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The Circus Comes to Town

After years of planning, Travis Pastrana’s Nitro Circus Live came to Japan for the first time wowing tens of thousands of action sports enthusiasts in Osaka and Tokyo. Featuring a good number of the world’s best FMX and BMX riders, the two-hour-long show entertained the crowd with gravity defying stunts, most of which have never been performed outside Nitro Circus.

The tour featured several world firsts: Josh “Sheeny” Sheehan, the only FMX rider in the world, doing double backflips on a dirt bike; Jolene Van Vugt, who holds two Guinness World Records for being the first woman to backflip a dirt bike and performing the longest female backflip; Aaron “Wheels” Fotheringham, the first person to successfully front flip, back flip and double back flip in a wheelchair and, of course, the pioneer of it all—motorsports competitor and extreme sports superstar Travis Pastrana.  

Pastrana grew up in a close-knit family in rural Maryland; everyone living on the same road. His father and four uncles worked in a family-owned construction company, so he grew up surrounded by tracks of land and dirt piles—the perfect learning ground for an aspiring dirt bike racer.

“As long as I was happy and not playing video games or watching TV, they were fine. If they saw me on the couch, they’d yell at me, but if I was digging up the yard, then yeah!” Pastrana laughs, remembering his folks being pleased to see him outdoors.  

While most 13-year-olds were playing video games or watching TV, he was already performing stunts during motocross racing and, at 16, he won the X Games’ first-ever MotoX Freestyle event, consecutively placing first place in the following two competitions. In 2006, he performed the first dirt bike double back flip in a competition and in 2010 set a new world record in a ramp-to-ramp car jump. Serious injuries from dirt biking have never stopped him. Instead, he expanded his skills to include BASE jumping and rally racing, and he is even credited for introducing the sport to the X Games. In 2002, Nitro Circus was born. “It was more of an idea, just a group of friends having fun,” Pastrana said. He recalls his early projects featuring his team trying to land new tricks in his backyard’s foam pit. After inviting more friends and athletes to join and compiling the best in the world of action sports, they filmed it all and put together a DVD. The first one had an almost cult-like following within action sports fanatics, and it soon enough caught the attention of the likes of Johnny Knoxville from “Jackass,” and was picked up on MTV. That eventually led to a live show with locations increasing each year.  

“With action sports, it often becomes an image thing—videos and everyone trying to be cool. Nitro was never about that. Most of the guys were athletes and had jobs, so Nitro was a place to have fun and be yourself,” Pastrana said. “Everyone here is really passionate—they’re here because they love to ride, and that passion helps everyone grow. Our goal was to push ourselves and have fun. It was never really something we did for a living. Then all of a sudden Nitro Circus was born and we could travel the world. So many people wanted to see what we were doing and be a part of it. Wherever we go, the crowd’s energy picks us up, and we hope ours does the same for them.” With athletes tackling everything from trikes to rollerblades to bathtubs, Nitro Circus is definitely one of a kind.  

“If you’re a kid in action sports, our goal is to provide a place to train, mentors to help you reach your potential and work on new sports that haven’t even been invented yet,” says Pastrana. “There was a guy on our first tour who brought a pogo stick. It wasn’t a sport, but from there, it led to the team figuring it out and helping each other make it work.” Aaron “Crum” Sauvage, who is more than just the circus’ comedy relief, explains there are two ways to get into Nitro Circus: “You either have to do something no one else can, or something no one else wants to do. Guess which one I got stuck with.” Every show, Crum slides down the mega-ramp on a custom-made lazy boy recliner and in a wheelbarrow which, needless to say, is nerve-wracking. As we peer over the almost-vertical drop from the peak of the 50-foot megaramp, he points out a bump where the ramp levels out. “Sliding down isn’t the hard part, it’s the bump that’s scary,” he says. Regardless of the risks, he continues to figure out ways to land successfully. The latest, it seems, is to shift his weight to the front, so he dives nose heavy. The troupe rehearses before every show, but sometimes the unexpected happens and it’s all about being flexible and creative while staying positive.  

Backstage, during the halftime break, Pastrana is talking to pro extreme skier and BASE jumper Erik Roner and says, “When we were mid-air, I turned to my left to high-five Matty McFerran, not realizing they’d all switched positions back at the starting point. “So I’m flying in the air, I turn to look and I’m like, ‘Who the hell is that?’ Matty’s not there, it was Taka Higashino coming up from behind me, so I had to reach back to high-five him while he stretched forward. I almost thought we weren’t going to make it…then BAM, high five. It was awesome.” Back in 2007, the two had BASE-jumped dirt bikes into the Grand Canyon. It had been Roner’s first time on a dirt bike.  

With 60 shows lined up this year, the athletes are required to travel for months at a time with a massive crew, but love for the sport keeps everyone close. “We’re together, we’re a mold. Nitro started off as a small group, they tweaked who was right for the group, and it just grew from there. It’s kind of like a family really, and we stick together so well because it’s straight out passion,” says Jed Mildon from Taupo, New Zealand. In 2011, Mildon landed instant fame performing BMX’s biggest trick: a triple back flip. Training almost 40 athletes for the performance is no easy task, as it requires each individual to think as a team and see the bigger picture. From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem like landing the boldest trick is the most difficult part, but Pastrana says otherwise. “On the entry run, these guys are so passionate. They think, ‘I’m going to be the best,’ see the rest of the team as competition, and not think of the show. So you have to tell them we’re putting on a show, slow it down and do an easy trick, then build it up from there. So it’s the opposite of what you think, holding back is the hard part. Doing the gnarly stuff? No problem.”  

Nitro Circus received an incredible response in Japan, attracting 76,000 spectators over four shows. Their Tokyo show was their second biggest audience ever. “I’d never been to Japan, and honestly, we didn’t know what to expect, but it’s exceeded our expectations. A lot of the guys were nervous about the food, but it was the best ever, everyone’s so nice, and it’s been one of the greatest experiences we’ve ever had touring,” Pastrana says while expressing hope of returning next year. “As for future tours, I would like to go to Chile and Argentina; there’s a good market there. At the end of the day, we want to be with a culture that enjoys what we do, where we can share that passion,” he said.  

Although Nitro Circus is a much larger production now than when it first began 13 years ago, the core spirit persists. “We’re in a different stage right now. We’re bigger, but (Travis’) goal is still the same, to change action sports until it’s so rad. He wants to do this because it’s fun, and he wants his friends to come along for the ride,” says producer and one of the Nitro Circus creators, Jeremy Rawle.  

What does the future hold for Nitro Circus? These passionate, innovative and downright crazy athletes are primed to push the limits of action sports. Nitro Circus Live will be touring Australia, the U.S. and Europe and featuring an all-new TV series, “Crazy Train,” which will air on NBC later this year. For more information and tour dates visit http://nitrocircus.com.  

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