Chapter 4: A Ricky Carmichael Story

Ricky Carmichael is pissed off. He’s on his feet with his arms extended, his hands open and fingers outstretched. It’s the kind of gesticulating you’d expect from a rider unjustly taken to the ground by a rival or one who experiences bike failure while leading. But Carmichael isn’t trying to win a race today. He just wants the damn replay. 

The right replay. 

Here’s what happened: at precisely two minutes, twenty-six seconds into the 250 Main Event at MetLife Stadium on April 27, everyone sees that Austin Forkner’s 2019 Monster Energy Supercross season is officially over. He rolls off the track, hobbles next to his motorcycle and doubles over in pain. Clearly, the ACL in his left knee waved the white flag. 

In their ears, the NBC Sports on air team of Carmichael and partner Ralph Sheheen hear their producer Chris Bond say ‘here comes another look.’ On the television screen, the NBC replay chip flies into place, touches down just long enough for the scene behind it to change, and zips away. Carmichael, the analyst, stares at a tight slow motion shot of Forkner sailing through the air and then pulling off the track at the end of the lane. It’s not the right moment and he knows it. But he has to say something.

“Here’s what happens, ok?” he begins. “He goes over the triple, pulls off… where it really happens is when he jumps back across the start straight…” Carmichael stops talking. The shot dissolves to Forkner’s Team Owner, Mitch Payton, whose hands are on his knees and head dropping into his lap.  Sheheen picks up for Carmichael, who goes into a silent but active rage. He smashes his finger into the talkback button, which allows him to speak directly to Bond without his words being picked up on air. 

He wants another shot at explaining what happened to Forkner, who led the championship by three points coming into the race. But ‘Bondo’, as his friends and co-workers call him, has to choose between showing the real-time agony of Forkner, going back to the race leader (who is now engaged in a battle), or going back in time and showing the correct replay of Forkner’s crucial moment. 

This NBC Highlight Reel contains part of the replay RC saw. Skip to 1:58.

Making live television is like trying to construct a skyscraper at the same time the tenants are moving into their offices. The audience experiences the show while it’s being built. Mistakes are inevitable but there are no mulligans. To put Monster Energy Supercross races on television, a crew of 90 work in dozens of different positions. It’s an organized chaos that almost has to be seen to be believed. And once a race starts, the sport is unique in that it lacks the regulation pauses and dead time of other sports.  

Bondo finds time to squeeze in the replay for Carmichael but it takes 90 seconds from the original incident to get there. That’s an eternity in live TV land. Carmichael dives into his analysis, drawing on personal experience from his own knee injury 15 years earlier. But his message is cloudy and sounds choppy.

“Right when he impacts right there, there’s so much driving his tib and fib forward in that top–that’s where the ACL isn’t connected and it, just that, that, lowered, that tib/fib moves forward and just grinds the knee…”

Sheheen cuts in to mention a track change implemented earlier in the day that may have had an indirect effect on the moment. Carmichael stews because he knows he botched the analysis. In his head it all made sense. Just as if he had been in a race, he shakes off the mistake and moves on. 

The viewer at home noticed none of this, of course. But sitting 18 inches to the right of Carmichael, I could tell this: he’s far from perfect but he deeply cares about the quality of the product and his performance. He could have let the original replay slide by, let the race continue. It had been a long season already and it was almost over. But that’s not how he works. 

As a racer, when he failed to succeed the way he wanted, he made commitments and changes to ensure improvement. He brings the same attitude into the supercross analyst role, a position he had no plans of taking just weeks before the 2019 season began. 

Best seat in the house: 2019 Las Vegas Supercross – Mary Beth Tyson Photo

RETIRED LIFE

Seven months later, at 7:30 on an early November morning, Carmichael tries to fix the internet in his Tallahassee, Florida home. It’s a 10,000 square foot house and the complicated home automation system has its own room and looks like a miniature data center. Carmichael has the resources to find someone to handle this for him. He made a lot of money riding dirt bikes and three of his favorite championship motorcycles hang on a wall next to the staircase to the trophy room. But as annoying as it is, he actually gets a mild thrill from handling a mundane internet issue that, yes, would have been handled by someone else in his previous life. Carmichael’s time as a professional athlete was so structured, so regimented that he enjoys the discomfort that comes with handling an unexpected issue. He recently navigated the joys of making a homeowner’s insurance claim. Today, it’s a WiFi connection on the fritz. He likes the process of figuring out something new.

