AMERICAN IDOL – Ricky Carmichael is Motocross

Sure, the 2004 Supercross series was exciting. Chad Reed and Kevin Windham provided plenty of thrills in their battle for the championship, Mike LaRocco scored a sentimental hometown win, Travis Pastrana made an exciting, albeit brief return to racing, Ivan Tedesco emerged a new superstar, and James Stewart danced his way to victory after victory.

Still, something was missing.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past four months, you already know exactly what that missing ingredient was: defending Supercross Champion Ricky Carmichael. With a last-minute bike switch in pre-season testing, plenty of buzz circled around the Carmichael camp in the weeks approaching the Anaheim 1 season opener. A nagging knee injury that RC had sustained several months earlier in preparation for the Motocross des Nations, however, finally caught up with the champ with only days left before the first race of the season. Just like that, RC was sidelined and scheduled for surgery, and the 2004 Supercross Series was without a champion.

Carmichael had a patella tendon graft surgery to replace his torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and spent the following three months rehabilitating his tender limb. During that time, he attended several races as a spectator, dabbled in television co-hosting at some of them, and followed others on the Internet. This was the first championship that Carmichael has failed to defend and a tremendously bitter pill to swallow as well.

With only six weeks to prepare for the 2004 250cc National Championship Series opener at Hangtown, Carmichael returned to the track and jumped headfirst into “Boot Camp,” his and his trainer Aldon Baker’s version of all-out training and preparation for the series that lay ahead. TransWorld Motocross was fortunate to catch up with RC at his home in Florida on what was only his fourth day back on a bike. With only a month to get into race shape and become comfortable on his new Honda CRF450R, plus a highly—publicized switch to Team Suzuki for ’05, Carmichael decided to deny all media requests for interviews, photo shoots, and visits once our time with him was done.

“I’ve got a job that needs to be done,” he said. “And I need to dedicate 100% of my time and effort into defending the 250cc National Championship this summer. It was tough to watch Reed win the Supercross Championship without me there, and I’ll be damned if I let this one go, too.”

Seeing RC in action on the booming four-stroke at his private track was something that I will never forget. With the abundant power of the 450 on tap, RC was forced to abandon his trademark wide-open riding style and adopt a smoother, more calculated technique. Though it was hard to get used to at first, seeing Carmichael ride this way was thoroughly awe-inspiring, and it’s obvious that he and the big red thumper are a pairing that will make for a very long summer for his competition. Off the bike, RC exuded enthusiasm about his return to racing and it’s obvious that the time off did wonders for his motivation level. Already one of the most dedicated riders on the circuit, the Ricky I spent time with was even more focused than before. Older, wiser, and definitely more mature than he was as a 17-year-old phenom, the Ricky Carmichael that we’ll get to see in the coming months is going to be unforgettable.

Clear something up for us, Ricky. The pre-season rumor mill said that after the team poster photo shoot, you spun a couple laps on Kevin Windham’s four-stroke, just for kicks, then realized that you liked it and made a last-minute decision to switch. What really happened?

Riding the 450 was actually in the back of my mind the whole time I was testing the two-stroke in the pre-season, but I kept it to myself. The CR250R was not coming along like I wanted it to, and I made the decision then to switch. The story did say that I rode K-Dub’s bike, but I had actually made plans to test the bike earlier in the week. I wanted to de it, get used to it, and see what the lap times looked like. When I was riding it, I was a second and a half faster on the four-stroke, on average. It is the bike for me, for sure. Last year during the outdoor season—once I got a comfortable points lead—I started to ride a stock ’03 CRF450R at home to try and get used to it. I knew that the four-strokes were the way of the future and I had a hunch that I would be on one this season. At home, on a stock bike, I was faster than I was on my full works 250.

Last season you had some great battles with Windham. Were there times that you felt that you were at a disadvantage, and did those battles influence your decision to switch?

