The Champion: Ricky Carmichael is up to the Challenge of 2004

By Donn Maeda

Sure, Chad Reed may have beaten defending Supercross Champion Ricky Carmichael in the last six Supercrosses in a row (seven, if you count the U.S. Open), but don’t write the kid from Tallahassee off just yet. Of all the competitors on the circuit, Carmichael is, without a doubt, the hardest-working and most determined of all, and if anything, his Supercross losing streak has motivated him to train and practice even harder in preparation for the 2004 season. With six Supercross wins on the season in ’03 RC may not have been the winningest rider, but he was the smartest and most consistent, and it was he who emerged with the championship trophy when the checkered flag fell on the series.

Credited as the rider who has changed the face of modern-day Supercross, RC’s balls-to-the-wall riding style has forced his competition to not only do all of the tricky jump combos, but do them as fast as humanly possible for all 20 laps. Furthermore, Ricky’s notorious work ethic has made the party-boy, glam-racer image of the 90s a thing of the past, and today’s racers are, for the most part, clean-living and hard-working. With all eyes on Reed, can RC rise to the occasion and successfully defend his SX crown? We caught up with RC in between his SoCal test sessions at the private Honda test track, and this is what he had to say…

Looking back on the 2003 Supercross Series, what did you learn and what have you done differently to prepare for 2004?

Last year I learned that I really needed to change some of the suspension settings on my bike. Instead of insisting that I needed my bike to be set up a certain way, I allowed myself to try the settings that the Honda guys wanted me to. Basically, I took some of the rebound damping out of my rear shock and I moved my bars farther forward.

I also realized last year how much fun I was having at the races. I had a great year in 2003, and I am having more fun than I was a few years ago when I started to get real, real serious. I think that the enjoyment I am getting out of racing nowadays should equal even better performances next year. Even though I have won lots of races in the past, each time I win a race nowadays feels like it is the first race I have ever won.

The 2004 bike is nearly the same as last year’s in stock form. How does your ’04 race bike differ from your ’03 bike?

The bike is a lot different, actually. The motor settings are a lot different because of the unleaded gas rule. The motor suffered a little on that gas, but with all the technology that Honda has, I am sure it will all be worked out before the first race. My suspension settings are much different than before; more traditional, I guess. My bars are actually a little more forward than the fork tubes, too!

What is the strategy going into Anaheim 1? How important is it to win the first few races?

Well, I have never won the first race at Anaheim, so that is something that I really want to do. I have been snake bit there a bunch of times, and I definitely have that in the back of my mind at times. But this year I am going into that race looking to win, and not merely get out of there with some decent points. (laughs)

How much of racing against Chad is mental?

Every sport has its own percentages of being a mental game, but I am trying to make this next season 100% physical and not mental. I have bumped up my training and taken it to an all-new level, and I think I am going to make it even tougher physically on the competition. Those guys were closing in, so I had to get better!

Is there any other rider, other than Reed, that you are worried about?

I think you can never count out Vuillemin. You can never forget about him and he is a guy that you have to keep your eye on, for sure. And then there’s going to be Windham this year. He’s back for 2004 and he is going fast. I would say that those are thtwo main guys besides Chad, but you never can tell who is going to come out swinging. Yogi is also that kind of guy: he can go fast when he wants to.

As a spectator, it is most exciting not knowing who will win the race you’re about to watch. As a competitor, is it the same way, or would you rather line up knowing that you will dominate?

(Laughs) Well, it’s nice rolling to the line and knowing that you are gonna win by 20 seconds. A runaway win is good for someone, you know? (laughs) But at the same time, it is a lot of fun to come out on top of a good battle. There is a satisfying feeling, knowing that you came out on top of a great dice with someone else. Sometimes it’s more gratifying to win that way than to pull the holeshot and check out.

Do you still get nervous on the starting line?

No, not anymore. Sometimes I feel pressure, but I don’t get nervous anymore.

Describe your pre-race mental checklist.

Basically, I don’t do anything like that at the races. I do all of my checklists during the week, making sure that I do everything I need to do to prepare. If I am on the starting line and I know that I busted my ass training and practicing during the week before, I can sit there and feel confident that I will ride to the best of my abilities.

Bubba has decided to stay in the 125cc class for 2004. Any thoughts?

I think it is smart for him to stay in the 125cc class for another year. It would have been fun to race against him, but we’ll all have a lot of time to do that in the future. A lot of people want him to move up, but there is no reason that he should have to do what he doesn’t want to do. James is really young, and I don’t know why everyone wants to get him moved up so fast. Why should he? Why should he be in a rush? Look at all the riders who have moved up too early, and ruined their careers! I moved up to the 250s too early myself. I wish I had stayed in the 125s for one more year.

