‘This is being built by the drivers’: Travis Pastrana on the Nitro Rallycross revolution

Nitro Rallycross, a new series featuring breathtaking jumps and varied track surfaces, is set to transform the world of rallycross. Ahead of its first full season this year, the BlackBook spoke to Travis Pastrana, the stunt performer and driver who created the championship.

The motorsport industry is one of intense innovation, one that is constantly striving to be better, faster, more sustainable and more exciting for fans. Nitro Rallycross (NRX) is no different.

The brainchild of well-known stunt performer and driver Travis Pastrana, NRX is aiming to take motorsport to another level of extremity and excitement for fans in the US and beyond. The series is a combination of daredevil jumps and a variety of challenging surfaces designed to usher in a new era of rallycross competition. 

NRX is set to start its first full season this year, hoping to do what Red Bull Global Rallycross was unable to in its home in the US: create longevity by engaging with fans, drivers and manufacturers. That starts with building well thought-out, purpose-built tracks and jumps. 

“Global Rallycross came to the US and they had an over-under cross jump. It was something new, it was something exciting,” Pastrana tells the BlackBook. 

“The jumps weren't built very well. I broke my car in half at the second round. One of the drivers broke their leg and it collapsed and they caught on fire. Well, they took out jumps and then tried to put us in pre-existing venues, Nascar venues, in parking lots.”

That safety-inspired shift to bland tarmac tracks without jumps was the catalyst for the demise of Global Rallycross in the US as manufacturers began to pull out and fans lost interest. 

“I felt like it didn't fail in the US because the drivers didn't want it, the manufacturers didn't want it and the audience didn't want it,” adds Pastrana. “In my opinion, it failed because the tracks didn't challenge the drivers, it didn't excite the audience.”

It is therefore unsurprising that a focus on driver satisfaction and thrilling entertainment is at the core of NRX. Pastrana does not want to create complex racing, where fans need a strong understanding of strategy and the series to enjoy themselves. He and his team are looking to attract a wider action sports audience, including those who have not necessarily engaged with motorsport before. 

“There wasn't really a form of racing that captured our action sports audience,” he adds. “In the US it was Nascar. The racing is phenomenal and it's really cool, but you've got to really understand racing, to understand the nuances that make Nascar awesome.”

Enter jumps. Providing a spectacle for the fans and presenting a challenge for drivers, implementing jumps is a central part of the championship for Pastrana and his colleagues. However, simple jumps are not enough. NRX plans to introduce a wide variety of jumps to its courses, avoiding the standardisation process that has made many tracks become similar, thus removing the challenge for drivers and manufacturers. The series is determined to break the mould and start a rallycross revolution. 

“X Games comes along and was the greatest thing for action sports, but also it took the creative freedom and the fun. All of a sudden the dirt jumps all became ramps and standardised,” says Pastrana.

“Instead of thinking, ‘oh my gosh, okay, well, how are we going to jump this, and how are we going to go over here,’ where everyone's out there making maps of the course and trying to figure out how to do it the best that they can, it became a very, very set course and I feel like that's happened in almost every sport. They find something that works, and they make every other course exactly the same.”

My job is to keep it safe, but also to keep it fun and to make sure that every track is very unique. We want to have snow rallies. We want to have all tarmac rallycross. We want to have all dirt. 

By creating NRX, Pastrana wants to push the limits of what drivers and their cars can achieve by moving away from the bland tracks that have become the standard in American rallycross and towards what he describes as “motocross with a roll cage”. Permanent, challenging circuits with banks and breathtaking drops are part of the vision for NRX, embodying Pastrana’s desire to take rallycross to the next level.  

“My goal as a driver is to make a course that challenges the drivers,” he explains. “Yeah, scare them a little bit, but at the end of the day it challenges them. They know that mistakes have consequences.

“My job is to keep it safe, but also to keep it fun and to make sure that every track is very unique. We want to have snow rallies. We want to have all tarmac rallycross. We want to have all dirt. 

