Part I of III: Real Racers, Real Fans

There has been a lot of press lately, defending the virtues of Ricky Carmichael, and reprimanding the thousands of people who boo him. The controversy has run so hot that Bob Hannah himself, arguably America’s original motocross hero, has gone on record with Racer X saying if he were Ricky, he would have kicked Travis’ *** and taken a parade lap, flipping everyone the bird.

Cycle News contributor Steve Cox, opens his editorial Star Wars with “News flash. Motocross and supercross are contact sports. If you’re a fan, you should know this. If you aren’t one, you should learn this.”

Cycle News has been the industry standard in race reporting for over thirty years. It is one of the most respected publications in the country, focusing on fact instead of sensation, describing action and letting its audience come to its own conclusion. So why after reading Star Wars am I left feeling reprimanded? Do I know what a contact sport is, and, does Mr. Cox mean that only real fans enjoy the sight of riders taking one another out?

I don’t like to see riders taking one another out. I don’t even like to see them try. Guess I’d better take up badminton.

It seems dangerous business to me, for the press to be standing judgment over the thousands of people who make the sport as we know it possible. According to Mr. Cox, I’m not a real fan. What is a real fan? What other kinds of fans are there? Posers? Wannabe’s? Is there a fan rating system?

So, what kind of fan am I really? I’m the kind that grew up in a family of racers. I raced for the first time when I was seven, my younger brother, when he was four. I’m the kind of fan who took his hard-earned money and bought computers and software and digital photo equipment and traveled the country on credit cards, starting his own web-magazine, Champfactory. What kind of fan am I? The kind who puts his money where his mouth is, believing in himself, his family heritage, and his sport.

So, is he right? Is Supercross is a contact sport? Admittedly, Mr. Cox is not alone in his opinion. However, I believe we should first define the term “contact sport” before squaring off on the message boards. Sounds boring, I know, but bear with me.

A contact sport, in the purest sense of the word, is one where physical contact is the point of play. Think Football, Hockey, Rugby. It’s built into the rules of the game. One man has the ball, and lots of other men hunt him down and try to take the ball from him. It almost literally takes its roots from war games. Hand to hand combat. Two opposing forces, facing one another, closing in and clashing against one another.

Motocross, like running Track, is a race. No one faces anyone else. They line up, looking into a common distance, the first corner, symbolic of a common fate. When the gate drops, every one of them travel in the same direction, and maneuver the same obstacles. Each rider stands against the perils of speed and flight every bit as much as his competitors. The point is to reach the finish line first. Not to take the finish line from anyone else.

Yes, everyone comes to a Supercross to see who will win. But is that really what the race is there to display? No. It’s there to show who the fastest rider is. That’s what people want to see. I’ve grown up at the races, and known many racing families. Many times, I’ve been with family and friends, watching one of our people winning, only to see them be hunted down, caught, and then passed for the win. Not once have I heard any mother, father, friend or sibling screaming, “Take him out! Take him out! Yeah!”

But I have heard them screaming, “Go go go! Come on! Faster! Gaaaassssit!”

Racing is always about going faster. Sure there is luck or fate or whatever you want to call it. The fastest rider for ten laps isn’t necessarily the one who will win. Maybe he falls down in the first corner and races nineteen laps faster than everyone else, like Bubba did last weekend. It doesn’t matter. It’s the rider with the quickest time for twenty laps who will win every time. Travis Preston rode the fastest race at Anaheim I, and therefore, was the fastest rider in the 125 class.

Is there going to be contact in Supercross? Of course. The way the tracks are built, there’s practically no other way to make a pass decisively. Naturally, the riders will go for as decisive a move as they can pull off every time. But as a spectator, which would you rather see? A pass that happens in one corner, or one that takes two straight-aways and two corners to complete, each rider side by side over four different kinds of obstacles?

Does the fact that racers can benefit from making contact with their competitors make it a contact sport? I say no. Formula One racers make contact at two hundred miles per hour. Long distance runners make contact too. Neither one is considered a contact sport though. Disagree? Let’s think about contact, then, in Supercross.