Oh, yeah, for sure. There were definitely times in the Nationals when I felt like I was at a disadvantage, and I feel like I deserve to be on the best equipment, or at least equal equipment, as the other guys. There were times last year that I got beat strictly because of me, but there were several times when I got beat solely because of the equipment disadvantage to the four-stroke. Take Unadilla, for example. I thought I was gonna blow my bike up because I was riding so hard. There were times that I could see the four-stroke getting better and better. When we were testing, the guys would come from Japan with all this new technology for the four-stroke. Gaining a one percent improvement on my CR250R was hard and I would be pumped to get it, but I could see the four-stroke making these huge strides forward and I knew that I needed to be on one eventually.

Okay, so the textbook Ricky Carmichael style is wide-open, balls-to-the-wall. How the hell did you adapt to the smooth, patient style that a four-stroke requires?

(Laughs) You know, I’ve been around for a long time and I think that I am a veteran now. I’ve learned how to respect a bike. I attribute that to my first year-and-a-half on a 250; look at how many times I got whiskey throttle and bailed off in Supercross! (Laughs) On a four-stroke, you have to respect the bike and you have to respect the track, or you’ll be on your butt. On a 250, I have to ride it so hard to stay competitive with the four-strokes, but on the 450 I can sit back and concentrate and ride with a more calculated approach.

So tell us about the injury…

I already had a blown-out knee when I started testing the 450. I hurt it back in September when we were testing for the des Nations, and I had several episodes when it would pop out and tear the crap out of the insides. I was going to try and tough it out through the ’04 season, but it came out on the first day of testing the 450, only a couple weeks before Anaheim. It was then that I had to make the decision to either struggle with it all year, or get it fixed the right way and miss Supercross. I knew that I had to swallow my pride and get it fixed.

You sure did an awesome job of hiding it at the U.S. Open and the MXdN…

Oh yeah. I was going to try and tough it out, at least through Supercross, because that is what is most important to Honda. I didn’t know for sure that my ACL was completely blown out, and I kept seeing doctor after doctor for more opinions. I felt good from the U.S. Open until about the time it popped out on the 450. Training was going great and I was thinking that the injury was finally behind me.

Why is it so important for a racer to keep an injury a secret?

Well, you don’t want to go airing your dirty laundry. The sport is huge, but the industry is small. You can’t go to the bathroom without everyone knowing, and I didn’t want it out there that I had a flaw in my system. You don’t want your competition to know, because that will help their confidence if they think you are not at your best.

How have you handled the time off thus far?

You know, to be totally honest, the break was nice. It was nice to be home for the holidays and not have to worry about Anaheim being right around the corner. I was in pain from the surgery, but it was great to be home with my family on Christmas. When I was able to start walking, though, that’s when I started to get anxious. Where I am at in my career, the break has given me a new boost and made me hungry again. I think that it has done wonders for the longevity of my career. The time off has given me a new goal. I have accomplished a lot in my career, and if I had won again this season, what really would there have been left for me to do? Now my big challenge is to return after the time off and win again, and I am excited and up to the challenge.

So with four days of riding under your belt, how are you feeling? Are things as good as you had hoped they’d be at this point?

Things are good; I feel great as far as my conditioning is concerned. Still, there is nothing like riding to get back into shape; you can train as hard as you want, but it’s just not the same as riding. I know my hands are sure tender and soft. I’m being careful not to overdo it at first and blister up, because then I’ll have those to deal with and that’s a pain in the butt. I’m just glad to be back on the bike and riding again, more than anything. The break made me realize just how much I love what I do.

Has riding ever felt like a job to you?

Oh yeah. If you are racing at this level and there aren’t times when riding and racing feel like a job, then you are only cheating yourself. Winning doesn’t come easy and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. If it doesn’t feel like a job at times, I would guess that you are probably not getting the results that you’d like to be getting, either.

Is six weeks going to be enough time for you to prepare for the Nationals?

Yes. I am glad to be making my comeback outdoors, rather than in Supercross. I have always felt that my strength is outdoors riding, and coming back into the Nationals will be easier than it would have in Supercross. Do I think I can win Hangtown? If I am healthy, yes. I am excited to get out there and see what everybody has got. I definitely want to make a statement at the first race, but if I find myself not up to the task, I will hang back and settle for a lesser finish with the plan of improving as time goes on. You know what I really can’t wait for, though? It’s seeing the fans again. I miss the autograph signings and I miss meeting people. I can’t wait to take that parade lap at Hangtown and hear the fans screaming.

