Ricky Carmichael 2004 MX Rider Of The Year

Flash back three and a half years ago to the 2001 U.S. Open of Supercross in Las Vegas, NV. While the lasers shined and the bass boomed during rider introductions, Ricky Carmichael descended from the catwalks above to the worst possible sound a rider can hear when being thrown in front of a crowd of thousands. In an ostentatious display of showmanship that could only be found in Vegas, the promoters dressed Ricky in a cape and crown while introducing him as the new King of Supercross, but it was obvious that the fans just weren’t having it as they booed and hissed at RC. Carmichael was being jeered off his throne, accused by the largely inebriated pack of fans of being a “sellout” for his brand switch to Honda, among other things. If that weren’t bad enough, RC was decimating the field so badly that people were becoming bored watching him win every race he entered, so instead they decided to hate him.

Jump forward a few years to the present time and you’ll see a whole new Ricky Carmichael. Now much more conscious of the crowd, the media, and the entire motocross community in general, Ricky used his time off last year while healing from a knee injury to reflect on his position in the spotlight, and his introspection revealed just how great he had it. At the same time, Carmichael realized he was taking some major things for granted, most notably his fans, and he’s since approached motocross with a whole new attitude and respect.

Ricky’s triumphant return to racing (including a 24-moto sweep in the 2004 MX Nationals) has put the fan troubles behind him once and for all. In a short span of time, RC went from being public enemy number one to the guy with the longest autograph line in the pits again, and his newfound popularity is possibly his most important victory yet. Winning the 2004 TransWorld Motocross Rider of the Year title means that RC has won over the hearts of the fans who once booed him: Ricky Carmichael is now officially the most popular rider in motocross. We recently interviewed the multi-time champ to see how he turned things around and what he expects out of 2005.

Winning the TWMX Rider of the Year award has to mean more to you than it would to most, considering that just a few years ago the fans were booing you…

Yes, it’s a great feeling to win this award. To be honest, I really didn’t feel that I had much of a chance, considering I didn’t even ride Supercross last year, but I think my perfect season outdoors helped push me over the top. I want to thank all of the fans who voted for me, because this is really a special thing.

In your eyes, was winning the outdoor season so convincingly last year the most instrumental ingredient in regaining the respect of the fans?

Yeah, I think that by being injured during the SX season, and then coming back and doing so well outdoors, it really won their support. Also, my switch to a new team for 2005 helped me because it generated a lot of positive press and hype. I’m happy to say that things are finally back to how they used to be.

You’ve always been known as the type of rider who puts his nose to the grindstone and gets the job done whether the fans like you or not. How important is it to you, though, to know the support is there when you line up at the gate?

It’s a great feeling. Coming into Supercross this year especially, I think I’m more accepted and backed by them than ever before and I love it. Also, this year I’m kind of the underdog, and I think the fans like that. It’s not the first thing I think about on the line, but it is a much more comforting feeling knowing that you’ll be cheered for rather than booed when you race.

In your eyes, how were you able to make the transition from Honda to Suzuki so much easier with fans compared to when you left Kawasaki?

For one thing, the year I switched from Kawi to Honda was also the year that I won the 250cc championships and kind of dethroned McGrath, and I don’t think they were too happy abouthat. Also, Honda is such an enormous company that has always been known as the “almighty Honda.” I don’t think the fans like that. For me it was a great move, but the fans see things differently and didn’t like it. The way I was introduced at the U.S. Open didn’t help me out much either, but I was younger back then and didn’t stick up for myself like I should have. I really didn’t want to get introduced that way, but I did it because I didn’t have the nerve to say no. Still, it’s all just water under the bridge now. I’ve grown up a lot in the last few years, and the fans have seen that. They also like me at Suzuki because it’s more of a low-profile team.

Many are predicting that James Stewart’s first year of Supercross will follow along the lines of yours, where you crashed a lot and spent the season adapting to a higher level of competition. What do you expect from him?

