be hilarious. We’re just not that good.’ ”

Q: How has it been to have sim racing while being stuck indoors for someone as active as you?

A: “I’m very fortunate. My wife Lyn-Z, she won the 2018 world championship for skateboarding, she’s grown up a lot. I have not (laughs). So I’m usually traveling quite a bit, and she’s usually at home, so now we can kind of get on a better schedule where it’s not like I’m interrupting what they’re doing. I’m kind of a part of it. I know it sucks what’s going on for the economy and all the people that are sick out there, definitely hearts out to them and everyone working the front lines. But at the same time, it’s been a really amazing time for me. And time that I would have not had with my family. It’s been really great for us as a family.

“Without (sim racing), I get too competitive. This sounds really bad, but I need someone to wake up in the morning to be like, ‘I’m going to kick some butt.’ It’s just better when it’s not my family (laughs). I meant that metaphorically, definitely not physically!”

Q: What are you plans for the rest of the year?

A: “I’m actually building a racetrack for Rallycross that’ll be with Nitro Circus and basically just kind of a place to have, especially with action sports going Olympics and my wife being a skater. Both of my young girls now love both go-karting, skateboarding and BMX, so I’m kind of getting an action sports facility together, but also more or less to show how great rallycross can be and set that sport for the future of what courses might look like, and that we can fly a car 150 feet safely. I know most people would say that seems ridiculous. But I know we can build a very safe but very exciting course. More to come on that.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”