It’s said that everyone loves an underdog. Even though you are the defending 250cc National Champion, does this injury make you the underdog?

(Laughs) Yeah, I think so. That’s the great thing about this sport: you are only as good as your last race! I’ll be the underdog to some people, but I think I will have an advantage in some people’s eyes because of what I have accomplished. I am looking forward to getting back out there; I really miss it. It was strange when Jeremy first retired, and I’m sure that it felt strange without me out there this season, too. People have told me that they miss me out there, and that really makes me feel good. To know that some fans regard me as a special person makes me feel better than you can even imagine. I have worked hard my whole life to be good at what I do, and I am honored to be in the position as a role model. It means a lot.

If you think about it, you pretty much changed motocross when you hit the scene. When you were a rookie, motocross was all about parties and silk leisure suits, but now it’s returned to the hard-core training mentality of the O’Mara/Bailey era, thanks largely to you…

(Laughs) You know, I have always worked really hard and taken racing very seriously. I don’t know if I can take credit for the way everyone is so professional now, but I do know that I made things more competitive. I think the sport should be serious. The sponsors spend a lot of money and I think that the racers should earn their money. I’ve always said that you get out of it what you put into it, and that has been a key to my success.So with four days of riding under your belt, how are you feeling? Are things as good as you had hoped they’d be at this point?

Things are good; I feel great as far as my conditioning is concerned. Still, there is nothing like riding to get back into shape; you can train as hard as you want, but it’s just not the same as riding. I know my hands are sure tender and soft. I’m being careful not to overdo it at first and blister up, because then I’ll have those to deal with and that’s a pain in the butt. I’m just glad to be back on the bike and riding again, more than anything. The break made me realize just how much I love what I do.

Has riding ever felt like a job to you?

Oh yeah. If you are racing at this level and there aren’t times when riding and racing feel like a job, then you are only cheating yourself. Winning doesn’t come easy and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. If it doesn’t feel like a job at times, I would guess that you are probably not getting the results that you’d like to be getting, either.

Is six weeks going to be enough time for you to prepare for the Nationals?

Yes. I am glad to be making my comeback outdoors, rather than in Supercross. I have always felt that my strength is outdoors riding, and coming back into the Nationals will be easier than it would have in Supercross. Do I think I can win Hangtown? If I am healthy, yes. I am excited to get out there and see what everybody has got. I definitely want to make a statement at the first race, but if I find myself not up to the task, I will hang back and settle for a lesser finish with the plan of improving as time goes on. You know what I really can’t wait for, though? It’s seeing the fans again. I miss the autograph signings and I miss meeting people. I can’t wait to take that parade lap at Hangtown and hear the fans screaming.

It’s said that everyone loves an underdog. Even though you are the defending 250cc National Champion, does this injury make you the underdog?

(Laughs) Yeah, I think so. That’s the great thing about this sport: you are only as good as your last race! I’ll be the underdog to some people, but I think I will have an advantage in some people’s eyes because of what I have accomplished. I am looking forward to getting back out there; I really miss it. It was strange when Jeremy first retired, and I’m sure that it felt strange without me out there this season, too. People have told me that they miss me out there, and that really makes me feel good. To know that some fans regard me as a special person makes me feel better than you can even imagine. I have worked hard my whole life to be good at what I do, and I am honored to be in the position as a role model. It means a lot.

If you think about it, you pretty much changed motocross when you hit the scene. When you were a rookie, motocross was all about parties and silk leisure suits, but now it’s returned to the hard-core training mentality of the O’Mara/Bailey era, thanks largely to you…

(Laughs) You know, I have always worked really hard and taken racing very seriously. I don’t know if I can take credit for the way everyone is so professional now, but I do know that I made things more competitive. I think the sport should be serious. The sponsors spend a lot of money and I think that the racers should earn their money. I’ve always said that you get out of it what you put into it, and that has been a key to my success.

Last issue I interviewed Mike LaRocco about his whole career, and when asked what he had to say about the 2000 season he said that when he saw how fast you were, he decided that he didn’t like outdoor motocross anymore….