“When one car and one manufacturer seems to dominate a series or one driver seems to dominate a series I think a lot of that is because the tracks are so very similar.”

Exciting jumps are at the core of NRX

In order to create the best tracks possible, Pastrana has collaborated with drivers and manufacturers, combining elements that suit different competitors and cars to ensure close racing and an unpredictable season. Taking inspiration from the various circuits that feature on the Formula One calendar, Pastrana has created a variety of tracks, featuring elements that appeal to everyone.

“I feel like this is a great chance for manufacturers to really show off their vehicle and where it actually shines,” he says. 

“As Global Rallycross kind of crumbled, a lot of the manufacturers all reached out to us and said: ‘Look, what can you guys do? Can you guys bring us something exciting?’ 

“So, we went in with a really open mind to the first round and said, ‘I know a lot about building courses and I know about driving cars, but let's see what the other drivers say and what the other teams say, what the other manufacturers say.’

“This has been the first completely open partnership between what the manufacturers want to see in a track, what the drivers want to see in a track and bringing in the nitro element, what the fans want to see. Having the drivers’ input has been monumental.

“We have so many tracks. I've been traveling all over and talking with different drivers on what they want. 

“What's their favourite elements on any rally they have ever been to, any rallycross, any sports car race, what are the coolest sections? We were asking, ‘what can we imitate and why was it good? You know, what works with this car? What works with that car?’.”

Pastrana and his team are creating circuits that challenge the drivers

Just as the Covid-19 pandemic has halted the normal operation of motorsport series globally, the first full season of NRX has also been pushed back. The series ran two preliminary events in 2018 and 2019 and was hoping to start the first full season in 2020 before the pandemic hit. Now, Pastrana is eager to host fans safely at the venues, stressing their importance for the success of the series. 

“We’re a year behind where the plan was, but at the end of the day, starting a series with no fans isn't a very viable solution for our company,” he says.

“Our goal was to get the fans in there, get the excitement, get the crowd and do the activations really around that. We needed to get the people in the crowd in order to fund the racing. I'm putting my own money into it as are lot of the other drivers.”

Pastrana believes fan attendance is important to the survival of the series

Indeed, the faith that the drivers have shown in the direction and vision of NRX is evident. By investing in developing exciting tracks, the series has been able to secure funding from drivers, something which is rare in motorsport. 

“I've never seen a sport where the drivers are literally paying to develop the tracks, paying to develop the cars,” says Pastrana, who co-founded touring stunt and entertainment show Nitro Circus in 2003.

“This is being built by the drivers for the manufacturers. Everybody has their footing and is working on how to make this racing more exciting. It's a space that I believe we need in the US and I believe it can go all over the world, but my immediate goal is how can we get the audience that we have in action sports.”

As with many other sports, motorsport has started to place an emphasis on sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint. Eager to integrate itself into this space, NRX will run an electric supercar class alongside its 2022 season. 

As the global automotive industry begins to shift towards electric vehicles (EV), it is important that motorsport reflects that. In recognising that trend, NRX saw the introduction of an electric class as integral to the survival of the championship. 

“This is going to revolutionise everything,” Pastrana adds. “When you look at all the manufacturers and all of the technology that's going into it, everyone wants to go greener.

“Everyone wants to make electric work. For us to go into a series, if we don't have electric, I don't know that we have a future as big as if we could go with electric.

“It also opens the door for us to get into more public places. You can go into cities, you can go into areas that are more heavily populated and build these tracks because the noise pollution is not there.”

Pastrana’s drive and passion for NRX is clear, setting a strong baseline for the series to succeed. Bringing his unique perspective as an experienced rallycross driver, keeping his finger on the pulse with current motorsport trends and creating a collaborative environment for manufacturers and drivers to have their say are all factors that point to a bright future. 

“I would rather have the sport succeed than myself succeed,” he says. “Don't get me wrong. I'm going to give her everything she's got. But my goal is to bring in the best guys from the world championship from all forms of racing.

“I think we can do that with building amazing tracks.”