News & Politics

Annapolis Wasn’t Ready for an Extreme Sports Event. Travis Pastrana Proved Them Wrong

Photograph courtesy of Nitro Circus.

When X Games star Travis Pastrana heard that the Navy Stadium stop of his Nitro Circus tour had been canceled, he took it personally. It was the first time the action-sports show had ever been turned down anywhere in the world, and here it was happening two miles from the house he’d grown up in.

But rather than give his hometown the middle finger (or whatever else you think a rebuffed millionaire-slash-motocross-daredevil might do), Pastrana got curious—self-reflective, even. “Did we do something wrong?” he asked himself. Annapolis mayor Mike Pantelides offered to walk him door-to-door to ask the neighbors why they didn’t want the circus to come to Naptown. But one look at the ramps Pastrana’s built in his Davidsonville backyard will tell you that he doesn’t do anything small. Instead, he, Mayor Mike—as Pastrana calls him—and a crew of almost 60 hit the bricks on the coldest day of winter. One sticking point turned out to be the Sunday show’s start time. Residents told Pastrana, “We don’t want noise over church.”

“I was like, well, perfect. We’re action sports. We don’t get up early.”

If you’re struggling to picture what Nitro Circus looks like, imagine a series of ramps inside a perimeter of crash pads. Imagine motocross bikes tandem-backflipping and synchronized nine-person BMX jumps. Imagine an athlete taking off from a ramp on a bicycle, tossing it away midair, and landing on the inline skates he’s been wearing the whole time. Imagine a paraplegic athlete front-flipping his wheelchair and an X-Games medalist launching a flamingo-pink Barbie car off a 50-foot Gigantaramp. Imagine pyro. Imagine music. At the center of all that, imagine 33-year-old Pastrana, its star—six-foot-two, ears sticking wide out of a snap-back hat, perma-grinning.

Travis Pastrana started out as a teenager riding motocross, which led to freestyle motocross, which led to winning the first ever X Games gold medal for FMX (followed by winning six more). Search YouTube for “Travis Pastrana” and you’ll see him leaping out of an airplane without a parachute, landing the world’s first FMX double backflip in competition, and jumping a rally car a distance of 269 feet to secure the world record. His version of slowing down as he gets older is racing cars instead of bikes and playing ringleader to the Nitro big top, a traveling band of extreme athletes that Forbes calls one of America’s most promising companies.

Not that Pastrana will tell you about much of that. In a sport that rewards the ego of thinking you can be “first” to land the next madcap trick, he prefers to rattle off the accomplishments of his Nitro family. And, in a sport that rewards the fearless, he admits to being haunted by night terrors. The millions of fans who follow him on Instagram are used to seeing him with at least one of his two young daughters in tow, talking earnestly, if cheesily, about how “awesome” and “amazing” the people and things around him are. His signature pose? The double thumbs-up.

Which is probably why, af­ter just a few hours walking around Annapolis’s Admiral Heights, Pastrana had 428 signatures supporting a Nitro Circus show at Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. “It sounds cliché,” he says. “But it means so much to me.”

The last time Nitro played the area was in DC, and it remains one of the worst-attended shows in its seven-year history. Despite producing standouts like Pastrana and FMX champ Gregg Duffy, Washington just isn’t a hotbed for action sports. But Pastrana can’t imagine leaving the place where his aunts, uncles, and parents all still live. “There’s a reputation around Annapolis,” he says. “If you don’t know a Pastrana, you probably aren’t from here.”

But the East Coast is also a mentality. “When you go to California, the weather’s great all year, which is super-nice for riding, when you don’t have snow in the winter and 105 degrees, 100 percent humidity in the summer,” Pastrana says. “But I feel like no one cares as much.

“Here, people like to work still. Everyone of my friends knows how to weld, knows how to work on cars and equipment. When we need stuff done, we can get it done. So when it seemed like this show wasn’t going to work, everyone was like, no, we can fix it.”

And they did. When Nitro Circus finally played Annapolis, despite two rain delays, 22,000 of Pastrana’s neighbors came out to see the stunts, the flares, the whiz-bang-pop of his moderately controlled chaos. It was the biggest North American show they’ve ever done.

This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

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Contributing Editor

Amanda has contributed to Washingtonian since 2016. She has written about the right-wing media personality Britt McHenry, chronicled her night with Stormy Daniels, and come clean about owning too much stuff. She lives on H Street. She can be reached at [email protected]