American Idols Lionized by teens and big-name athletes alike, motocross stars like Ricky Carmichael draw NFL-sized crowds for a roaring, soaring spectacle

January 20, 2003

Ten o'clock on Saturday night in the flatlands of Anaheim. RVs,
acres of RVs, in every direction, pitched like so many aluminum
tents on the asphalt outside Edison Field. There's no one in the
parking lot, but the echoes of the warm January day remain: the
girls in tube tops, the coolers planted deep with Bud bottles,
the teenage boys drag-racing scooters, the discordant hum of a
thousand CDs fed through a thousand driver's-side speakers.

The action now is inside the stadium, where 45,000 people are on
their feet and roaring at a supercross spectacle that is part
stock car race, part rock concert, part prizefight. Or at least
you think they're roaring. It's impossible to tell over the
sound of the nearly two dozen 250-cc motorcycles being primed
and revved and primed again, the din like the buzzing of a
toppled hornets' nest. The bikes quiver as a thousand
flashbulbs wink and the man on the P.A. does his best Michael
Buffer and the sticky-sweet smell of spilled beer rises into
the California night. And then they're off, knobby tires digging
over the three-quarter-mile track, 1.5 million pounds of brown
earth that was hauled in by semis and laid down in waves and
hills and cattle-grate ridges. Skidding out of the first turn,
the riders take the crest and launch into the air, flying 15,
20, 30 feet--three stories!--above the ground, a fleet of Evel
Knievels twisting into the sky.

One figure peaks higher than the rest--or maybe it just seems
that way because you, like everyone else in this baseball stadium
that feels nothing like a baseball stadium, are watching Ricky
Carmichael on his red number 4 Honda CR250R. You are waiting for
him to take the lead, as he did almost unfailingly en route to
winning the last two winter supercross championships, and did
without exception during the 2002 summer motocross season, in
which he not only won all 12 American Motocross Association (AMA)
events but also every qualifying heat to boot, going a perfect 24
for 24 over the milelong outdoor tracks. To call Ricky Carmichael
the Michael Jordan of motocross would be a disservice, for even
when Jordan was still lord of basketball, he never dominated his
sport the way this 23-year-old from Havana, Fla., does.

For a better analogy, picture a tennis player so good that he
wins not only every tournament of the year but also every set.
And then remember that Carmichael does his magic aboard a
200pound piece of machinery that if he lands wrong off a jump,
could snap his spine like a carrot stick. One must only scan the
second deck of the stadium to see the cautionary tales, dozens of
former racers and wannabes, young men in wheelchairs with all the
trappings of youth--their hats wedged backward and tattoos
curling up their forearms--but none of the freedom.

So you watch Carmichael expectantly, waiting for the burst, but
then you blink and something unexpected has happened. Coming
around a turn on the second of the 20 laps, Carmichael has
toppled off his bike, suddenly looking human and even smaller
than his five feet four. Two ... five ... seven riders pass him,
and still he fumbles to remount. In the stands disbelief turns to
delirium--the King is down!--and these West Coast fans, who
begrudge the Floridian for winning, for displacing their local
heroes, for treating this as a job rather than a party, begin to
cheer. Then, one lap later, Carmichael goes down again, and by
the time he is back on his bike, a $100,000 machine that a team
of mechanics and engineers has spent months engineering to
NASA-like standards, he is dead last, stranded behind 19 other
bikes. A man in the seats below you revels. "He's done," he
shouts above the growling cacophony, pumping his arms. "He ain't
even gonna finish in the top half!"

In 1965 Tom Wolfe wrote that stock car racing is "a wildly
horrendous spectacle such as no other sport approaches." If that
is the case, then supercross is NASCAR unhinged, stripped of the
metal cage and the chassis and given wings. It is an Xbox game
come to life, full of impossible jumps and crackling crashes and
contorted, concocted terrain. Indeed, the kids play MX Superfly
Featuring Ricky Carmichael and Jeremy McGrath Supercross and beg
Dad to take them to the track so they can see their digital
heroes in the flesh. The turnout is measured in small armies, an
average of 49,556 for the 16 AMA supercross events last season.
It's an all-day experience: For a "treadhead" ticket that runs
$30 for adults and one-third that for kids, fans can show up at
12:30 in the afternoon and stay until midnight, watching the
practices and qualifiers in the stadium and wandering through the
fenced-in pit area outside it. Amid this little village, the bike
manufacturers erect tents and deejays spin records and all the
big racers sit down for an hour to scribble autographs and pose,
next to strangers, for snapshots that will one day be framed like
diplomas and mounted in dens.

Were it not for the racing suits, it might be impossible to tell
rider from fan, so young and virile and gelled are both.
Carmichael is 23, but many of the other racers, like 19-year-old
X Games freestyle champion and crowd favorite Travis Pastrana,
are younger. Compact yet thin, they look like surfers without the
tans and have the same effect on the opposite sex, attracting
hordes of beautiful women with silicon figures who in turn
attract herds of male teenage fans.