He said that? That’s a really nice thing for a guy like The Rock to say. I’m pumped! I think that I definitely stepped up the level of competition outdoors, with the way that you have to ride hard to the very end nowadays. I like to finish a race just as hard as I start it, regardless of where my competition is.

Changing tunes a little bit; looking back on how much things like rider salaries have changed in the eight years that you have been a pro, doesn’t it blow you away?

I think that you should be paid according to the risk involved. I love what I do, but there is a serious risk out there in racing. I have some friends who are not as fortunate as you and I. It’s nice to see the riders getting paid what they deserve these days, and that goes not only for the factory guys, but for the privateers as well. Things like the Wonder Warthog Program for the privateers are really great. What that guy does is incredible, as are all of these new privateer programs now. You know what cracks me up? I signed for $30,000 my first season, and now there are guys coming into the pro ranks getting 10 times that much. I have never been a jealous person and that doesn’t bother me at all, but I think it’s funny how guys who haven’t proven themselves at all are commanding all this money. It’s cool, actually.

So with your new two-year deal that will see you racing through ’06, it’s obvious that you don’t plan on retiring any time soon…

Yeah, I definitely want to race for a long time to come. I feel that with this break I have some new things to prove now and I am looking forward to the new challenges. I am really excited about next season; I think that it is going to be a very special season. A lot of people wanted to see me race against Travis Pastrana when he came up through the ranks, but that never really panned out. Now Bubba will be in the 250cc class in ’05 and that is the big hype: me versus Stewart. That is what everyone wants to see, and I think the fan participation is going to be unreal. I am glad to be racing against Bubba and I think he is glad to be racing against me. I am more motivated for next season than I have been since the year I first beat Jeremy. I am gonna prepare my butt off and see what happens.

How is your relationship with Bubba?

Oh, we’re fine with each other. I have known him since he was a little kid on 60s and 80s. We have a lot in common because we’re both hard workers, we’re both from Florida, and we both enjoyed a lot of success right when we turned pro. A lot of riders are jealous of that, and as a result neither of us have a whole lot of friends that we race against. We see eye to eye, for sure. I have a lot of respect for the kid. He has a whole different way of riding and there are times when I watch him and just shake my head. He does some weird things on the bike, dude. It’s always like that, though. Jeremy changed things when he hit the scene, and so did I. Bubba is doing crap that we have never seen before. (Laughs) I’ll tell you what, though, I am not gonna beat myself up this coming off-season thinking about racing him. I have never raced against the guy, so I don’t know where I stand. I will wait until the first race to figure out where I need work or where I am sitting pretty. It is going to be exciting, that’s all I know!

When you switched to Honda back in ’02, you stated that you made the switch because you felt that Honda had the most technology. How did those feelings apply to your switch for the ’05 season?

That is a hard question to answer. I always try to put myself in the best position that I can. When I switched to Honda, I felt that machinery-wise, I was at a dead-end at Kawasaki. For next year, I think that I have a great chance to win, no matter what I am oon. I have a lot of experience and I know that my training program is the best out there. I think I have the best all-around program, and that will make it interesting.

It seems really early to be signing a contract for next season. Here it is only April, and we all already know what you will be riding next January…

Yeah, I know. But when I did my Honda deal, I did it even earlier. I had an offer from Honda at the first Anaheim in ’01 and I pretty much knew that I was gonna be leaving Kawasaki. That didn’t keep me from giving it my all, though; I won both titles that season. As the sport gets more professional and the deals get bigger, I think you’ll see deals being signed earlier and earlier. Look at Juan Montoya; that guy is going to drive for Mercedes, but he still has a year and a half left on his contract with BMW. That’s pretty funny.

Some may wonder what type of environment you will have through the Nationals with Team Honda, when both you and the team know you will be leaving…

What’s done is done for next year, and I have a job to do, and that is to dedicate my whole summer to winning the National Championship. I am going to dedicate 100% for myself, for my team and for all the guys at the shop who have been patiently awaiting my return, and for the fans. I know that I will be on the best bike this year with the best support, and I have all the ingredients needed to win another title. I am just looking forward to putting everything behind me now and concentrating on the task at hand. I’m not going to talk about my switch because now it’s water under the bridge and I have a job to do.