He’s going to be great; he’s a great rider. I’m very excited to race with him, but the same question lies in my head. I know he’s going to be really fast, everybody knows that. I just wonder if he’ll be able to make it through all 16 rounds. It will be very interesting to see. He could surprise everybody and do really well, or he could have some rookie mistakes. Only time will tell, I guess.

What effect do this year’s U.S. Open results have on your psyche coming into a new season on a new bike?

It was good. That race gave me a lot of confidence. The first night didn’t go like I wanted it to, but the second night made up for it in terms of my riding. I came back the following day a whole new rider and was much more aggressive. We’ve also made leaps and bounds on the bike since then, which helps me with my confidence even more. That race really helped me mentally. To see how well I did on the bike back then and also knowing how much better it is now really puts me into a good position coming into Anaheim.

Speaking of your bike, compare and contrast your Suzuki with your Hondas from previous years…

There are quite a few differences between the two. The two-stroke Suzuki engine is really good, and I’m also now back to a steel frame instead of an aluminum one. That’s nice. Each bike has its strong points and its not-so-strong points. Like I said, though, the Suzuki’s engine is so good that it in turn makes the suspension really good because everything on the bike acts as one while you’re riding it. I’m very confident with my equipment this year, I’ll just say that.

Did joining Suzuki breathe new wind into your sails from a motivational perspective?

Definitely. Between the new team and the fact that I didn’t race Supercross last year, I feel totally rejuvenated and ready to race. I have a whole new spark, and I’m hungry to win. I think I needed something like that to make things interesting again and mix it up a little. New goals are what keeps this sport fresh all the time for me.

Roger DeCoster was obviously very excited to get a rider of your caliber and dedication on the team. How has your relationship been thus far, and what have you learned from him?

My actual riding may not be that affected yet, but the added confidence of seeing how hard he works to get my bike working as good as it possibly can is great. It’s nice to have a team manager who has the same work ethic that I do. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to work with both Erik Kehoe when I was at Honda, and now with DeCoster at Suzuki. Those guys have both raced at the same level that I am at so they know what I need and what I go through on a daily basis as a racer.

Considering your dominance outdoors, do you look more forward to defending your title there or regaining it in Supercross?

Without a question, I look forward to regaining the Supercross title. I’ve accomplished quite a bit outdoors, and I really don’t have as much to prove there as I do in SX. I still have some goals indoors that I would like to meet, so it’s a little more motivating for me. There’s still a lot on the table.

Now that’s it’s all over with, you can come clean. Did you secretly have a goal to win every outdoor round again last year, or did you really think it was an impossibility like you claimed prior to the start?

(Laughs) No, my real goal that I didn’t really talk about was to win at least nine races. I wanted to win the first six, and then maybe a couple more after that. I really didn’t expect to win every one again-that feeling didn’t start until after about round seven or eight. There are so many factors with weather and other riders and the bike that I honestly didn’t think I could go 24 and 0 again until past the halfway point. As we were training and preparing going into last season my trainer kept telling me that we need to go 24 straight again, but I told him he was crazy!

You previously claimed that you were pushing your CR250R to the limits outdoors, so last year you decided to ride a four-stroke. Did you feel the same way on the thumper, or was it more than enough bike for you?

No, on the 450 I never had the problem of needing more power-if anything, I had too much! You definitely have to ride those bikes with respect and control or you can wind up on your head fast. I really enjoyed riding the 450 last year, and it made the season go by quickly because I never got too beat up on it or ate too much roost like I did on the two-stroke. There’s so much more power to work with when riding a 450 that you don’t exert yourself physically quite so much.

With all of that extra power on tap, did you ever have any scary moments that no one knew about?

Oh yeah. There were times that nobody ever really knew about where things got really scary, I’ll just say that. That thing can get away from you pretty quick!

What were your initial thoughts after spending a couple days aboard the Suzuki? Did you like it immediately, or did it require some getting used to?