What he doesn’t know at this point is that 12 hours later, his system still won’t work. He’s on the phone with a Comcast agent when I walk in. His 12-year-old twins gather their backpacks and prepare for their school day. Buckets of Halloween candy sit on the kitchen counter and they debate peanut M&Ms vs. plain with me. His daughter, Elise, says nobody gives out peanut M&Ms. I declare this a scandal. Their dad sits at the opposite end of the table and runs his fingers through his dark auburn hair. It stands up tall, like Kosmo Kramer’s from “Seinfeld”. If he’s annoyed at being on the phone with customer service he doesn’t show it. He asks the representative if he can take the satisfaction survey before hanging up the phone. We glance at each other. He chuckles, knowingly and tosses his free hand up off the table a few inches. There is no way in hell he is actually going to stay on the phone to complete a survey and he’s not sure why he bothered to ask. 

Since he wound down his professional motorcycle racing career after 2007, he’s been everything but idle. Between 2008-2011 he competed in just over 100 stock car races. His career best finish was a 4th at Dover in the 2010 NASCAR Truck Series. In October 2012 his next major chapter started when he announced his partnership with Carey Hart to form RCH Racing, a beefed-up version of the race team Hart already ran. Carmichael brought Suzuki support and valuable knowledge and over the next five seasons they won supercross races and the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. 

The plate stayed full away from the races, too. Annually, he designs the Daytona Supercross and Monster Energy Cup tracks and puts his name on an amateur supercross championship race at Daytona. He’s part owner of a car wash chain and has a minority share in Fox Racing, the apparel maker he’s been with since middle school. The “Goat Farm” riding facility in Cairo, GA, once his private training ground, is now open to promising amateurs and professional riders looking to improve their skills. Carmichael’s mother, Jeannie, coaches. The Goat Farm has the same dirt that Ricky rode on for the majority of his professional career (1997-2007). 

RC appears often at the property, rides with the trainees, gives out bits of wisdom and even occasionally runs the bulldozer and water truck. As part of his role as an ambassador for American Suzuki he holds an annual riding camp where a small group of students of all ages gets the chance to be coached by him over a multi-day session. He’s also still taking advantage of his brand as the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) while he can and makes appearances at races like the Australia SX-Open where he competes in an exhibition role. He even earned an X Games bronze medal in 2019 for his Real Moto film part. Days after my visit, he made round trips to Auckland, New Zealand and Melbourne, Australia and jammed in the Suzuki riding camp at the Goat Farm in between. 

Busy schedule for a retired guy.

He’s also preparing for his second year as the full-time analyst for the 17-event Monster Energy Supercross Championship on NBC Sports. 

The Goat’s still got it.

HOW RICKY CARMICHAEL LANDED THE ROLE

By the age of 26, Carmichael had won 10 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross and 5 Monster Energy Supercross Championships. At 27 he purposefully raced a partial season in both series and walked away with 150 combined career wins. In motorsports, he’s among legends – John Force (151 NHRA wins), Richard Petty (200 NASCAR wins) and Tucker Hibbert (138 Snocross wins). When chapter one of your life results in unmatchable achievement before the age of 30, how do you cope with the fact that you’ll never be that good at anything else? 

“I’m constantly thinking of, what can I do next? I’ve always wanted to be successful in something that wasn’t expected of me, something other than motorcycle racing,” he says. “Time is running out. It probably won’t happen, but I still think about that sometimes. What could it be, you know? Maybe it’s speaking. I don’t know.”

