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.”

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”