My initial thought after a day on the bike was that it was a lot of fun, and I felt good on it pretty quickly. Being on a new bike was really exciting and motivating, and it was also fun being back on a two-stroke again after spending the summer on a 450. It was a fun day, but it wasn’t until about day five or six when I really realized just how awesome the bike is and began feeling totally comfortable on it.

Had Suzuki been more prepared with their 450, would you have considered racing it in SX this year, or were you set on the two-stroke since the beginning?

No. I still think that if all of my competition is on a two-stroke then I need to be on a two-stroke. The two-strokes are so developed and dialed in for Supercross, but all of the 450s still need a little work for the indoor races. My mind was pretty much made up beforehand to race the 250.

In 2003, you struggled a bit in the whoops. Has switching bikes had any effect on this problem either way?

You know, it’s weird, but my first couple of years I loved the whoops. My motto was “the bigger the better”; bring them on. However, my last year on the Honda made me a little gun-shy for some reason because of the bike set-up as well as the engine characteristics. Now these things are the least of my worries again and I can set goals of making consistent lap times instead of worrying about just making it through alive, and that’s a big confidence builder. That’s important,because whoops are all about confidence.

At this stage in your career, are you still learning things on the bike all the time, or are you pretty set in your ways now?

No, I still learn things all of the time. I may not learn something new every day, but I do still pick things up here and there. The 450 taught me a lot, that’s for sure. Each season I’ve learned some major lessons, and I think it makes me that much stronger going into the next one.

You and James grew up pretty close to one another in Florida, and you’ve known the Stewart family forever. Does it feel strange that he’s now one of ystill a lot on the table.

Now that’s it’s all over with, you can come clean. Did you secretly have a goal to win every outdoor round again last year, or did you really think it was an impossibility like you claimed prior to the start?

(Laughs) No, my real goal that I didn’t really talk about was to win at least nine races. I wanted to win the first six, and then maybe a couple more after that. I really didn’t expect to win every one again-that feeling didn’t start until after about round seven or eight. There are so many factors with weather and other riders and the bike that I honestly didn’t think I could go 24 and 0 again until past the halfway point. As we were training and preparing going into last season my trainer kept telling me that we need to go 24 straight again, but I told him he was crazy!

You previously claimed that you were pushing your CR250R to the limits outdoors, so last year you decided to ride a four-stroke. Did you feel the same way on the thumper, or was it more than enough bike for you?

No, on the 450 I never had the problem of needing more power-if anything, I had too much! You definitely have to ride those bikes with respect and control or you can wind up on your head fast. I really enjoyed riding the 450 last year, and it made the season go by quickly because I never got too beat up on it or ate too much roost like I did on the two-stroke. There’s so much more power to work with when riding a 450 that you don’t exert yourself physically quite so much.

With all of that extra power on tap, did you ever have any scary moments that no one knew about?

Oh yeah. There were times that nobody ever really knew about where things got really scary, I’ll just say that. That thing can get away from you pretty quick!

What were your initial thoughts after spending a couple days aboard the Suzuki? Did you like it immediately, or did it require some getting used to?

My initial thought after a day on the bike was that it was a lot of fun, and I felt good on it pretty quickly. Being on a new bike was really exciting and motivating, and it was also fun being back on a two-stroke again after spending the summer on a 450. It was a fun day, but it wasn’t until about day five or six when I really realized just how awesome the bike is and began feeling totally comfortable on it.

Had Suzuki been more prepared with their 450, would you have considered racing it in SX this year, or were you set on the two-stroke since the beginning?

No. I still think that if all of my competition is on a two-stroke then I need to be on a two-stroke. The two-strokes are so developed and dialed in for Supercross, but all of the 450s still need a little work for the indoor races. My mind was pretty much made up beforehand to race the 250.

In 2003, you struggled a bit in the whoops. Has switching bikes had any effect on this problem either way?

