Ricky Carmichael Interview

Ricky Carmichael in Japan
Photo by Pete Peterson

Recently Suzuki invited Dirt Rider along on a trip to Japan with Ricky Carmichael. We were there to celebrate the 40th birthday of the RM/RM-Z line by riding a factory RM-Z250 and getting an early look at the new 2016 RM-Z250. Amid the fun, we grabbed this interview with Ricky about his current position in the industry as RCH/Soaring Eagle/Suzuki team co-owner, and what he sees as some good directions for the sport.

Pete Peterson: You’ve talked a lot on this trip about growing the sport. It seems like an obvious question, but why is it important to grow the sport?

Ricky Carmichael: I think it just brings recognition to the sport, brings more eyeballs which essentially presents an opportunity for more bikes to be sold, more product to be bought, more people to read your magazine, just growth in general. That’s why I’m a big advocate of it as well as, with more popularity and more growth, we’ll have financial gain for the riders, that they deserve for the risk that they take.

PP: Is there a difference between trying to grow the number of people who are riding versus growing the number of people that are just pure spectators?

RC: Absolutely. There's a big difference between people that are riding and people that are fans. But, I think you have the opportunity of taking fans and turning them into riders.

PP: Right now we have two separate series, supercross and motocross, does that become a challenge gaining more outside sponsors?

RC: You know, with the two series, it definitely is confusing, I believe, when you're talking to a big sponsor that has no idea about the sport and you're trying to educate them. It's a learning process for them, takes them some time to understand it. I think it works against you in some cases, and the only way it can work for you, I believe, is if you don't win the supercross championship, well then you have another shot at a title. So as far as that goes, its very confusing to some sponsors that have no idea about the sport. The biggest questions is, 'Why do you guys have two championships?'

Ricky Carmichael
Photo by Pete Peterson

PP: So as a team co-owner, what changes would you make to the year long schedule, if you could?

RC: There are all kinds of ideas. I understand from the history side of the sport, and me, I love racing outdoors. I had so much success in the outdoor series – you have to have that [outdoors]. But I also am aware how popular supercross is and what supercross has brought. Theyre held in very nice stadiums, its great to bring sponsors there, everything is contained. But you still have to have outdoor motocross. I think there could be a compromise somewhere in there. I don't know that I have all the answers. Like anybody we have ideas, but I dont know that could ever happen anytime in the near future, unfortunately.

PP: Do you want to throw out some of those numbers you were discussing earlier in the trip about a type of different season?

RC: I think it would be fun to maybe have some more supercrosses and just hit the outdoor tracks that are really popular and close to metropolitan areas. I think there could be a balance. I dont know about a number. I wouldn't feel comfortable saying a number, but I think that could be an idea.

PP: Would you have supercrosses first, then stop and have all the outdoors?

RC: Yeah, probably so, just because logistically its just a lot easier. Especially for the riders it would be extremely hard for the riders, and the teams, to go supercross one weekend then outdoor the next, then back to supercross, and so on. That would be tough. I think it has to be like it is now, supercross and then move on to outdoor, or vice versa.

PP: And youd make it all part of one championship?

RC: Yeah. I think having the grand national championship would make it easier, from a sponsor standpoint, no doubt about it, and it would force the guys that dont want to race outdoors to race outdoors, which would in return just help the sport in general.

PP: Would you want some sort of points adjust so its not a blowout by the time we get to outdoors?

RC: Thats a great question, thats something I have to think a little bit more about.

Ricky Carmichael
Photo by Pete Peterson

PP: Are you in favor of a points adjust in Arenacross? [Currently in Arenacross, after several rounds (after 9 in 2015), all points are erased. The top ten riders at that point are the only ones eligible for the championship, and they are given a few points based on their then-current standings. 6 points to the leader, down to one point for the 9th and 10th place riders]

RC: Yeah, I think the Race For The Championship works really good in Arenacross. I'm not sure if that format would work in supercross or motocross. At times I think it would but I dont know if it would at this time.

PP: What race day changes would you make to a supercross event?