So in the same way kids rejected their parents' skis in favor of
snowboards, today's bypass NASCAR for supercross. That's why you
see people like Ken Griffey Jr. and pro surfer Sunny Garcia,
wannabe motoheads both, tooling around backyard tracks; why Troy
Glaus and Troy Percival of the world champion Angels are in
attendance in Anaheim; and why every other pro skateboarder says
his real dream is to catch big air on a 250-cc cycle. The TV
isn't there yet, relegated as supercross is to taped appearances
on ESPN2, but the riders and the Honda people and the agents
assure you that it's only a matter of time before this sport
blows up. Then they quickly correct themselves to remind you
that, of course, it already has.

Only three decades ago there was no supercross, only motocross,
and that was dominated by Europeans like Roger DeCoster, the
great Belgian rider who rode a leaden Czech bike called the Jawa
250 to his first title. Imported to the U.S. in 1972, the sport
was quickly Americanized, squeezed into stadium bowls with
artificial jumps and hyped up with the name supercross. It
attracted the kids who'd never liked sticks and balls, the ones
who would rather do wheelies than listen to a coach with a
whistle, and those kids in turn grew up and bought bikes and
became the next generation of stars.

They partied as hard as they raced, and the brightest of them was
a kid from Murrieta, Calif., named Jeremy McGrath. Brash,
talented and personable, he became the Tony Hawk of his sport,
winning seven supercross titles from 1993 through 2000 while
introducing to the sport a BMX flair, full of
one-leg-off-the-bike "nac nacs" and midair finger points and
ain't-it-fun-to-be-young passion. He did Leno, he made the first
video games, he inspired the now-popular freestyle motoX, in
which riders compete not based on time but on who can do the
sickest flips and spins and aerial gymnastics.

Naturally, then, the sport went into mourning two weeks ago when
the 31year-old McGrath announced that he was retiring, only days
before the 2003 American supercross series was to begin. Only
months removed from a four-hour surgery during which doctors
wedged his hip back into place, he felt old in a young man's
game. And so the torch was officially passed to Carmichael.
"Now," McGrath said last week, "let's just hope he's ready for
it."

On a bright December day, just north of Tallahassee, Carmichael
arrives in his jacked-up Ford F-250 truck and steps down and
extends a hand to a visitor. He is scruffy and impish-looking,
with cocked-out ears, a face full of freckles and a thicket of
red curls with blond streaks that sprouts from under a backward
baseball cap. He grins and nods a lot and, in a Southern twang,
uses terms like buddy and main man and brothaman.

He heads just north of the Georgia border to show off his 96-acre
ranch and practice course, a renovated tobacco farm full of barns
and sheds and stables. Just past the main house, like a small
city of clay erected amid the rolling grasslands, one of
Carmichael's three tracks is visible. Dirtwurx, the company that
creates stadium courses, built it in 1999. Now Carmichael uses a
bulldozer and a 2,000-gallon water truck to maintain it at
competition level.

Ricky got his first bike, a Yamaha 50 Tri-Zinger, when he was
five years old, encouraged by his mother, Jeannie, and his
father, Big Rick, an electrician who is as laid-back as his wife
is driven. Ruddy-cheeked, short and pudgy, Ricky liked baseball
but didn't always fit in at school. Racing drew him in. Powered
not by his legs but by an engine, he was suddenly as big as the
other kids, and far braver. By 16 he'd amassed a roomful of
amateur trophies.

When he went pro, in 1996, he won rookie of the year despite
entering only the final race of the season. He broke all the
records in the 125-cc class--the minor leagues of
motocross--before moving up to race heavier, more powerful bikes
in the 250-cc class in '99. But something failed to translate. He
finished 16th in his first season in supercross and fifth in his
second. For a kid accustomed to podiums, who says he becomes "a
real a" if he doesn't win, it was vexing. So at his mom's urging,
he hired a trainer, a former mountain-bike racer from South
Africa named Aldon Baker, to turn him from a 170-pound "pudge
ball" (Carmichael's term) into the fittest rider on tour. Baker
placed a restraining order on McDonald's and KFC and steered
Carmichael toward more healthful choices like turkey sandwiches
and grilled vegetables. "It's the hardest thing in my training,"
Carmichael says. "The biking, the running, the practice--that's
cake. The dieting, though.... Sometimes it's just so convenient
to eat bad."

