Art Eckman's Column: Bar-to-Bar
(Delta Flight 1938) I usually like to sleep on the way home from a late evening of supercross and an early morning airport arrival time, but there was no way on this cross-country jaunt.
To my right was Randy "Tire man" Richardson who when inspired has been known to catch a good case of machine gun mouth. The next row up on the isle was Ben Cheatwood. This guy could have founded the theory of relativity before Einstein if spewing facts about Honda history were the criteria. Then directly in front of me was two time defending champion and last Saturday's Anaheim II winner Ricky Carmichael who was still wired from his first win of the season. Another row forward was Ezra Lusk, who after showing once again he's serious about challenging for the title this year was as anxious as a lottery winner waiting to see the check. The usual docile "Yogi" was to become a father for the first time the next day thanks to the doctor kick starting labor.
It was like someone had sprinkled droplets of adrenaline in that stuff airliners re-circulate. Anyway before landing, I ended up trading seats with Cheatwood. It had been a while since I last had an opportunity to sit down with Ricky Carmichael away from the track, and I was loaded with curiosity.
Just how much of a relief was it to capture his first win of the season. "Huge," he uttered as his eyes dilated. It was awesome to not make any more mistakes. It's back to where I belong. I never doubted myself but when things happen you start wondering. The first two races I never gave myself a fare shot."
The track was slippery and Ricky told me that his bike was actually too fast. He had to hold it back. Every time he got a good drive at the whoops he pulled away from the field. Ricky won't deny he was concerned going into the race, but his support crew had him thinking positive. His mom and good friend/advisor Johnny O'Mara had him pondering, " I've done it before. Be strong. Be confident in your preparation."
"RC" lifted the weight of the world off his shoulders with his twenty-seventh career 250 supercross win. That tied him with the legendary Bob Hannah for third place on the 250 supercross win list, only one more win away from number two on the list, Rick Johnson. Carmichael also became the third different rider in this year's first three races, to win on three different brands. That's only happened three other times in supercross history. ('97,'93, and '76) Four different winners in the first four races on four different brands has happened only once. (1976) Saturday night the guy finishing behind Mike LaRocco in third place, Sebastien Tortelli, was probably the happiest looking rider around the podium. It was only his third podium since he was a part time AMA participant winning the 1998 season opener. Ricky pointed to Sebastien's fantastic starts so far this season. Sometimes a new ride (switching to Suzuki) and a new coach (Rick Johnson) produces a new frame of mind, he reminded me and Ricky admired Tortelli's effort trying to brake out of the mold he found himself in. "I think he might have gotten tired, but man was he blitzing the whoops, and that was critical on that track. The track was to his liking."
Last Saturday night's amazing heat race between Ezra Lusk and Chad Reed reminded Ricky of a main event he had with Jeremy McGrath at this exact round and location in 2001. "We went back and forth the whole race. He beat me but it was some kind of race." I might add Jeremy won that 20 lapper by a whisker. (.009 of a second)
Ricky and Ezra "Yogi" Lusk go back a long ways. He pointed out, "When I was of the younger generation we were very good friends. We lived pretty close to each other and worked out together at times. But then we became rivals and we went our separate ways -- doing our own things. Now the friendship is one of professional respect. Yogi's running real good. He's confident. It started last year at the end of the season."
What about the new first year challenger from Australia, Chad Reed? Ricky gives him his due but says, "He's a good rider but sixteen races is a long time. I'm more concerned about 'Bubba' as a future contender. He has more talent. He amazes me. I go out and watch him ride his 125 races. He's the next guy."
Ricky says that James Stewart makes mistakes but learns from them. Unlike the talented Travis Pastrana. For Ricky his criticism of Travis was unusually severe. " I'm not one to open up or talk bad about someone. I've had hardly any problems with other riders but he causes this uproar then he's not even here. He doesn't make smart moves on the track. Many times he fails to look ahead. He almost ended LaRocco's career (last year). If I could tell Travis one thing it would be to tone it down."
It's no secret, Carmichael doesn't like racing Pastrana. He feels if his career path included other disciplines he would be spreading himself too thin, lessening his chances for success. Ricky tells me, " I put everything into one thing- racing. This sport is tough enough when focusing on only one goal. You get penalized for not looking ahead at the future and just living for the moment."
Ricky uses the Lusk/Reed heat race as an example of aggressive but good competitive racing. "You don't have to go out of your way to be a jerk to be competitive. I've done it when I was young. Back then watching Jeremy I realized you don't need to be a jerk to make it. Four years ago I lived for the moment. Now my focus is ten years from now. I'm willing to do almost anything to win but one must be smart."
Did one of the most resounding negative crowd reactions in supercross history, prompted by Ricky and Pastrana getting together in the season's first heat race bother him? " It can't help but bother you, but when you look at the tapes and see what he tried to do you realize it's not your fault. I'm highly emotional but like my dad I keep it inside. I think I'm humble. I get defensive when something like that happens. Some people have told me I should stand up to the boos like Bob Hannah probably would have, but that's not me. I keep thinking it would come back to haunt me. I try to play it more like Jeremy McGrath might. You can't please everyone."
Ricky feels he identifies with just the right fan base. " What I'm happy about is that my autograph lines are getting longer and longer and when you look at them it's mostly young kids in the line. That I think is super important."
60 minutes interviewed Ricky for an expose' not long ago. They were searching for comments on the dangers of the sport. He told them, "our sport is only dangerous when a person is doing things he's not qualified for." I asked him how much longer at this pace will he be qualified. Could he ride long enough without getting burned out to approach Jeremy's most awesome record of 72 supercross wins? He replied, " Like Jeremy, I'll keep riding as long as I know I can keep winning. I can't win. I'll quit."
Of course Ricky doesn't anticipate it happening soon but when I asked him to peer beyond riding supercross he looked me in the eye and said that's what scares him. "This is all I've ever done. It scares me. I don't know what I'd do. I don't think I could ever have a better (professional) experience."
Who then would be his favorite example to turn to when approaching retirement from the sport ? For Ricky Carmichael it's a no brainer. He looks at Jeff Stanton, who in semi retirement is still having fun consulting for Honda, but is able to concentrate on being with his young family. Ricky says," Isn't that great? He has all that time with his family. He's right there for them now when they're growing up. I want to be financially able to do that. I want to have a family after I retire so I can be able to have fun with them, and be a part of their lives. When it's all said and done it's family that counts."
Pretty good thinking for a twenty three year old, don't you think?