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How A 19-Year-Old Became A Rallying Legend

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It is 2003, and a 19-year-old named Travis is about to climb into a rally car for his first real test. What follows will change the sport forever. This is how it happened.

Travis Pastrana has been a professional rally driver for six years. It's no exaggeration to say that his presence has changed the face and future of pro rallying in North America. His influence can be seen in everything from the sport's average spectator age (lower than it's ever been in this country) to its newfound, and formerly nonexistent, American television audience. He helped get Internet superstar and WRC driver Ken Block his first professional ride, and he's the most marketable, personable driver to come out of stateside motorsport in years.


Like all things, Pastrana's career has a beginning. The photos in this post were taken on the day of his first test with Vermont SportsCar, the firm that Subaru has long entrusted with its American rally effort. This was not his first time in a rally car, but it was his first professional test. Vermont SportsCar was kind enough to prepare the following text exclusively for Jalopnik; with the exception of marketing director Chris Yandell's story, which can also be read here, it has not been published before.

Chris Yandell, Vermont SportsCar marketing director:

The story begins with Vermont SportsCar learning about Pastrana's interest in rallying after his long-time sponsor Alpinestars hooked him up with a test drive in a Subaru WRC car as a gift for winning the 2000 AMA 125cc Outdoor National Motocross championship. Nice gift. Travis got to whip around in the Subaru on a short gravel test course with then-Subaru Rally Team USA driver Mark Lovell sitting shotgun.

Almost two years later, Travis was busy competing in AMA Supercross, and clearly nothing had really progressed with regard to his rally interests. I thought it would be a good idea to maybe give him another go if he had some spare time. We made the decision to get [him] a proper test, bring in some some quality instructors, and see how he did. Vermont SportsCar team boss Lance Smith said a few times, half joking, "Who is this motocross kid again, and why are we doing this?"

We scheduled the test in the summer of 2003 at the Team O'Neil rally school. We flew in multi-time British champ David Higgins, who runs a rally school in the U.K., along with John Buffum, the most successful American rally driver in history. We brought along a few of our rally cars, including a 2001 Group N Subaru STI. Joining Pastrana was his friend Kenny "Cowboy" Bartram, an accomplished freestyle motocross rider who was equally interested in rally.

In an odd twist of fate, current Subaru Rally Team USA driver Dave Mirra was briefly scheduled to attend, but he was injured in a BMX competition just a few weeks prior. We wouldn't cross paths with him again until we did a test with him in late 2007.


Pastrana, Subaru WRX STI Group N.

Lance Smith, Vermont SportsCar's founder, on meeting Travis and putting him in a rally car:

First, I had to have my marketing director, Chris Yandell, explain to me who Travis Pastrana was, what he had accomplished, and what he was all about. Chris had come to me with this opportunity to have Travis test with us, and to be honest I didn't know who he was. At the time, Travis was certainly very accomplished at motocross and a genuine star, but really what sealed the deal for me, with regard to actually going through with the test, was that he had shown a genuine interest in rallying. I had read that when he first drove a rally car a couple years prior, he said it was one of the most fun things he had ever done, and that he would love to do more one day.

There was some apprehension on my part about having Travis jump into one of my cars, though. Prior the test session, I called Prodrive to sort of check up on Travis and the time he drove one of their Subaru World Rally Championship cars for fun a couple of years prior as part of a PR thing they did with Alpinestars. [They basically warned] me that Travis didn't yet know the value of these rally cars, in terms of what a certain amount of abuse could potentially cost if you wreck or damage one. It seemed like he had just gotten into one of their $700,000-plus WRC cars and just totally ripped around without a care in the world in terms of breaking something — I think he only ended up tearing a few carbon fiber bumpers off. Also, he accidentally sprayed stones down the entire side of their new, and likely multi-million-dollar, hospitality rig as he blasted by it sideways. So those things had me concerned to say the least!

Lance Smith and Pastrana during the latter's first test.

I think the feeling may have been that Travis was too wild and would be too expensive to run. But back to Pastrana coming to do the test session with us — we wanted to find out if he had some real talent because we were looking for someone to promote. Rallying was a bit stagnant in America at that time, and we were looking for a young driver who could bring new eyeballs and attention to the sport.

The one thing that I remember most from that test session is when Travis went out in our car and [British rally driver] David Higgins was riding along in the passenger seat. It was in one of our Subaru Impreza WRX STI rally cars; I believe it was in Group N trim at the time.


They did a few laps at the rally school and then brought the car in for the mechanics to check over. David Higgins climbed out of the car, wiggles his finger at me, and says "Hey, come here." We went off to the side a little bit and he leans in, and the first thing out of his mouth is: "This kid can drive." Just like that. I said "Yeah, yeah, sure," not really taking him seriously, but then he said again, right away, "No, I'm telling you, this kid can drive. If you're going to invest your money in somebody, you should invest it in this one."

Above: Pastrana talking to American rally legend John Buffum.

Here was a multi-time British rally champion and the American champion at the time, someone who had a great deal of experience with new drivers


via his family's rally school in Wales. I really valued his feedback. And for him to say this after just five minutes in the car with Travis — plus, I think it was only the second time Travis had driven a car like this on gravel — well, it meant a lot. Right then, it sort of changed my outlook on the day.

So we went back home and began figuring out how we could run a program correctly for Travis, finding the money, sorting out one of our cars for him and so on. That process was another few months just to get going.

One of the other early discussions Travis and I had was about each of our situations at the time. Travis was very enthusiastic and very talented and wanted to drive a rally car. He had a huge fanbase but didn't have a program or funds in place to go rallying. Vermont SportsCar had the rally cars and a need for a talented driver with a fanbase. So it was a great match. All that was left was for us to pool our resources, and together we found the sponsorship to make it all work.


Christian Edstrom, Pastrana's long-time co-driver, on their first rally together:

The first rally I did with T.P. was Sno*Drift 2004 [in Atlanta, Michigan]. This was his first time at a competitive event after just doing a test or rally school or two. Vermont SportsCar rented Bob Wall's Production GT-class car, a silver 2002 Subaru WRX that they had built for Bob Wall. I actually wasn't planning on rallying in 2004 — I was a little burned out from all the rallying I did in '03 — but Lance called and asked if I'd sit with Travis. I remembered hearing about Travis from when he raced amateur motocross, so I decided I'd have a try.

Back then, Travis was really young, really skinny, and never said a single curse word. I think I helped fix the last two over the last six years! He was really eager to do well, and it was clear that he was serious about the event. He asked all sorts of questions about how to maximize our performance and seemed to take the answers to heart. He didn't drive too quick, given the treacherous conditions, but he still put in good times.

Nevertheless, we went off pretty big on a L4/Cr (This is rally note-speak for "left four over crest," a medium-speed left-hand turn that goes over a rise. —Ed.) on one stage, and we stuck the car about six feet into a snowbank. Travis got under the car and shoveled it loose with his bare hands. I figured then he had the rally spirit.


One guy, a goofy grin, and a lot of flying dirt. Right on, Travis — you, my friend, are as Jalopnik as they come. Keep it up.


Photo Credits: Pastrana Test: Lars Gange/Vermont SportsCar; Forester: Sam Smith