To my knowledge, there are two kinds of contact on the track. The kind where two riders are diving into a section that only has room for one, each barely holding his own line, handlebars tangling, boots catching on the other’s foot pegs, each rider reaching for the ground just in front of him. Their race is rooted in skill, luck, and courage. Heck, there is even a bond of camaraderie in a battle like that. Example? David Bailey vs. Ricky Johnson in the legendary 1986 battle at Anaheim. David won that battle. What did RJ do after the race? He walked up to David, and he hugged him.

The other kind of contact is strategic. It’s guerrilla warfare. One rider has the intention of running the other off the track, putting him down, or in either case, intimidating him as much as possible. This kind of contact is intended to beat the other rider mentally, to break his concentration, make him ride on emotion, and then capitalize on the errors he’s bound to make.

But no matter what, the rider who makes intentional contact almost always has the choice to make the pass clean. Instead, he chooses to end the race as soon as possible, and ride his remaining laps unchallenged. Is that good strategy? Yes. Is it good for the paying audience? No.

Anaheim ’86 would never have happened if Ricky and David had taken even one of the opportunities they had lap after lap, to put the other down, and in essence, end the race.

But neither one wanted to rob the other. Neither one wanted to rob their fans. They loved the race. They were real racers. They put on a show of heart and precision, and to this day, their match-up stands as the greatest Supercross race of all time.

That’s the kind of racing I’m living for.

Write me at [email protected] and tell me what your ideas are. I’ll take arguments from both sides and publish them in part three of this series. I’ll call it: Supercross – Contact Sport or Spectator Sport?

This should be fun.


Part II of III: Why Does Ricky Need Defending, Anyway?

In Real Racers, Real Fans, I used Steve Cox’s emotionally charged editorial Star Wars as a platform to examine some timely issues in the sport of Supercross. In it, the author argues that Ricky Carmichael is not only innocent of dirty riding, but that Travis’ fall was his own fault. He’s probably right. Heck, Travis admitted as much, and more.

The crux of his argument? The virtues of brake checking: In order to secure the position, Carmichael applies a time-proven technique–the brake-check. He slows up, hoping that Pastrana’s position on the outside will keep him from making the cut back underneath, giving Carmichael the preferred position going into the following corner.

Can anyone argue the strategic value of the move as Mr. Cox describes it? No. But I can say this. As soon as a rider, no matter who he is, ceases to ride for the lead, and instead rides to obstruct another rider, it’s dirty riding.

I know, I know. Anyone can take issue with that statement simply by citing the racers themselves, and the answers they give on the victory podium each week. When asked about aggressive riding, every one of them will say, hey. That’s racing.

However, what the racers say when they’re standing on a pedestal, in front of fifty thousand fans, with television cameras shoved in their faces and bulbs flashing from a tightening knot of photographers, is not necessarily what they really think and feel.

What would you do? Point your finger at the guy next to you and say he cheated? I doubt it.

Rewind to last year. Indianapolis, Indiana, the RCA Dome. The entire stadium is full – and the race is over with. The crowd has just given David Vuillemin a standing ovation for block-passing Ricky Carmichael with two laps to go, effectively winning the race. David has actually been booed during the opening ceremony. Because he’s a Frenchman in the points-lead? Probably. So why does Indianapolis stand out of their seats for him now, as he takes his victory lap? Answer: a little incident between Ricky and Travis earlier in the race, resulting in Travis on the ground and Ricky with the lead.

The microphone is handed to Ricky for his second-place acceptance speech, and it becomes immediately clear what the folks in Indiana have been waiting around for. The booing erupts like thunder and it doesn’t stop until the microphone is handed to David. Another roaring ovation. Each is so loud that neither rider can be heard over the loudspeakers. Anyone who has attended a Supercross, knows just how loud that sound system is.

Bob Hannah, it ain’t a California thing.

We’re still in the RCA Dome. Ricky is standing next to the third-place finisher, Stephane Roncada. David is being interviewed. The sound of the crowd is tremendous. Stephane turns to Ricky, shakes his head, and says, “This is [email protected]#$%”. Pretty risky thing to write, I know. But I’m standing there five feet from the two of them, listening to and photographing their conversation, feeling the raw, overpowering energy of the moment.

