Salt Lake City Sees Red
The track is covered in plastic. Hay bales hold everything down. Little men in yellow hooded suits run up the backside of the finish-line jump, tuck and roll over the peak, and slide down the wet plastic on the other side. The rain is coming down at a slant. It’s just about cold enough to snow. Practice has been postponed from twelve-thirty to three-thirty.
In walks a young boy with his dad. It’s the press box. There is a television monitor on the wall and the boy sees it. He says “Cool, there’s even a race on TV? I wanna see who’s in first”. After a moment, he says “Carmichael, just like I thought”.
The gate is down and Ricky Carmichael leads a wedge of red into the first corner, Ernesto Fonseca and Sebastien Tortelli, just over his shoulder. Both Ricky and arch-rival David Vuillemin agree, now that everyone has a hook (an anti-wheelie device), starting strategies have changed. Notoriously poor starters like David and Sebastien are now consistent threats for the holeshot.
Still, Ricky isn’t sold on the device. He’s decided not to use it in Salt Lake City, and he’s pulled the holeshot without it.
But his lead is short-lived. David Vuillemin is going straight for the jugular, tucking in tight around the first corner, tighter than Ricky or Ernesto or Jeremy or Sebastien. The pack rolls inside itself and Rider Number Four finds himself in third behind Universal Studios Honda teammate Ernesto Fonseca and a sprinting David Vuillemin.
David’s back is against the wall. He has to beat Ricky to keep his championship hopes alive. Off the track, he’s realistic. He knows his chances of upsetting Ricky are slim. On the track, he aims right for it. He has that slim chance dead in his sights.
Ricky doesn’t take long moving into second and the stage is set. All eyes are on Ricky and David, the only thing between them, the 2002 AMA/EA Sports Supercross Series title. That crown, invisible and pervasive, holds everyone together like a knot.
David rides with abandon, recoiling in every corner, and striking out with lightning quickness, riding off his rear-fender over the small obstacles, leaning over his front wheel over the biggest jumps.
But it’s not enough to lose Ricky. Rider Number Four is just settling in, the opening laps feinting and dodging their way past his side-plates, disappearing behind him in bursts of faint-blue exhaust. He clears his vision, pulling a tear-off from the side of his helmet, letting it fall in a glinting flutter from his hand on its way back to the handlebar, flying effortlessly over a sixty-five-foot triple.
David has already landed and is running the depths of the track’s many ruts like slots in a slot-car track. The rain has long-since stopped and the Dirt Werx crew has taken a track that was literally under water, and transformed it into a soft, slippery, but dry supercross battle-ground.
The ruts line themselves up side-by-side around the track and worsen. And that’s how David makes his one error, the one Ricky is waiting for. Rider Number Twelve launches into a rhythm-section up the middle of the track. The mistake isn’t immediately apparent. But as he lifts higher into the air, his factory YZ250 pitches out to the side. He’s hit the jump cross-rutted, his front wheel in one rut, his rear in another, and now he’s coming down sideways toward a heavily rutted landing.
He’s in danger of going down. He gets ready to counter the sideways-throw about to hit him, sabotage his forward momentum, and try to pitch him over the high-side. Behind him, Ricky is launching off the first jump in perfect form. David lands and his suspension collapses. He loses speed immediately. Ricky closes in through the air. As David struggles through his landing, straightening his Yamaha under heavy acceleration, Ricky touches down, gas on.
They hit the second obstacle side-by-side, but David isn’t carrying the same momentum. Ricky leaps into the lead, and by the end of the rhythm-section, he’s in front by two bike-lengths.
Behind them, Bud Light Yamaha’s Jeremy McGrath is forcing Ernesto Fonseca into riding defensively. And Sebastien Tortelli, Number Thirteen, isn’t far behind. Nathan Ramsey is pushing his way to the front after a bad start, and trying to close on him, is Chevy Trucks Kawasaki’s Ezra Lusk.
But the title only exists between two riders, and they’re separating themselves from everyone else. Jeremy passes into third and the crowd thunders, but then all eyes return to the length of distance between Ricky’s rear wheel and David’s front. That’s what the championship looks like from where they sit.
It looks like an open track to Ricky, and that’s just how he wants it. He rides every rut with confidence, like he’s done it all before, lots of times. And he has. Tonight, Ricky will earn his second consecutive 250 supercross title, and he’ll do it with scoring only one point in the opening round. He’ll do it with one round remaining.
Basically, Ricky has needed only fourteen rounds of sixteen to beat the best supercross riders the world has to offer.