Before a position opened in the NBC Sports television booth for the 2019 season Carmichael had plans to try motivational speaking. He hired Arthur Joseph, a communication strategist and the founder of Vocal Awareness. Joseph works with actors, singers, politicians and broadcasters to teach them the concept of empowerment through voice. Together, they developed a 30-minute-long motivational speech that Ricky wanted to test out. He thought he might begin by putting himself in front of a familiar or comfortable audience, such as the employees of a sponsor. 

Although the speech draws on his experience of becoming a hall of fame-bound athlete in a niche sport, the message isn’t about riding dirt bikes. It’s about sacrifice, structure, accountability and not giving up. 

“There’s no reason that you can’t be better,” he says when asked what he’d tell an audience of workers who might just feel like cogs in a machine. “Push yourself every single day to be the best person that you can possibly be. It’s only going to help yourself. People take notice. Somebody from a Fortune 500 company might be in the store that you’re working in that day and might see how you’re pedaling and working it and might see your attitude.”

He has no idea if he’ll be any good at it. But, then again, when his parents bought him a blue Yamaha Tri-Zinger and then a Honda Z50 in the mid-1980s, they didn’t know if he’d ride them at all. Carmichael didn’t know if he’d be a good racecar driver or race team owner either. Neither of those career chapters lasted as long as he wanted but he doesn’t consider them failures; it was just time to turn the page. 

After hanging up with Comcast he wanders the kitchen, wondering what he should eat. Then he takes his kids to school and drives 30 minutes to the farm to spin a few laps on his supercross track. Before he pulls his Suzuki off its stand, he hands over his phone, “Answer it if it rings. It might be Comcast.” Two other riders are training with his mother and he keeps his eye on them. Between short motos he gives advice to the two young men.

“Open up your corners more,” he tells one rider who lost momentum squaring up the turns. To the other he asks for more energy on the ground. “Race between the jumps.” He shuts it down after about only 15 laps; he’s coming off a tropical vacation and just wants to ease back into riding before heading to New Zealand. On the ride back to Tallahassee he talks about how his desire to hang it out on a supercross track has disappeared. Riding is still fun, he still scoots, but as his children grow and his businesses require much of his attention, his willingness to push wanes. Then, in an abrupt conversation change, he asks if reading more would help his vocabulary and, ultimately, benefit him in his analyst role on television. 

“Indubitably,” I tell him. I also tell him to try crossword puzzles but he laughs at me and responds with his trademark retort: “Dude!” 

Interviewing Carmichael on the way to the Goat Farm – JH Leale Photo

“I beat myself up quite a bit,” he says of his struggle to improve his speech, knowledge and book smarts. NBC and Feld Entertainment (supercross promoters) have helped to connect the entire TV talent team with speech and broadcast coaches. “I feel like I’m making excuses for myself, but sometimes I don’t know that I can do everything that [broadcast coach] is asking. There’s an element in there that I want to be myself, too. I have my own Ricky-isms if you will that, yeah, people are going to make fun of, but at the same time, that’s me.”

I ask him what his favorite ‘Ricky-ism’ is. 

“Preparate is my favorite. I haven’t used it since that one time (circa 2013). My vocabulary isn’t great. My diction needs to be better.”

Diction (the choice and use of words and phrases) is a hell of a term for someone who claims to not have a vocabulary, but it’s at least an indication that he’s paying attention to his coaches’ lessons. Carmichael claims he’s “not a big thinker,” meaning he doesn’t study, doesn’t ruminate, doesn’t tax his mind or dwell on problems or negativity. At the same time, he knows he can be better; he wants to be better and he has to balance that desire with other important responsibilities.  

He’s a single parent of twins and an entrepreneur. He runs a multi-dimensional personal brand and business that requires direct involvement and dozens of appearances a year. Being on call for his sponsors has been challenging since the divorce from his wife. He fiercely protects his time with his children but says the clients and sponsors he keeps are very gracious and understanding. “If somebody is going to require me to be gone while I have the kids, I just won’t do it. I just say fire me. That’s how important my time with my kids are. But when [sponsors] do get me and I do go do these appearances… they get all of my time. I’m there for them. I’m not trying to get out early.” 