You know, it’s weird, but my first couple of years I loved the whoops. My motto was “the bigger the better”; bring them on. However, my last year on the Honda made me a little gun-shy for some reason because of the bike set-up as well as the engine characteristics. Now these things are the least of my worries again and I can set goals of making consistent lap times instead of worrying about just making it through alive, and that’s a big confidence builder. That’s important,because whoops are all about confidence.

At this stage in your career, are you still learning things on the bike all the time, or are you pretty set in your ways now?

No, I still learn things all of the time. I may not learn something new every day, but I do still pick things up here and there. The 450 taught me a lot, that’s for sure. Each season I’ve learned some major lessons, and I think it makes me that much stronger going into the next one.

You and James grew up pretty close to one another in Florida, and you’ve known the Stewart family forever. Does it feel strange that he’s now one of your biggest rivals on the track?

It’s funny, because I’ve known James for so many years now, but I still tend to think of him as a little kid or something even though he’s now going to be racing the premier 250cc class with me. We all grow up so fast, and it’s funny for me to look at him as a grown-up rider now. He’s got a long career ahead of him, and he’s definitely going to do well, but I guess it is a little strange for me to see where he’s at.

With all of your experience, what do you feel it’s going to take to win the SX title this year, especially considering all of the stiff competition you’ll face?

It’s all going to come down to experience and consistency. There are a few guys who now have the speed, which will make things interesting all year long, but at the end it’s going to be the rider who can stick in there for all 16 rounds without making any major mistakes or having bike problems. One little thing can totally effect your season now, so it’s going to be exciting. For me, I’m not going to sit around and worry about how many individual race wins I have. My main goal comes at the end, in the form of the title. I think that everyone is going to jump to conclusions after Anaheim based on that one race only, but they need to remember that it’s a long year and lots of things can happen. The season is going to get really good after Daytona. If you leave there in a good position in the points chase, you’re looking pretty good. That’s when the tough riders start to shine through.

AND THE VOTES ARE IN…

This year’s TransWorld Motocross Rider of the Year Award was an easy one to call. As you can see, Ricky Carmichael overwhelmingly swept the polls. Here’show the rest of the field shook down…

Ricky Carmichael 43.2%
Chad Reed 22.8%
James Stewart 16.4%
Broc Hepler 10%
Kevin Windham 4.4%
Others 3.2%of your biggest rivals on the track?

It’s funny, because I’ve known James for so many years now, but I still tend to think of him as a little kid or something even though he’s now going to be racing the premier 250cc class with me. We all grow up so fast, and it’s funny for me to look at him as a grown-up rider now. He’s got a long career ahead of him, and he’s definitely going to do well, but I guess it is a little strange for me to see where he’s at.

With all of your experience, what do you feel it’s going to take to win the SX title this year, especially considering all of the stiff competition you’ll face?

It’s all going to come down to experience and consistency. There are a few guys who now have the speed, which will make things interesting all year long, but at the end it’s going to be the rider who can stick in there for all 16 rounds without making any major mistakes or having bike problems. One little thing can totally effect your season now, so it’s going to be exciting. For me, I’m not going to sit around and worry about how many individual race wins I have. My main goal comes at the end, in the form of the title. I think that everyone is going to jump to conclusions after Anaheim based on that one race only, but they need to remember that it’s a long year and lots of things can happen. The season is going to get really good after Daytona. If you leave there in a good position in the points chase, you’re looking pretty good. That’s when the tough riders start to shine through.

AND THE VOTES ARE IN…

This year’s TransWorld Motocross Rider of the Year Award was an easy one to call. As you can see, Ricky Carmichael overwhelmingly swept the polls. Here’show the rest of the field shook down…

Ricky Carmichael 43.2%
Chad Reed 22.8%
James Stewart 16.4%
Broc Hepler 10%
Kevin Windham 4.4%
Others 3.2%