So would I like to sit alongside American extreme sports star Travis Pastrana in a Skoda Fabia S2000 rally car during the Race of Champions? A no-brainer, and even if I’d been told beforehand that we’d end up crashing into the barriers in front of 34,000 people, I’d still have said yes.
Stunt fiend Pastrana spends most of his time leaping, flipping and spinning motorbikes and cars, and also finds time to squeeze in NASCAR races and rounds of the US rally championship.
He’s got an infectious passion for engine-powered machinery and an inspiring ‘do anything’ attitude to life. For example, I probably would have thought twice about accepting a passenger ride with him for this.Thanks to his success in the X-Games extreme sports competition, he’s a huge star in his home country, and came to the Race of Champions at the Esprit Arena in Düsseldorf, Germany, as part of Team USA with fellow action sports competitor Brian Deegan.
Pastrana, who hails from Maryland, was “pumped” after beating DTM racer Timo Scheider when they battled in Audi R8s, but needed to win our race ensure Team USA progressed to the next round of the knock-out Nations Cup competition.
Unfortunately we were drawn against Finnish rally driver Juho Hänninen, who is a factory Skoda driver and knows the Fabia S2000 intimately. I’ve had a ride alongside Hänninen, and as I tried to settle my pre-race nerves I thought it would be a good idea to tell Pastrana that the Finn “is pretty good”.
Talk about stating the bleedin’ obvious. Mind you, Pastrana had his own challenges, because he’s recovering from a serious ankle injury sustained in this year’s X-Games. “Breaking myself is a theme of my life,” he says. “The doctors say I probably should not be driving this time…”
We get strapped into the Fabia in an underground car park. Bursting out into a stadium full of fans could be an overwhelming experience, but I’m more focused on ensuring my belts are fully tightened as Pastrana wrenches the wheel from side-to-side to generate some heat in the tyres. I wedge my backside deep into a seat designed for a svelte rally co-driver just as the lights go green and we rocket towards a tight right-hand bend.
The ROC circuit is an oversized Scalextric track, and even at the end of the short back straight the Fabia can only pull third gear, so the speed doesn’t feel particularly high. What strikes me is how narrow the useable part of the circuit looks from here and how frantically busy the drivers are on this compact layout, twirling the wheel, changing gear and stamping the pedals.
Then, as we negotiate a nadgery left-right-left bend, Pastrana clips a tyre barrier on my side. The impact is light, but it is enough to pitch us onto two wheels. He corrects the moment but we gently nose into the tyre barrier on the other side of the track.
The Skoda’s engine cuts and I can hear the fans cheering as Pastrana tries to restart. By the time he’s reversed out of the barrier and got going, Hänninen is almost a full lap ahead.
The race is lost but my taxi driver from Hell doesn’t stop pushing hard – we have another two-wheeled moment near the end of the race. Pastrana apologises after the chequered flag, but I’m glad I had a wild losing ride than a ruthlessly efficient winning one.
So I played a very minor role in the elimination of Team USA from the Nations Cup. No surprises that a duo with nine F1 world titles between them, Messrs Schumacher and Vettel, earned Team Germany the spoils for the fifth year in succession, sending the partisan fans into the damp Düsseldorf night with smiles on their faces.
Schumacher and Vettel will turn from team-mates to adversaries for this afternoon’s main individual event, where they’ll take on 14 other stars including Jenson Button, David Coulthard and Volkswagen’s new world rally signing, Sébastien Ogier, who revved up the crowd with his tyre-smoking demonstration runs in the new Polo R WRC yesterday. You can follow the event live at raceofchampions.com, and I’ll be tweeting during the day @Matt_Burt_