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Chapter 4 was supposed to be motivational speaking but a new opportunity popped up that, coincidentally, involved a lot of talking. In the fall of 2018, he was in the middle of his usual busy schedule that included the Suzuki riding camp on his farm in mid-November and a supercross race in Torino, Italy in mid-December. In between, JH Leale, president of Ricky Carmichael Racing, the “parent” company of everything Carmichael does, exchanged text messages with Feld Entertainment Motor Sports to finalize Carmichael’s involvement in television for 2019. Since his retirement Carmichael appeared as a guest analyst in the TV booth alongside his friend, former teammate, and the 1997 AMA Supercross Champion, Jeff Emig about 5-9 events per season. 

Schedule conflicts caused delays with the face to face meetings. At the same time the expected announcement of NBC Sports as Feld’s new programming partner for 2019 and beyond didn’t publicly happen until Friday, December 14, 2018, just 22 days before the start of the season. Carmichael went to Italy that weekend and a meeting with Feld and NBC got set for Tuesday, December 18. He didn’t know Emig had been cut from the TV team, which, according to Emig, happened around his birthday (Dec. 1). 

On the airplane home from Europe, Carmichael turned to Leale and said, “What’s going to happen?” Lots of ideas and options had been floated around but Carmichael hadn’t considered a solo run in the booth. At end of the 2018 season he told Feld he didn’t want that. He enjoyed the 3-man team and was definitely not returning to the sideline reporter position that he did occasionally for a couple of seasons. “I didn’t like it,” he says of being on the track and reporting in front of the camera. “It wasn’t me. I just can’t do it. My pace of talking, my pace of thinking just isn’t fast enough for that position.”

After the 2018 season ended, Carmichael remembers an informal conversation about the future of his role in supercross television and he remained adamant about keeping the three-man format. But when he met with Feld and NBC in December, they asked him to be Ralph Sheheen’s full-time partner. It wasn’t a choice between Carmichael and Emig. If Carmichael declined, a completely new face and voice would get the position. “The way they made it sound to me, Jeff wasn’t an option.”

Carmichael felt sick about it and called Emig to let him know what had been presented. He wanted to make sure it didn’t seem like he was stealing a position that his friend had held for 12 years. Emig already had a few weeks to absorb the gravity of the news. “I processed it quickly and found myself with a choice of how to handle it,” Emig says. “Obviously, yes, it’s just a job but it was also my career that I valued very highly and took a lot of responsibility with.” He gave Carmichael his blessing.

He said Carmichael called him after the first race of 2019 and talked about how much different it felt to be solo versus a guest analyst and how long the 3 hours felt. “In a three-man booth you have time to sit back and not add anything,” Emig says. “With the two-man, suddenly there’s a lot of heavy lifting. It takes time to grow in the position.” 

In mid-February, the two launched “Real Talk 447”, a podcast where they discuss the previous week’s race, stories from their own racing careers and hilariously go out of their way to roast each other. 

Ricky Carmichael at the Goat Farm – Monster Energy Photo

INTO THE FIRE

On the first Saturday of 2019, Carmichael made his debut on NBC Sports. During the on-camera open, he stuck to safe comments when Sheheen asked him who looked good in practice. He appeared stiff and sounded a little nervous. 

“I had never been in that position, so I was learning each week,” he says. “I was nervous. One thing that always, before our opening on-cameras… My adrenaline would get going, more than it would for a pro race. Just my thoughts were going a hundred miles a minute. ‘Don’t mess this up’ (he’d tell himself). My thoughts, what I was going to say.”

During the racing action, he fell into ‘play by play’ mode, which happens when an analyst tells what’s happening on the screen instead of why it’s happening. It’s common in new analysts and Carmichael swears, despite having spent a decade next to Sheheen and Emig in a part-time, third wheel role that nobody taught him the differences in the positions. 

Ricky Carmichael’s opening stand-up in his first race as the full-time analyst for Monster Energy Supercross

“No one ever corrected me if I was trying to call the race, like trying to do Ralph’s job. It got a lot easier for me to improve once I knew my job. But no one ever said anything. They probably just assumed I knew the difference, but I really didn’t.” Emig called this completely plausible, that the third chair has different expectations. “I just encouraged Ricky to be Ricky,” Emig says. “And that was plenty to fill the broadcast. We give him a lot of crap for making up words that don’t exist in Webster’s Dictionary but it’s also part of being genuine and real. His knowledge of racing and the bikes is second to none. So how does he get across to the viewer? Just be himself.”

