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Part 8: “Would you do it for $5 million bucks?”

As winter dragged on they could see they were not getting what they wanted from Honda and it was time to find an offer to compete against what they already had. Moorman was excited for the challenge. “Negotiating 101 clearly teaches you that you cannot be successful negotiating against yourself,” he says. 

Carmichael doesn’t know the exact moment riding for Suzuki came up at all but his feelings, in hindsight, remind him that it started as a joke, an eye-rolling, ‘are-you-serious-Clark’ conversation between he and Moorman:

What would it take for you to ride for Suzuki? Would you do it for five million bucks?

That’s what he wants to believe and remember Moorman asked him. That’s how Ricky remembers it. 

Moorman says he simply asked Carmichael if he could see himself riding for a different manufacturer and, if so, who would it be? “Because of his loyalty to Honda, he was reluctant to respond to my question,” Moorman says.

When he did, he emphasized more the people he’d consider working with. “[Roger] De Coster is a legend,” he told Moorman, referring to the five-time World Motocross Champion and the then-team manager of American Suzuki. “He is the ultimate competitor, his mentorship will be valuable, he has big plans for Suzuki, and I have heard good things about Suzuki executive Mel Harris.”

Roger De Coster and Ricky Carmichael
Roger De Coster chats up Ricky Carmichael circa 2004. Photo: Simon Cudby

The name Roger De Coster brought forth a distant memory for Moorman. He grew up 30 minutes south of Red Bud and his older brother rode dirt bikes. When ABC’s Wide World of Sports ran a one-hour special on the Carlsbad United States Grand Prix, the Moorman boys tuned in. The legend from Belgium was a fixture in that event.

Moorman sent a proposal to De Coster.

Suzuki Comes to Play

Carmichael looked out the window at the roller coasters that rose above the treetops of Six Flags Over Georgia. His torso lurched and lunged along with the erratic and brutally congested stop-and-go flow of Atlanta’s afternoon rush hour traffic on I-20. He was being driven to an autograph signing at Freewheeling Powersports, a Honda dealer in Douglasville, Georgia. It was Friday, February 27, 2004, the day before the Atlanta Supercross. 

He got a phone call from David Moorman. With the phone to his ear, he stared at the roller coasters while Moorman asked what he wanted first: the good news or the bad news. 

Bad news first, always. Moorman laughed and said there wasn’t any bad news. Not really. He had asked Suzuki for $5,000,000 per year in guaranteed compensation. No performance or championship bonuses. Suzuki countered with a three-year deal, $4,700,000 in contract year one, paid out in 12 installments of $391,666.67 per month, starting in the fall of 2004. Suzuki also offered championship bonuses at $300,000 each.

Ricky Carmichael, American Suzuki
The financial terms of American Suzuki’s offer to Ricky Carmichael for the 2005-2006 racing seasons.

So, if Carmichael won the AMA Supercross and AMA Motocross titles in 2005, he’d end up with $5.3 million, or $300,000 more than originally proposed. And, if he won both of those titles, his base salary increased to $5,300,000 guaranteed for year two of the contract.

It seemed like nothing but good news. And it was. But it also wasn’t. Carmichael hung up and stared out the window. The next night he appeared in the opening ceremonies for the Atlanta Supercross, riding a Honda pit bike, the first motorcycle he’d ridden in over three months. 

Ricky Carmichael at Atlanta SX
Ricky Carmichael at the 2004 Atlanta Supercross, one day after getting an informal offer from Suzuki. Photo: Simon Cudby

The amount of good fortune and options weighed heavily on his mind. Deep down part of him wanted fewer options, not more. A piece of him wanted Suzuki to say ‘no’, which would have left him with no option but to stay at Honda, which was where he truly wanted to be. 

Still, when he returned to Tallahassee and February turned into March, he didn’t jump into signing a letter of intent. He continued to try to get Honda to budge from the numbers offered back in October. Before the Daytona Supercross on March 5, where he served as the ceremonial grand marshal, he took a walk on the beach with Jeff Stanton, who won six titles with Honda. After his 1994 retirement, Stanton became a consultant with the brand. 

Jeff Stanton, Honda
Jeff Stanton served as a Honda team consultant after his own championship career.

“We talked numbers that day,” Stanton says. “Ricky said if Honda could just come up another ‘X’ dollars, then he’d stay.” 

Stanton went back to his room and called Ray Blank, with whom he had a good working relationship. “I’ll never forget what Ray said to me,” Stanton says, reminiscing. “He said, ‘Jeff, at some point you have to separate the friendship from the business.’ That was it.”