Off-road superstar Ricky Carmichael in conversation
Hail Ricky Carmichael the new king of US off-road! He convincingly beat legend and seven-time champion Jeremy McGrath in this year’s EA Sports Supercross series. And he dominated the outdoor Chevy Trucks 250 Motocross Nationals too. But the biggest shock of the year came when the 21- year-old from Florida recently switched to Honda after a lengthy career riding Kawasakis.
MCN Sport: You raced the factory Honda CR250 for the first time at the non-championship THQ Open supercross at Las Vegas and beat everyone, including McGrath, to pick up that massive $100,000 cheque plus bonuses. Is that form indicative of what everyone will see next year?
Carmichael: I hope so, but I think the competition will be a lot harder next season. It seems like everyone now has a trainer and is taking it more seriously. Jeremy is always going to be hard to beat, and I'm sure we'll see stronger performances from people like Kevin (Windham – Team Suzuki), Ezra (Lusk – replacing Carmichael at Kawasaki).
MCN Sport: How many years did you race Kawasakis?
Carmichael: Fourteen. I first rode a Kawasaki at age six and was a Team Green support rider from the age of seven. I signed to ride for Mitch Payton’s Pro Circuit team (factory supported) in 1997 and became a full factory Kawasaki rider in 1998.
MCN Sport: So why Honda?
Carmichael: The Honda suspension suits me better. My Kawasaki was definitely a lot better last year in supercross and I didn't ride anything else until after the season ended and contract negotiations began. I tested several different bikes but found the Honda handled a lot better. It's like it doesn't get away from me as quickly as my Kawi and I feel more in control - less on the (ragged) edge. Probably it’s because I'm on the short side and most bike set-ups aren't directed to handle that. After some testing we were able to make some adjustments to the Honda that gave me a noticeable advantage.
MCN Sport: You comprehensively beat McGrath in this year’s supercross series – and equalled his all-time record of winning 14 races (out of 16) in the season – 13 of them in succession. Yet he’s dominated for so long. Did you expect to end his reign with such a superb year?
Carmichael: No way. I think I caught Jeremy off guard when I won races early in the series. But you never know if it’s going to be possible to repeat a few good weekends. Then a few more races go by, and by that time, if you’re winning, you’re carrying a lot of mental confidence and the other guys are trying to catch up. It's a hard thing to do, I've been on the other side a lot and I know mental confidence as well as being physically prepared can really be a major part of winning.
MCN Sport: You ‘only’ finished fifth in the supercross series in 2000. What made the difference this year?
Carmichael: I think my bike was better but I had trained hard all winter and was in better physical condition too.
MCN Sport: So is McGrath washed up?
Carmichael: I doubt it but I don't look for McGrath to race into his 30's like (Mike) LaRocco. MC's won so many championships – in supercross and outdoors - and I know now even one doesn’t come easy. He definitely knows what it takes to be a champion and you never loose that. I think he'll always be as competitive until the day he retires.
MCN Sport: Was there a time when you would have idolised McGrath?
Carmichael: For sure. When I was ten or eleven, and riding in juniors, I raced in California one time and stayed at Jeremy’s place. He was riding for Mitch at that time and I just kinda’ looked up to him.
MCN Sport: Did you have any other idols?
Carmichael: Just the old guys who won championships. In those days there were maybe five or six guys battling for the title, week in, week out. It was awesome to see guys like (Jeff) Stanton, (Rick) Johnson, (Damon) Bradshaw, and Jeff Ward. It’s only now I can appreciate just how hard it must have been.
MCN Sport: Do you still have a rider you look up to?
Carmichael: Johnny O’Mara. He made it back when racing was a lot harder - so he tells me. We’re very similar people. We both train hard, although he probably trains harder than I do and he ain't even racing much anymore. Neither of us do the party scene. He's married and I have my girlfriend Ursula who I've been with for a long time. We all get along like old married people.
MCN Sport: So come clean, which gives you the biggest buzz – racing motocross or supercross?
Carmichael: Motocross every time. It’s more natural to me. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a kid. Supercross I really have to work at. Always have had to.
MCN Sport: But supercross sells out most places – like 50,000 at every venue. How much bigger can it get?
Carmichael: I just hope it doesn’t change. The supercross season at 16 races is more than it’s ever been. The industry has been really strong since I've been in it and, unless things take a drastic change in the economy, I think it'll stay on an upward swing.
MCN Sport: Do you have a desire to come to Europe and show the world you are the best motocross racer – or do you think dominating the racing in the States kind of suggests that anyway?
Carmichael: For me, my toughest supercross competitors are the US guys so I need to concentrate on doing good here. Maybe later in my career I’ll do some European stuff.
MCN Sport: Freestyle, with competitors doing extreme stunts on motocross bikes, enjoys massive hype in the States. As a racer, how do you feel about that?
Carmichael: I think it’s confusing for the spectators because they think we should be able to do those tricks (when we’re racing).
MCN Sport: Travis Pastrana does! He races in motocross and supercross for the works Suzuki team and, to the chagrin of his team boss, Roger DeCoster, remains a leading freestyle competitor. Does doing both improve his game – or take the edge off him becoming a better racer?
Carmichael: Well his first year (as a pro in ‘99) went good for him but this last year he’s had some problems so who knows?
MCN Sport: Your season runs pretty much from January to October. Do you have time for hobbies?
Carmichael: There’s really not that much time during our off-season to get too involved in anything. A day off during summer means not being on a tight schedule so I can train, watch TV, go wakeboarding, go out to eat. In the winter it's about the same. Instead of wakeboarding I probably get started a little later in the day and then in the evening I'd go hunting.
MCN Sport: Who’s had the biggest influence on your career?
Carmichael: My mom and dad for sure when I was growing up - Jeannie and big Rick. And I talk to Mitch (Payton) all the time. He’s a smart dude!