In a way, it’s probably good because you can concentrate on the series, all series long…

…exactly, and not have to worry about what I am doing next year. I’m in a great position. I am dedicating everything to this summer and winning one more title for Honda.

With all of the amazing things that you have accomplished with Honda—the titles, the perfect season—why the decision to switch?

You know, I really don’t wanna talk about it that much. What’s done is done and I am always going to commit myself to winning the title and look forward. I am always looking forward.

Any special message that you would like to send to your fans?

I just want to say that I am looking forward to returning. I can’t wait to see my fans again. I saw all the banners at the Supercrosses that people made for me this year and I really appreciate it. You never realize how much you miss things until you are not there, and I really, really miss the fans cheering for me and seeing people who appreciate what I do. It means a lot to me when people support me, and I am looking forward to making you proud. See you at the races! st issue I interviewed Mike LaRocco about his whole career, and when asked what he had to say about the 2000 season he said that when he saw how fast you were, he decided that he didn’t like outdoor motocross anymore….

He said that? That’s a really nice thing for a guy like The Rock to say. I’m pumped! I think that I definitely stepped up the level of competition outdoors, with the way that you have to ride hard to the very end nowadays. I like to finish a race just as hard as I start it, regardless of where my competition is.

Changing tunes a little bit; looking back on how much things like rider salaries have changed in the eight years that you have been a pro, doesn’t it blow you away?

I think that you should be paid according to the risk involved. I love what I do, but there is a serious risk out there in racing. I have some friends who are not as fortunate as you and I. It’s nice to see the riders getting paid what they deserve these days, and that goes not only for the factory guys, but for the privateers as well. Things like the Wonder Warthog Program for the privateers are really great. What that guy does is incredible, as are all of these new privateer programs now. You know what cracks me up? I signed for $30,000 my first season, and now there are guys coming into the pro ranks getting 10 times that much. I have never been a jealous person and that doesn’t bother me at all, but I think it’s funny how guys who haven’t proven themselves at all are commanding all this money. It’s cool, actually.

So with your new two-year deal that will see you racing through ’06, it’s obvious that you don’t plan on retiring any time soon…

Yeah, I definitely want to race for a long time to come. I feel that with this break I have some new things to prove now and I am looking forward to the new challenges. I am really excited about next season; I think that it is going to be a very special season. A lot of people wanted to see me race against Travis Pastrana when he came up through the ranks, but that never really panned out. Now Bubba will be in the 250cc class in ’05 and that is the big hype: me versus Stewart. That is what everyone wants to see, and I think the fan participation is going to be unreal. I am glad to be racing against Bubba and I think he is glad to be racing against me. I am more motivated for next season than I have been since the year I first beat Jeremy. I am gonna prepare my butt off and see what happens.

How is your relationship with Bubba?

Oh, we’re fine with each other. I have known him since he was a little kid on 60s and 80s. We have a lot in common because we’re both hard workers, we’re both from Florida, and we both enjoyed a lot of success right when we turned pro. A lot of riders are jealous of that, and as a result neither of us have a whole lot of friends that we race against. We see eye to eye, for sure. I have a lot of respect for the kid. He has a whole different way of riding and there are times when I watch him and just shake my head. He does some weird things on the bike, dude. It’s always like that, though. Jeremy changed things when he hit the scene, and so did I. Bubba is doing crap that we have never seen before. (Laughs) I’ll tell you what, though, I am not gonna beat myself up this coming off-season thinking about racing him. I have never raced against the guy, so I don’t know where I stand. I will wait until the first race to figure out where I need work or where I am sitting pretty. It is going to be exciting, that’s all I know!

When you switched to Honda back in ’02, you stated that you made the switch because you felt that Honda had the most technology. How did those feelings apply to your switch for the ’05 season?

That is a hard question to answer. I always try to put myself in the best position that I can. When I switched to Honda, I felt that machinery-wise, I was at a dead-end at Kawasaki. For next year, I think that I have a great chance to win, no matter what I am on. I have a lot of experience and I know that my training program is the best out there. I think I have the best all-around program, and that will make it interesting.