Tonight, he’ll earn his tenth win of the year, and he’ll tie legends Ricky Johnson and Jeff Ward with seven national titles. Only one man has more. Jeremy McGrath.
The night is miraculous. What was an empty stadium, glistening in the cold beating rain during practice and qualifying, now has a near capacity crowd, a clear, deep-blue mountain sky, and a new 125 champion in the West.
Dr. Martens/Amsoil Honda/Factory Connection’s Travis Preston has done what many considered mid-season to be impossible. He’s defeated Chevy Trucks Kawasaki’s James Stewart for the ’02 title.
James has ridden a flawless race, winning it with superior speed and smooth, precise technique. He’s ridden so far out in front of the pack, he’s given his fans little opportunity to cheer for him. There are no bobbles or heart-breaking falls, no plastic-snapping block-passes or last-lap charges.
James and his fans have saved it all for the last lap. They stand out of their seats, waving and yelling as he rounds the track and launches over the triples, his fist raised over his head. He whips past the checkered flag and celebrates his win with Rice-Eccles Stadium, all the while knowing, the title isn’t his.
That honor belongs to the second-place rider, slicing his way around the track with a big number twenty-nine on his back. Like James Stewart, Travis Preston has ridden flawlessly. All year long, Travis hasn’t cared about who the fastest rider was, let alone whether he was the fastest. He hasn’t cared about who the best rider was. He’s only cared about racing to the best of his ability.
His ability is good enough to be 125 West Champion. Travis Preston, the champion, earns his title on the first lap by moving into second behind James, a feat more telling than it would seem.
Sitting on the line, revving his motor and waiting for the two-minute board to come out, Travis knows the title is his to lose. The starter takes his stance in the distance and points down the line. The pressure is no longer on James, it’s on Travis. There are only two more minutes to think about it. Riders begin compressing their forks and engaging their hooks.
The thirty-second board is up. It turns sideways. The gate can drop at any moment. Travis leans over his handlebars and drops into a trance. His handlebars are noticeably higher than the others down the line. He’s forgotten to engage his hook.
The gate drops. Rear wheels spin and all twenty-two riders leap off the line. For Rider Number Twenty-Nine, the pressure is gone, and with it, his potential one mistake. He’s in motion now and it can’t get to him. He rides his race the way he says he does on the victory podium. With focus and a lack of concern for what the other riders are doing. Suzuki’s Danny Smith is never far behind him, but that doesn’t affect him either.
Ask the champ if he felt the pressure and he’ll give you a puzzled look. Then he’ll say I’m a motorcycle racer. I’m doing what I want to do.
But for Ricky Carmichael, being the best he can be simply isn’t enough. He has to be the best there has ever been. Why else did he race the 125 class last year at Steel City? Why else did he finish the one heat race he lost to Jeremy this year in a fury? Why else is he only one title behind Jeremy, the winningest rider of all time?
Answer: Ricky has to survive himself. He has something gnashing its teeth inside of him. Something wild and free and unapproachable. Somewhere within, there is a demand that perhaps only men like Bob Hannah, Rick Johnson, David Bailey, and Roger DeCoster can understand.
This is how he rides: like it’s hard to live with himself if he isn’t the best. The other riders don’t matter to him. Not even Jeremy. Not when they’re on the track. They only exist for him to out-perform. That’s all they’re for.
Ricky Carmichael rides like the sport belongs to him, like he can lay claim to it and the people who make it possible, with sheer courage and desire for speed.
As he finishes his victory lap, Ricky approaches the victory podium where the rest of Team Universal Studios Honda is gathering, hugging and shaking hands.
Sebastien Tortelli has pressured Jeremy into error, and taken over third, with Ernesto slipping past as well, finishing fourth. Nathan Ramsey, after running the whole race in sixth, has lost his position to Ezra Lusk on the last lap. It’s a very good night for Honda. Four out of the top seven, and three out of the top four. Two titles in one night, and their first 250 title since the Red Rider days of Jeremy McGrath and Steve Lamson.
David sprays his champagne on Ricky while Sebastien uncorks his, watching. When David’s bottle runs out, Sebastien steps forward with his, only turning to hit Ricky’s mechanic, Chad Watts, when Ricky runs too far out of range. Chad, sitting on Ricky’s bike with a one-off, Number One Fox jersey hanging over the front-plate, can only turn his head down and take the soaking. Then Ricky opens his bottle and empties it on him.
Champagne gone, Ricky walks over to Chad, both of them smiling and soaked, shining in the stadium light, and says “That was so awesome dude!”