RC: Id try to shorten the day quite a bit. I really liked what I saw at New Jersey this past year. I thought that was fantastic. It was a little bit early of a start, but it was sure nice to be done during the day. For TV purposes I think it was great. Especially for the west coast races, you know, it would be prime time and a lot more time conducive to the east coast for TV. I liked that. Just shortening the day and being a little more efficient from how practice is run and things of that nature.

PP: And how about the motocross day with the two moto format?

RC: You know being a guy that loves motocross and how tough it is, and of course I love two motos, but from a TV standpoint and just for the casual fan I think its a little bit long of a day. I dont know why I wouldnt like a one moto format - a qualifying and then one moto.

PP: So if all these changes your talking about happened right when you entered the 250 class [now 450] outdoors, is this something you would have seen as a positive thing for your career or would this have hurt you?

RC: I dont know that it would have hurt me, it just would have changed things and how I approached it. With all these changes, whether its good, wrong, right, indifferent, the best guys always going to win. Theres a balance there, and I think everyone needs to talk, there needs to be an open dialogue so we get all ideas on the table to make it better for the sport, better for TV; you know motocross and supercross is in a unique situation in my mind right now. With its rapid growth and the TV coverage that is happening, I think were at a funny point. Do we go this way or stay where were at? And thats where we are now, trying to find that balance.

PP: Should we still have two classes?

RC: Yeah, I think thats really good. You have to have two classes. I think thats perfect. You have to have a 250 and a 450 class, some kind of stepping stone rather than just into the premiere class of 450, whether its motocross or supercross. And I think its fun for the fans, as well.

PP: Should we have three classes?

RC: I think threes getting a little too much.

PP: Okay, you mentioned before [another day on the trip] how in NASCAR theyll change the rules the day-of to improve the racing. Do you think we should have that in our sport?

RC: Oh, absolutely. Theres no mistake that the rules and how things work is definitely a stumbling block sometimes, and theres definitely some issues. I think people need to be more open to working with the teams or things of that nature to make the rules better or a little bit more clear or a little more fair so, yeah, thats a frustrating part and once again, theres hardly any talk about it amongst teams, and thats the frustrating part.

PP: Can you give me a NASCAR example where they did a rule change to improve the racing?

RC: For one, if youre allotted a certain amount of tires for the weekend and youre not getting the length of use they had planned on getting, and everyone would be running low on tires and the racing wouldnt be as good, well then theyd give you more tires. 'Okay, you have six sets of tires, were gonna give you eight now. So things of that nature were really cool.

PP: And all the teams were on board with -

RC: Oh on hundred percent. The one thing thats cool about NASCAR that I always admired was for the most part all the teams are on the same page, and thats not the case with motocross, sometimes, unfortunately. But its a completely different business model over there, its more like a business model of RCH and TwoTwo and JGR, and other private sector teams, rather than big factory teams so we, the teams I mentioned, have the same views and same outlook where the factory teams are a little bit different because theyre in a different spot. That was something I always admired about NASCAR, how all the teams were together when it came to the outlook whether it was rules or what NASCAR is doing. [Note: This interview took place several weeks before Chad Reed announced the closing of the TwoTwo Motorsports team]

PP: Could you think of an example at a supercross or motocross event where a last minute rule change would improve the racing?

RC: Maybe not rule, but whether its an issue with the track or something of that nature.

PP: So youre talking about teams getting together if theres an obstacle or section -

RC: Yes.

PP: - that separates the riders too much -

RC: Or could be dangerous, based on risk versus reward, absolutely.

PP: And what if your rider had the advantage. As team co-owner would you agree to the rule change that hurt your advantage?

RC: Yeah, youd have to, because obviously you have confidence in the guy. You wouldnt have the advantage that you did but I would say the best guy is going to win, its just going to be a little harder for him if you make it easier for everyone else. But its our job as a team to figure out how to make it that much better if everyones the same.

PP: Do you think the teams all have to become, like your business model, independent teams, for that to start happening?