The lightbulb moment came the day after the opening round of the 2019 season while watching an NFL playoff game with Al Michaels and former wide receiver Chris Collinsworth in the booth. The full purpose of the analyst position sunk in and he went to work on his own prep. He improved but the negativity rolled in. Some comments were so lewd I won’t reprint them. But the majority called for the return of Jeff Emig. This is funny because when Emig became the regular analyst in 2007, the typical comment made at that time was “bring back David Bailey”. 

“It doesn’t bother me that they’re bashing me,” Carmichael said. “What bothers me is how they are so negative, just in general. I was taught if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Carmichael sees the comments, especially those left in his Instagram feed or @ him on Twitter but he doesn’t engage in exchanges. If he responds at all, it’s a thumbs up or ‘that was intelligent.’ He welcomes constructive criticism and helpful suggestions. 

“When I see these people being negative, I wonder if they are parents themselves. That’s what bothers me more than anything.” 

For 2020, Carmichael expects to be better in his role for the simple reason he knows what to expect and he’s had more lead time to prepare for the 54 hours of live television through the season. The comparison might not be parallel but in his racing career, Carmichael’s average 1999 supercross finish was 11.6 in the 12 rounds he raced. He came in under prepared and regrets moving to the premier class so soon. In 2000, his average finish dropped to 5.75 and he completed the entire season. In 2001, he nearly batted 1.000; his average finish was 1.18. 

In his preparation for his sophomore season in the booth he stayed sharp on current events in the sport, watched more video, studied more. He also devoted himself to learning more about the riders and not relying strictly on his own knowledge of race strategy. He hasn’t, however, developed the awkward habit of delivering monologues to himself in front of the bathroom mirror. “I felt better already when I was at the Monster Energy Cup (Oct. 2019) on my standup,” he says. “I didn’t get the adrenaline like I normally do, so that means I’m becoming more comfortable.”

A few weeks before the 2019 Monster Energy Cup, Feld held a summit in Tampa with their talent coach present. On race day, Producer Chris Bond said he could tell Carmichael had practiced. “He was more concise in his analysis (at MEC), gave points viewers could look for, stated headlines and backed them up with facts or points,” Bond says. “He’s all in. From the moment he committed to being in the booth for every race, he has done everything he can to be better. It’s probably the same thing that drove him to compete at such a high level. And he has no ego about it.” Emig noticed how much more comfortable Carmichael got in the position as the 2019 season progressed. He wouldn’t comment on what he thought Carmichael could do better. He laughed and said no amount of money could persuade him to ever sit down and watch/listen to the shows from his own first season as an analyst. 

Ralph Sheheen and Ricky Carmichael at the 2019 Monster Energy Cup

ADAPTATION

The digital criticism over Carmichael’s performance might be loud but in real life his brand is strong. He still can’t move swiftly when he navigates hallways and lobbies on race weekends and he gives as much of himself as he can to everyone he encounters. At a race in Minneapolis, Carmichael and other members of the TV crew went to dinner. They exited an elevator and found the lobby filled with race fans. Bond vividly remembers one particular man standing with his son. “He’s so nervous to talk to Ricky that he’s shaking,” Bond says. “He’s doing that thing where he’s just going on and on.” Instead of moving on as quickly as he could, Bond said Carmichael engaged the man in a brief conversation about what a great father he was, bringing his kid out to the races and then posed for pictures.

“And he’s that way with everyone,” Bond says. “But the thing that stands out is how people are around him. He means a lot to them.”