These days, contact between racers often results in boos and hisses from the crowd. Are the spectators overreacting?

The crowds are definitely different nowadays than they used to be when it comes to rough riding. The crowds used to love that stuff, but now they will boo you if you get rough. No one wants to hurt anyone, but sometimes aggressive moves are required to make a pass. I think I have turned it around in that area, though. I am on the crowd’s good side right now, so I am gonna try to stay away from that stuff! (laughs)

Do you have any routines or superstitions that are race-related?

(Laughs) Well, I used to have my whole clothing deal where I had to wear orange Fox gear, but I’m over that now. Nowadays, I’ll race in whatever they give me: red, blue, orange, black… You know, I think that if you prepare well, all of that superstition stuff doesn’t matter. So now I wear different gear, and give you photographers something to shoot. I wore that orange out, didn’t I? (laughs)

What is your strength?

I think I am strong and I have a lot of heart. A lot of riders don’t have a lot of heart and they will give up, but I will never, ever give up. I give every race my all, from start to finish. I want to win and I have a lot of pride that won’t let me settle for less.

What is your weakness?

Well, it would be nice to have a couple extra inches on me. Sometimes, my height gets in the way. I could always be a better rider, technically, too. I ride on a lot of heart and desire, not so much skill and talent.

What is the best thing about being a sports hero?

I don’t consider myself a sports hero at all, but if I am a hero in this industry, I would say that it is cool having little kids look up to me. It’s a neat feeling, knowing that there are these kids and fans who look up to me for the things I have accomplished as a racer.

What is the worst thing about being a sports hero?

I would say that it’s how I always have to try to make everyone happy. No matter what you do, you will always be bumming someone out. I don’t like a lot of static in my life, a lot of negative emotions, and that really bums me out when someone is bummed on me.

If you could trade places with any other sports figure, who would you be?

Dude, that’s a good question! That’s a hard one to answer. Dang. I don’t know. I don’t think that I would want to be in anyone else’s shoes! I like the place that I am in now. I have had a good career; I’ve done well for myself, and I am pretty pumped with the things I have accomplished and the friends I’ve made.

Finish this sentence: I will retire when…

…racing is not fun anymore, and I know that I do not have a fair chance at the win.

What is your most embarrassing moment in racing?

(Laughs) I think that anytime you get whiskey throttle and throw it away in front of a stadium full of fans, it’s embarrassing. At Pontiac in 2002 I got whiskey throttle in a big way and looped her out. I fell on my face and busted my visor and everything. That was pretty embarrassing!

In closing, how important are the fans to you, and what is the strangest request you’ve gotten from one?

Oh man, fans are super important to me. I consider myself a fan in a lot of ways, but to have people ask for my autograph or tell me how they love to watch me race–I can’t tell you how special that makes me feel. As far as crazy requests, I guess I get a lot of them. People have honestly asked me if they can have my race bike. I can’t believe it when they ask me that. I mean, c’mon! I need it for the next race!

Right on. Thanks, RC.

No problem, brother. Thank you for the interview!

ing about being a sports hero?

I would say that it’s how I always have to try to make everyone happy. No matter what you do, you will always be bumming someone out. I don’t like a lot of static in my life, a lot of negative emotions, and that really bums me out when someone is bummed on me.

If you could trade places with any other sports figure, who would you be?

Dude, that’s a good question! That’s a hard one to answer. Dang. I don’t know. I don’t think that I would want to be in anyone else’s shoes! I like the place that I am in now. I have had a good career; I’ve done well for myself, and I am pretty pumped with the things I have accomplished and the friends I’ve made.

Finish this sentence: I will retire when…

…racing is not fun anymore, and I know that I do not have a fair chance at the win.

What is your most embarrassing moment in racing?

(Laughs) I think that anytime you get whiskey throttle and throw it away in front of a stadium full of fans, it’s embarrassing. At Pontiac in 2002 I got whiskey throttle in a big way and looped her out. I fell on my face and busted my visor and everything. That was pretty embarrassing!

In closing, how important are the fans to you, and what is the strangest request you’ve gotten from one?

Oh man, fans are super important to me. I consider myself a fan in a lot of ways, but to have people ask for my autograph or tell me how they love to watch me race–I can’t tell you how special that makes me feel. As far as crazy requests, I guess I get a lot of them. People have honestly asked me if they can have my race bike. I can’t believe it when they ask me that. I mean, c’mon! I need it for the next race!

Right on. Thanks, RC.

No problem, brother. Thank you for the interview!