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Carmichael Gets Push He Needs

Supercross rider wins his third consecutive championship, but budding rivalry with Reed figures to help popularize the sport.

May 04, 2003|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Snake had the Mongoose, Earnhardt had Gordon, and now Carmichael has Reed.

Ricky Carmichael of Havana, Fla., protected his slim lead in the AMA Supercross Series with a second-place finish Saturday in front of 37,312 at Sam Boyd Stadium, and won the series championship by seven points over Australian Chad Reed.

Reed, a factory Yamaha rider, won his sixth consecutive race and eighth overall -- one more than Carmichael. For Carmichael, it is the Honda rider's third consecutive championship and record ninth AMA title overall.

In the all-star Dave Coombs Sr. East/West Shootout for the top 125cc riders, James Stewart -- who won seven of eight races in the West Region -- suffered a concussion and possible broken collarbone after a spectacular third-lap crash. He was alert when he was taken to University Medical Center. Suzuki rider Andrew Short won the 15-lap shootout, his first career victory.

"The championship is the main thing," Carmichael said. "Anything other than that is a bonus. People remember championships, they don't remember race wins."

Carmichael, 23, and Reed, 21, have laid the foundation for a rivalry that the sport has been lacking.

Reed served notice this season.

"I've tried to be the guy who's not intimidated by Ricky," Reed said. "I just want to race and beat him. There's nothing else. There's nobody else out there who really believes they can beat him when they say they want to beat him. There's no one out there but the two of us who can really say, 'Yes, I'm going to win,' and really mean it."

Not only has Reed won eight races this season, and six in row, but there has been enough extra-curricular sparks to bring tension into the pits.

Last week in Salt Lake City, Reed passed Carmichael for the lead after an aggressive move inside Carmichael that forced the two-time champion to fall. Reed watched the video 20 times and says it wasn't dirty. Carmichael says everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but he'll never forget.

And that's good, because most believe a rivalry between the top riders from Honda and Yamaha is good for the sport. And when Kawasaki's 125cc wunderkind Stewart, 17, joins the 250cc fray at least for the first few races next season, supercross will almost assuredly reach its zenith.

"Every year," Reed said, "it seems to get more and more interesting." And supercross is gaining more and more momentum.

On the sports-as-entertainment landscape, supercross has grown into a more than $100-million dollar industry. Nearly 800,000 attended its 16 events this season. Next summer, "Supercross the Movie" is scheduled for release.

Film crews were on hand Saturday to watch Carmichael make history, joining Bob Hannah and Jeremy McGrath as the only riders to win three consecutive titles.

"Every time a championship is close, it makes it that much better when you win it," said Carmichael, who rose to stardom on a Kawasaki and twice won championships on a Honda.

"[A rivalry] is good for the sport, it gives fans something to look forward to, not knowing what to expect," Carmichael said.

"I like to destroy everyone and try to win. That's my goal, and that's what your sponsors want you to do. That sells motorcycles. But [a championship battle] is good for the sport."

For the last decade, individual stars have dominated the championship. McGrath, a seven-time champion, dominated the 1990s, except in 1997 when he lost the title to Jeff Emig by 15 points.

But those close finishes are rare. Only eight times in the previous 28 seasons has the championship been decided by as few as 16 points (the total a rider receives for finishing fifth in a race).

In the other 20 seasons, championships were decided by 34 or more points. Winners receive 25 points for a victory, 22 for second, 20 for third, and so on.

Four of those eight close finishes came from 1982 to '85 when Jeff Ward, David Bailey and Donnie Hansen were doing battle.

The last legitimate rivalry occurred before McGrath arrived, when Jeff Stanton won the 1992 title by three points over Damon Bradshaw.

"That was really the last competitive era," said Tony Gardea, a Kawasaki representative, who has been with supercross since 1991. "When Chad Reed shows up, it's really a breath of fresh air."

Only once since Stanton-Bradshaw has the series been close -- when Emig upset McGrath.

The sport grew under McGrath's watch, but a legitimate rivalry between Carmichael and Reed -- and possibly Stewart -- could push it further.

"We've seen how much our sport can grow with just Jeremy," said Reed's teammate, Tim Ferry, "but this is what it's going to take to get to the next level, which is more sponsorships from outside the motorcycle industry."

Indeed, Bud Light, Chevy Trucks, Nissan, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco and the title sponsor, THQ, have bought into the series.

And if you ever needed proof of supercross' rising star, consider this: with Oscar De La Hoya defending his boxing title on the south side of Las Vegas, Carmichael and Reed were racing inside Sam Boyd Stadium, eight miles away.

In front of a sellout.

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