RC: I think, yeah, until its independent teams its going to be very hard to do what were talking bout right now, absolutely. And I understand that. But each year it seems like theres another independent team popping up and I think over time and as teams like ours can have success, I think eventually the OEMs will recognize that, be able to go racing, and [recognize] what we have can be just as effective for them in terms of selling motorcycles, and go racing for less money, like NASCAR.

PP: You mentioned before about the manufacturers being more competitive with one another, which might make this change difficult.

RC: I think that basically the independent teams look at it a little bit differently than the factory teams. For us its a business, and yes, we want to win, and we want to showcase our sponsors. We have to show a return to our sponsors. For the factories, its advertising for them. Yes, they want the return, but theyre still going to go racing regardless of how many motorcycles they sell. For independent teams, if you cant show the return, then youre not going to have sponsorship.

PP: You mentioned before that maybe we should have some unions in the sport. Do you think the team owners should have a union together?

RC: I wish that there could be more of what NASCAR teams have, they have a team alliance, so that everyones on the same page. And I wish all the riders would communicate a little bit more together, whether its a riders union or a team alliance. I wish and there needs to be more communication. The riders need to let their guard down a little bit more and do whats best for them, because a lot of times a lot of the riders have the same thoughts, I feel, and they dont know that because they dont talk to each other, because theyve built this wall. I think they need to get together a little bit more because theyre only going to help themselves by doing that. And the same with the teams, I think the more communication you can get, so that everyones on the same page, so everyone has that one goal, to make the racing the best that it can be, the safest that can be, and bring more people to the sport. And if you dont have communication and you dont have unity, its going to be very hard to keep going to that next step.

PP: For the riders out there today, is the purse money fair for these guys?

RC: Not even close. You know, its very frustrating. I really feel for the guys tenth to twentieth. You cant earn a decent living for the risk that they take, its just not worth it. I really wish there was more purse money.

PP: Therere forty guys on a motocross gate. Do you think we have too many riders out there?

RC: I think, there again, you feel bad for the guys who arent on the TV coverage, who really struggle, because they love the sport so much theyre doing it. Forty riders is a lot on an outdoor track, for sure. It seems like the tracks are getting much smaller now, and the laptimes are shorter, so it does get congested, without a doubt.

PP: Does the track break down a lot faster and make that a bigger challenge?

RC: They might break down a little bit more the shorter they are because youre doing more laps.

PP: If you could change the number of riders on the line, would you change it?

RC: Id probably change it. Outdoor, maybe 30 riders. For the other ten guys who wouldnt be lined up, obviously youre bumming for them a little bit, but at the same time youre saving them money and possible risk, for what, other than self satisfaction and some pleasure? To go out there and… A lot of the guys, when you see them out there, you know, just rolling around, theyre not even racing at that point, and it always appears, I could be wrong so people that are reading this just be open minded here, it never appears like theyre having fun. So I just, to me - I have a hard time understanding why they would want to do that other than for them to say, 'Yeah, I qualified for an outdoor national. And if its the pinnacle of the sport, you shouldnt be able to do that, just like MotoGP and things of that nature.

PP: How about the number of people they let go into the qualifying of a supercross day?

RC: I think that is slowly getting better. There again, thats one reason why we developed the Road To Supercross. Especially in supercross, safety is such a huge concern and a lot of guys have no business being on a supercross track. Its so hard to comment on this because you dont want to sound disrespectful to the guys who are never going to make it to the main event or perhaps even the night program, but I think that from a safety standpoint they should reconsider their thought, and go race some Arenacross. And if you do good there and you earn your way, then so be it, youre ready, just like any other sport. You have to earn your way there not just be able to sign up. Supercross, when youve got however many people you have at the beginning of the day, and knowing half of those riders are not even going to go on to the night show, that just seems like its a little bit of a waste.

Ricky Carmichael
Photo by Pete Peterson

PP: Would the top riders benefit from having more practice time?

