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Carmichael Shapes Up in Bid to Unseat McGrath as Champion

February 02, 2001|SHAV GLICK

Ricky Carmichael was used to winning in motocross before he stepped up to 250cc supercross two years ago. When he won only one of 28 races in two seasons and finished a disappointing fifth in last year's standings, he decided drastic action was called for.

First, he hired a full-time trainer-nutrition- ist, former mountain bike champion Alton Baker, and then worked more than 20 pounds off his 5-foot 4-inch frame.

"I went from 172 to between 148 and 150, depending on how much junk food I ate for my last meal," said the once stubby 21-year-old redhead. "Just looking in the mirror gives me a mental lift."

Next, he skipped the lucrative off-season races in Europe, where he had been injured before the 2000 season.

Carmichael won the 250cc national outdoor championship last year with a record nine wins in 12 starts, breaking the single-season record held by Bob Hannah.

That didn't satisfy him. Jeremy McGrath hadn't raced in the outdoor series and Carmichael knew to become No. 1 in the minds of motocross-supercross followers, he had to beat the perennial champion. McGrath has won seven of the last eight supercross championships.

"I started training specifically for supercross long before the outdoor season ended," the Kawasaki factory team rider said. "I built a motocross track and a supercross track--they're really quite different--back home and worked on my supercross technique."

Back home is Havana, Fla., but the training tracks are just across the state line in Georgia.

The change in his lifestyle has apparently worked. After four supercross races, he has won two, at San Diego and Phoenix, and McGrath has won two, both at Edison Field.

Race No. 5 will be run Saturday night in Anaheim and after his start-to-finish domination of last week's Phoenix race, Carmichael hopes to leave California with a lead.

"The Anaheim track is always kind of slippery because of the kind of dirt they use," Carmichael said. "Jeremy is used to that because he trains out here, but when we head east, I think the surfaces will be more to my liking. The dirt back there is more sandy and tends to rut up, and I like that."

Bruce Stjernstrom, Kawasaki team manager, believes the victory over McGrath at San Diego could be the catalyst for Carmichael to unseat McGrath as champion.

"The mental side is so important in supercross," Stjernstrom said. "Ricky had won so much since he started racing that he was surprised, shocked in fact, when he couldn't win. But that first win over McGrath did wonders for his confidence."

Last Saturday night in Phoenix, Carmichael not only won, he dominated. He got the hole shot out of the starting gate and was never challenged.

"I'd like to think I can win the championship this season, but it's a long series," he said. "We'll see where we are at Las Vegas." The 16-race season ends May 5 at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.

If either Carmichael or McGrath falters Saturday night, veteran Mike LaRocco, on a Honda, will be poised to step up. LaRocco finished third last week and is third in points.

To make life on the road more comfortable for their young protege, Kawasaki and Chevy trucks bought the team a $600,000 transporter to carry Carmichael's bikes from race to race. It's also a place to relax on race nights.

"It makes it nice for his father and me," said Jeannie Carmichael, Ricky's mother, who makes every race a family adventure. "[The transporter] is our home away from home. We're on the road a lot. He will be in 28 races in 35 weeks this season.

"When the supercross heads east, we go home between races. Ricky is on a strict nutritional diet, but Tuesday nights are family nights. Ricky has dinner with us. I cook and Ricky spends most of his time signing jerseys and posters for his fan club."

Kawasaki engineers lowered Carmichael's green No. 4 bike about an inch and a half to make it easier for him to negotiate the tight turns on stadium tracks. The seat was trimmed down, the foot pegs and handlebars were raised slightly and the suspension changed to complete the overhaul.

"To tell the truth, I don't think he's really 5-4," said Stjernstrom. "Lowering the bike has helped him a lot."

Before moving up to 250cc supercross, Carmichael didn't know what it was like to lose. Since he was 8 years old and signed his first factory contract, he won everything in sight--nine AMA amateur championships, three 125cc motocross crowns, two 125cc Eastern regional supercross championships, and last year's 250cc outdoors title.

He also rode in three Motocross des Nations, helping the U.S. break a three-year losing streak last year in France, and won the $100,000 first prize last October in the U.S. Open of Supercross in Las Vegas.

"I won't feel like I've accomplished what I set out to do in supercross until I beat Jeremy [for the championship]," Carmichael said. "I know now it can be done, but there's a long way to go. Racing with him, knowing what he's done, is really cool."


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