In New Jersey, the race where Forkner’s season ended, Carmichael had fewer than two hours after rehearsal to research, eat, dress and make other preparations before going on live television. Walking through the belly of MetLife Stadium, he ran into a group of a few hundred people waiting to be escorted onto the racetrack for a VIP tour. Eyes widened, heads turned and cameras floated up to eye level. One woman grabbed him and fumbled with a plastic file box filled with 8×10 photographs. “This is you and me in Atlanta,” she said, handing him a marker. He signed the print and moved to the next person who wanted a photo with him. And another, and another. He obliged every request while simultaneously moving to his next meeting. 

While the fans have enjoyed RC’s more visible and accessible role, the riders he talks about every Saturday night have shifted their view of him. He’s not only ‘Ricky Carmichael: former champion, hall of fame member, legend.’ He’s now also a reporter digging for information to use as an analyst. He quickly discovered that riders aren’t willing to share much. They’re also not obligated to. But none of this surprises him. He once was that rider.

In a meeting at MetLife, the TV crew discussed what they learned during track walk. Someone said to Carmichael, “Marvin [Musquin] gave off a twitch like he didn’t want to be around you.” 

“A lot of people gave me a lot of crap during track walk today,” Carmichael replied. “They weren’t being overly friendly.” Track walk is a roughly 30-minute period afforded the riders and teams to see the course for the first time. Media is discouraged from interviewing the athletes but the TV crew is allowed to use this time for informal info gathering. In the tunnel before the walk, a privateer heckled Ricky about getting a call wrong the week prior. Carmichael turned to him and said, “You should worry more about qualifying for the main event.” 

In the meeting, Carmichael said he couldn’t get Cooper Webb to say much of anything. In the race that night, Webb rode conservatively, lacked his usual fire, but riders kept falling in front of him. He took a win that surprised even him and he revealed on the podium that he battled flu symptoms all day. It explained why nobody could get him to talk earlier in the day. As story tellers, it’s frustrating to not have the information that could help paint a full picture but unlike other sports, motocross teams and athletes are not required to share injury or illness information. Carmichael gets challenged to talk to the riders more in pre-race and try to find out this info but he said it’s not that simple. Doing that puts the riders in a position to lie. He knows this because he’s been on that side. 

“I wasn’t going to say much about it if I was struggling that night, or how my bike was handling,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone knowing what I’m feeling, how I’m feeling, or where I need to be better, or where I’m really good. That’s just how it is in our sport.”

FOR THE SPORT

Back at home, Carmichael has some leftover soup and we talk more at the kitchen table. If I wasn’t around he’d be in his office answering messages or handling business matters. Before picking up his kids, we go on a bike ride of mixed surfaces: paved, single track and gravel. He doesn’t even let an unprepared visitor keep him from getting in his ride. He lost 20 pounds in 2019 and he wants to maintain his habit. New routines are hard to form at this stage in his life. Carmichael turned 40 on November 27. As he stares down the next chapter in his life, he cares deeply about doing the best he can. He’s also aware that he’ll likely never be the absolute best like he was at riding a dirt bike, including being an analyst on TV. Even the GOAT isn’t immune to the difficulties and challenges of winning in life. 

“Sometimes I look at myself today and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s so disappointing,’” he says. “Whether it’s my lack of dieting or my lack of drive in certain things and follow-through in certain things, because I wasn’t like that when I was racing.” For example: if he doesn’t have a full 90 minutes to exercise or ride his bike, he won’t do it at all. Long, insufferable training and riding sessions were hard-wired into his DNA since childhood and he doesn’t know how to turn that off and squeeze in something simpler.

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This chapter in Carmichael’s life came unexpectedly. He knew that the TV gig was now or never. He already made his mark as an athlete and a team owner and he only puts his name on things he believes in. Carmichael didn’t take the TV position because he needed a job; he took it because he thought he could make a difference and give back.

“I love this sport, I love [my TV gig] and I love going to the races. It’s fun for me. I got the best seat in the house. I love helping people, I really do. They might not always hear what I want to say, and not agree with what I say, but I’m just doing it because I think I’m helping them.”

There’s a knock at the door. It’s a field representative from the home automation company that connects all the systems in the house. Before Carmichael continues his preparation for 2020, he goes back to fixing the internet. 

Ricky Carmichael Rides at the Goat Farm – Monster Energy Photo

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