RC: I think the end result of less riders and only having the people there that are going to make the show, I think that the riders in the night program are going to benefit because the track builders will have more time to fix things, do general maintenance on the track, if theres a safety concern and an obstacle needs to be changed they will have that extra time. When the sun goes down and the lights come on the track should be much better because everyone wont be going 100 miles a minute. Youll have more time in the day and it will, in my mind, give you more time to make it right for showtime and racetime when these guys are ready to throw it all on the line an try to win supercross races.

PP: You mentioned rider safety a couple times. How do you feel were doing as a sport with rider concussions and rider safety there?

RC: I think theres a long way to go as far as safety. I most certainly dont have the answer. You know, when we hop on the motorcycle we know its a risk, unfortunately. We know that, and at some point the rider has to have some responsibility. And the tracks as well, theres certain things with tracks that we can do to help – help – make it a little bit safer.

PP: Do you have an example in mind that you could tell me?

RC: For me, I think the biggest thing is the speed. The bikes are so fast, but if we can slow the tracks down a little bit that would help.

PP: With roughness or shorter straights?

RC: With shorter straightaways. Make obstacles where they have to slow down, and that they cant just hit the thing and try to do a quad or whatever. Slowing the mile per hour down. You dont have to slow the bikes down, youve just got to slow the track down, so they dont have so much speed; so when they hit something, hit a jump or whatever, theyre not going so fast that when they do wreck theres going to be a problem. Because its not the fall that hurts people, its the sudden stop. So the faster youre going, the more abrupt that sudden stop is. I am no professional at this, these are just my thoughts and suggestions.

PP: Again with rider safety, how about performance drugs? Thats been a hot topic. Are we in a good place with where the sport is?

RC: I think were on the right path of making sure that this sport is as clean as a whistle and these athletes are legit. I think it still needs to be a little more cut and dry, and it needs to be explained to the fans, so they understand how it works, just in case something goes down with a rider. But as far as performance enhancing drugs, you know, everyone wants to think that these guys that are winning are doing things, and really thats not the case. I think its the guys that arent winning that are more inclined to do something. Number one because they probably dont get checked as much, and they do have the risk but its not like a top three guy. The guys that are up front and winning multiple championships, year after year and dependable, those guys have way too much to risk. And theres a reason theyre good, and theyve always been good their whole career, so they dont need anything. I think they guys that you have to look out for are the guys looking for that something that is – theyre always looking for an easy way. Like, 'Hey, Im going to do this because its going to help me win because I think the top guys are doing it. Those are the guys that would be more inclined to doing something. Im not saying that they are, Im saying that theyre going to look for an advantage and an easy way.

PP: As a team co-owner, what would be your response if a rider of yours tested positive -

RC: Oh, he'd be fired.

PP: Is that in your contract?

RC: Yeah, we wont take for that. I dont condone it. Ive never done anything like that, no one on the team has, and its something we will not put up with. I dont believe in it, and it gives everyone a bad rap; and our sponsors, number one, you think of that, you know? Its zero tolerance for any of that. No way.

Ricky Carmichael
Photo by Pete Peterson

PP: So through your racing career, you worked with Roger DeCoster. He was your team manager for a while. And I think a lot of people saw you and DeCoster together and the thought crossed their mind – what would happen if these guys had a chance to race, both in their prime? And you couldnt, of course, but do you feel like youre competing with DeCoster now as a -

RC: Oh, absolutely, 100%. Im sure if theres anyone in the paddock that Roger doesnt want to get beat by its probably RCH and myself, likewise with me if theres one guy I want to beat its Roger. But its a competitive nature, its not a vendetta against him. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Roger and I admire what hes done, hes a great guy, fun to be around, and of course we want to beat each other.

As a fun fact, this interview was done at about 185 mph on a bullet train from Hamamatsu to Tokyo. For the story on the trip to Japan, check out “Suzukis Guide To Japan” in the September 2015 issue of Dirt Rider magazine.

Ricky's 2015 team and personal sponsors are: Soaring Eagle Jimmy Johns, Bel Ray, Suzuki, Fox Racing, Monster Energy, Sony Action Cam, and Oakley.