But it worked. Carmichael is now 150 pounds and cut. Daily
hourlong bike rides, running (he recently covered 10 miles in
1:13), weight work and hours of practice riding in the off-season
allow him to outlast the competition. His opponents may keep pace
from Laps 1 to 5, like sprinters running the first part of a
marathon, but from Laps 5 to 20 no one can keep up with
Carmichael, who keeps churning out 59-second laps because no one
else trains like him. Supercross may not sound that difficult,
but you try it. Try to withstand 20 minutes of your heart doing a
techno beat in your chest; of your forearms swelling with blood
so that you can hardly make a fist around the handlebars; of
smoke and oil and dirt and the knowledge that you can't turn your
attention away for a second or you're going headfirst toward an
embankment.

Do this every day for two decades, and you'll understand why, at
23, Carmichael is already looking ahead. It's not that he needs
the money or the accolades; with endorsements, top riders make
more than $5 million a year. Now he has a wife too, and Ursula
Carmichael has made it clear she doesn't want to spend her life
with a husband in a wheelchair. One need only talk to Jeremy
McGrath's sister, Tracy, to understand. "To not have to worry
every time Jeremy goes to the starting gate is such a relief,"
Tracy said after her brother's retirement. "Jeremy saw so many of
his friends get paralyzed."

There are so many ways to land in the ER. Sometimes it doesn't
matter how well you "tuck and roll"--the riders' safety
credo--you still end up on a stretcher, as Carmichael did last
January when he did an "endo" in the season's first race, his
back tire flying up over him and sending him into a tumble. He
fractured a bone in his right hand but still made it back the
next week. The worst injuries, though, the ones the riders don't
like to talk about, come on the landings. Time one wrong and the
impact travels straight up your spinal column like an electric
shock.

Broken backs, riders doing flips--this is what the general public
knows of supercross. "It's sad because a lot of people see this
and say, These guys are crazy," says David Bailey, 41, a
four-time AMA champion who is now a commentator for ESPN2. It's
an hour before the qualifying heats in Anaheim, and Bailey is
looking down on the track from the broadcast booth. "I look at
bungee jumping and skydiving and say, 'That's kind of crazy.' But
these guys? To get to this point, they've spent the last 10 years
of their lives working on their skills. Yet all the people see is
the daredevil aspect of it." He's interrupted and called for a
prerace run-through. "Gotta go," he says, then smiles, shakes
hands and wheels himself out the door. In an adjoining studio he
ascends a wooden ramp to appear at the same height as his
play-by-play partner.

Bailey's racing career ended in January 1987, when he flipped
over the handlebars during a practice lap in Fresno, fracturing
his fourth and fifth vertebrae. Though he was left paralyzed from
the chest down, he never thought of leaving, much less blaming,
the sport. It gets in your blood. Just listen to Carmichael talk
of his biggest fear. "It's not the crashing but the losing,
because when I lose, I'll retire," he says, fingering his ball
cap, unconsciously adjusting it. "And that scares me. I've been
doing this since I was five years old. What the hell are you
going to do next?"

It doesn't seem possible. But there he is, with six laps to go,
in fourth place and closing fast. With four laps to go Carmichael
takes third, then second! The same fans who jeered him earlier
are now behind him. It's hard not to be. You start to hope, to
think he can pull off a miracle, but then he runs out of track.

Afterward, walking out the tunnel to where his trailer is parked
in the pit, he talks of how it's a long season and how he made a
good effort. But then the facade crumbles. "F, man, I hate
losing," he says, the practiced joviality of brothaman and buddy
gone now. "Especially when I know I've worked so much harder than
the other guys out there, that I've been training while they've
been partying." He reaches the trailer and is enveloped by family
and friends. They pat him on the shoulder, congratulate him on
the stirring comeback. Carmichael doesn't care, though; second is
second, and he wants no part of it. "I could have killed him,
absolutely killed him, had I started better," he says of winner
Chad Reed, shaking his head.

Carmichael sighs and pulls off his racing jacket. Though it is
almost midnight, there are still fans lined up around the
waist-high gates that encircle the trailer. Spotting a young boy
with his mother, Carmichael walks out and tosses him his jersey.
The kid reaches up, snags it out of the air and holds it aloft,
beaming as if he's speared a home run ball. And then the two head
off in opposite directions, a young man fast becoming a legend
and a boy who wants to be just like him.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BO BRIDGES FAST LEARNER Only 23, Carmichael already has 26 supercross victories and two championships. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BO BRIDGES FLY BY NIGHT The 45,000 fans at Edison Field weren't the only ones coming out of their seats as Carmichael (4) charged toward the lead. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BO BRIDGES KID STUFF Young treadheads are drawn by the easy access afforded to them by racers like Carmichael (far left), even on race day. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BO BRIDGES GO, GIRLS The races are also attracting a surprisingly large number of young women. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK

IT IS AN XBOX GAME COME TO LIFE. The turnout is measured in small
armies, an average of 49,566 last season.

Carmichael's biggest fear? "It isn't the crashing but the losing.
WHEN I LOSE, I'LL RETIRE."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)