It seems really early to be signing a contract for next season. Here it is only April, and we all already know what you will be riding next January…

Yeah, I know. But when I did my Honda deal, I did it even earlier. I had an offer from Honda at the first Anaheim in ’01 and I pretty much knew that I was gonna be leaving Kawasaki. That didn’t keep me from giving it my all, though; I won both titles that season. As the sport gets more professional and the deals get bigger, I think you’ll see deals being signed earlier and earlier. Look at Juan Montoya; that guy is going to drive for Mercedes, but he still has a year and a half left on his contract with BMW. That’s pretty funny.

Some may wonder what type of environment you will have through the Nationals with Team Honda, when both you and the team know you will be leaving…

What’s done is done for next year, and I have a job to do, and that is to dedicate my whole summer to winning the National Championship. I am going to dedicate 100% for myself, for my team and for all the guys at the shop who have been patiently awaiting my return, and for the fans. I know that I will be on the best bike this year with the best support, and I have all the ingredients needed to win another title. I am just looking forward to putting everything behind me now and concentrating on the task at hand. I’m not going to talk about my switch because now it’s water under the bridge and I have a job to do.

In a way, it’s probably good because you can concentrate on the series, all series long…

…exactly, and not have to worry about what I am doing next year. I’m in a great position. I am dedicating everything to this summer and winning one more title for Honda.

With all of the amazing things that you have accomplished with Honda—the titles, the perfect season—why the decision to switch?

You know, I really don’t wanna talk about it that much. What’s done is done and I am always going to commit myself to winning the title and look forward. I am always looking forward.

Any special message that you would like to send to your fans?

I just want to say that I am looking forward to returning. I can’t wait to see my fans again. I saw all the banners at the Supercrosses that people made for me this year and I really appreciate it. You never realize how much you miss things until you are not there, and I really, really miss the fans cheering for me and seeing people who appreciate what I do. It means a lot to me when people support me, and I am looking forward to making you proud. See you at the races! t I am on. I have a lot of experience and I know that my training program is the best out there. I think I have the best all-around program, and that will make it interesting.

It seems really early to be signing a contract for next season. Here it is only April, and we all already know what you will be riding next January…

Yeah, I know. But when I did my Honda deal, I did it even earlier. I had an offer from Honda at the first Anaheim in ’01 and I pretty much knew that I was gonna be leaving Kawasaki. That didn’t keep me from giving it my all, though; I won both titles that season. As the sport gets more professional and the deals get bigger, I think you’ll see deals being signed earlier and earlier. Look at Juan Montoya; that guy is going to drive for Mercedes, but he still has a year and a half left on his contract with BMW. That’s pretty funny.

Some may wonder what type of environment you will have through the Nationals with Team Honda, when both you and the team know you will be leaving…

What’s done is done for next year, and I have a job to do, and that is to dedicate my whole summer to winning the National Championship. I am going to dedicate 100% for myself, for my team and for all the guys at the shop who have been patiently awaiting my return, and for the fans. I know that I will be on the best bike this year with the best support, and I have all the ingredients needed to win another title. I am just looking forward to putting everything behind me now and concentrating on the task at hand. I’m not going to talk about my switch because now it’s water under the bridge and I have a job to do.

In a way, it’s probably good because you can concentrate on the series, all series long…

…exactly, and not have to worry about what I am doing next year. I’m in a great position. I am dedicating everything to this summer and winning one more title for Honda.

With all of the amazing things that you have accomplished with Honda—the titles, the perfect season—why the decision to switch?

You know, I really don’t wanna talk about it that much. What’s done is done and I am always going to commit myself to winning the title and look forward. I am always looking forward.

Any special message that you would like to send to your fans?

I just want to say that I am looking forward to returning. I can’t wait to see my fans again. I saw all the banners at the Supercrosses that people made for me this year and I really appreciate it. You never realize how much you miss things until you are not there, and I really, really miss the fans cheering for me and seeing people who appreciate what I do. It means a lot to me when people support me, and I am looking forward to making you proud. See you at the races!