Travis Pastrana’s Great Gift to America: Spitting in the eye of death to save humanity from itself

Many wonder what it is that makes America great and has for such a long time, and why its important to philosophies the precise ingredients and then to promote that recipe to people all over the world. Nothing quite captured best of what America produces than the very well-done History Channel coverage of Travis Pastrana’s motorcycle jumps in Las Vegas climaxing with the famous Caesar’s Palace jump over the fountains there—completing and beating three of Evel Knieval’s most spectacular stunts all in the same evening. The stunts were the jumping over 52 crushed cars, then over 16 Greyhound busses followed by a climax of jumping the Caesar’s Palace fountains of which Pastrana made them all look easy. Pastrana is a veteran of the X Games so he has taken a lot of this daredevil work and spent his life so far perfecting these kinds of stunts. That certainly didn’t take away the danger but I had quite a lot of fun watching Pastrana drive through downtown Las Vegas under police escort popping wheelies and high fiving people walking down the street on his way to that final jump at Caesar’s Palace. Pastrana was so loose and having so much fun that it was infectious and it gave us all a glimpse into the kind of unique people who America produces and how often the best and brightest of us emerge under the treasures found off the paved roads in life defying death and in doing so for the opportunity to become rich in the process.

I usually tell stories about my life to show the readers here how my relevant background is applicable to whatever topic we are discussing. What many find hard to believe is that I can talk about so many things, because I have in fact had a very interesting life and I’m far from done. But one of the most common questions I get from people is that they wonder how I am alive and could have possibly done so much at such a young age. Specifically, to this story of Travis Pastana I understand him quite well. It seems like a long time ago, but it wasn’t that much so but I was a member of the World Stunt Association because more than anything at the time I either wanted to be a stunt man or I wanted to be a film director. My entry way into the movie business was obvious because I was the kind of guy who had no problem taking chances so being a stunt man looked like it was going to end up being my career path forward. However for me I was doing all this at the front of the digital revolution meaning that film studios were going to CGI stunts instead of traditional work meaning they didn’t need a lot of new drivers to crash cars or jump off tall buildings. Many of my best friends during the 2000 years while George Bush was in office were stunt guys who were trying to get me into the business. What ended up happening was that my bullwhip work gave me a few opportunities to work in film but even that was becoming digitized as I did a firewhip stunt for Real D3D that excited a lot of people but ended up becoming a motion capture project for CGI animators.

I didn’t care so much because around the same time I started to get offers to do business management which I found to be just as risky. I didn’t see much difference in taking big risks for a company that wanted to hire me to accomplish some death-defying task or a movie company that wanted to hire me to crash a car, choreograph a fist fight, or jump out of a window when the director said “action.!” I was always a daredevil type. One of my first books that I ever read was a biography on Evel Knieval whom I absolutely adored. I would say that if I had a really powerful role model, it was Evel Knieval. Before there were ever X Games and BMX racing that was mainstream I was the kid who would jump anything with a bicycle. I’d jump out of any tree, climb any wall and fight any fight because I was bound and determined to be a stuntman when I grew up and I knew I needed to become comfortable with defying death, so I got really good at it. What was different for me however was that I was a pretty smart kid and I had a lot of other things that I was good at too. So to make a long story short, when it became obvious that to be a stuntman meant that I was going to have to move to Los Angeles and drag my family there with me, I decided to get into business management and to take my risks for companies that wanted to hire me with the same enthusiasm for risk taking but never expecting failure.

That is what makes stunt shows like the one Travis Pastrana did so magical. Audiences become very schizophrenic, they want to see a big crash to remind them how dangerous everything is but the best parts of themselves which reside very deep in the human subconscious wants to see success so that they can push themselves into risk management in their own lives. The great hope that most people have is that during their lives they will overcome the natural fears passed down to human beings for their own procreation. For instance, people are naturally fearful of falling, of loud noises and other things that might end their intellectual development into adulthood. Self-preservation is an internally driven reaction to dangerous emotions and they exist to keep us all safe. But for people who wish to become more than the animal powers of natural development, defying death and the fears of it are essential to that intellectual pursuit. Personally, defying death was like an obsession to step beyond the veils of human civilization—all the “ought not” fears that keep us all chained to civility for the sake of building human culture and the dynamic forces that stepping beyond those fears unleash in us as ways to advance civilization.

Risk taking is the unique intellectual ingredient that builds and pushes the many minds of a capitalist nation toward the aspects of experience which produce a Las Vegas skyline, the many minds that have leapt out of their comfort zones to bet everything on a dream, or to grind their way through many financial dangers to build a skyscraper. They are every bit the stunt people who Travis Pastrana was. I would say that it was just as courageous of the History Channel producers of that live broadcast to air on live television the Pastrana jump, because if something had gone wrong, their Car Week promotion would have been for nothing as they had produced several really expensive shows featuring how cars and speed had defined American culture in such a unique way. Hiring a professional stunt man like Travis Pastrana was a good bet of course, but things can and do go wrong. Those stunts that night had much better ramps and equipment than what Evel Knieval had back in his day. I was seven years old when Evel Knieval jumped the 14 busses at Kings Island, just five months after the disastrous attempt that nearly killed him in London. Seeing that as a young man it cemented in me forever the value of Evel Knieval and Kings Island as an amusement park, the need for humans to push beyond their fears so that they could advance civilization and arrive at a new place. That is why the world needs daredevils, and specifically why America steps into the world with a dominance of daredevil thinking, because in a capitalist society such risks have a tradeoff, fortune and glory for those who succeed in the chances they take while those who observe the feats see how it was done and can apply the stunt in some way to themselves.

Evel Knieval never intended to kill himself, but he was a person who enjoyed spitting in the eye of death because it was death that kept people from advancing, the fear of having a life ended by moving out of the safety of herd mentality. It was Knieval who showed what worked in stunts and what didn’t which launched an entire industry of motor sports and risk taking who were inspired by the death-defying antics of Evel Knieval. People like Travis Pastrana took what Evel Knieval had done and perfected it into an art form that filled Las Vegas with an optimism that was so wonderfully captured on the History Channel on live television. And it wasn’t the stunts themselves that were the stars of the show, but the ambiance of hope that came from the audience. Most people have a little daredevil in them but they never let it out for fear that they might get hurt or ultimately that something might kill them. But I can attest to this from personal experience. If you don’t let that daredevil out from time to time, something dies in all human beings and that is far worse. America is a land of daredevils in all types of careers, from stunt people like Travis Pastrana, to gamblers in Vegas hoping to hit it big, to business people who take huge chances every day which aren’t just dangerous but can destroy the lives of many people if something goes wrong. Those chances are worth taking and are captured in spirit every time a motorcycle jumper takes to the air to defy death by spitting in its face and landing on a ramp beyond the danger to unlock new potential in human intellect and the experience of being alive!

Rich Hoffman

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