Why would Stephane offer his support to Ricky? I can only speculate. Did he feel that Ricky had done nothing wrong, and therefore, was being unjustly treated? That’s the conclusion I came to. I was left with the feeling that Stephane, like most of his competitors, viewed contact as part of the sport, and an important part of a racer’s arsenal.

So why then, only weeks later, would Stephane stand next to his downed Kawasaki, and point menacingly at the rear wheel of David’s factory Yamaha as it sped away from him, instead of immediately picking it up and getting back in the race? David had just taken Stephane to the hay bales in a very physical move. Was Stephane angry? After the race, he took his factory Kawasaki and ran it into the back end of David’s Yamaha – while David was sitting on it.

So much for the riders assuring us that physical tactics are a valid and acceptable part of the sport. Valid? Yes. Acceptable? No.

So, if the riders themselves feel like they’ve been violated when one of their competitors cleans them out, why shouldn’t the fans? Sure, the factory stars are going to say, “That’s racing” into the microphone, but as Brock Sellards put it last year at Anaheim I, when asked about his trip to the ground at the hands of James Stewart: “Well, you know, I like to pay my bills on time”.

Is there payback on the track? Sure there is. Should the fans keep score with their favorite riders? Why shouldn’t they? When Ricky took Jeremy to the front row seating at Anaheim III in 2001, he immediately pulled over and let Jeremy back by. He said he didn’t mean to make the pass like that. He said he was afraid of Jeremy’s retaliation. He also said he didn’t want to win like that.

He didn’t want to win like that.

Does Ricky Carmichael deserve to be booed? Or perhaps, more importantly, is it right for us as an audience, to boo him?

I believe the answer to that lies in an age-old saying, common to all forms of racing: when the green flag drops, the [email protected]#$% stops.

Parents, there is something in the abruptness of the term that I’d like to explain, as it is not my intention to be coarse without reason behind it. The profanity in the term is indicative of something important, I think. It illustrates the disdain people have, and have always had, for false pretense.

In a world where grocery clerks read our credit cards and then call us by our full name with beaming smiles on their faces, it is refreshing to be involved with something real. Something dramatic and alive and undeniably visible. I’m talking about honor. Honesty. Courage. That’s what fills the stadiums. Why is Mike LaRocco so popular? Because he races with more heart than most of his competitors combined. He hates to lose but he loves to race, and it shows in his face every weekend. He doesn’t misrepresent himself on the track or off. And yet, his win percentage has been low for years.

The fans come to take part in a spectacle. They want to see modern day heroes wear their hearts on their sleeves, they want to see and feel what it’s like to live for a dream – and not just any dream – the dream of being the best.

How many of us are too frightened by the prospect of failure to truly embrace our dreams, and live according to them? It’s far easier to keep them safe in our imagination, and talk about what we would do if our lives were different.

And there you are. False pretense. Most all of us are guilty of it, and yet we’re envious of those whom, we imagine, are able to live without it. We stand in line for the chance to see it for ourselves, this life of heroism, we want to reach out and touch it if we can, because somehow, it feels too powerful to be true, too succinct, too heavy with purpose.

How often do our lives feel aimless, lacking in achievement, let alone glory? Even for those of us who discover the drama of racing and the magical effect it has on a family bound together through it, that racing is not the point of our lives. It serves to balance us, to keep us connected to something that can only be expressed in the presence of speed and high consequence.

The rest of the time, we go about the business of being Carpenters, Lawyers, Shop Owners. Anything so long as it’s practical, dependable, responsible.

And when Supercross comes to town, we go to see the ones who dare to live on the edge. The ones with the talent and the drive and just the right circumstance. We have high expectation. Not of our favorite riders winning, but of a heroic fight to the finish.

So what happens when two of the sport’s biggest stars clash? Emotion runs like electricity through the air! That stadium wasn’t filled with people who wanted to be understanding, or politically correct. They left all that at home. They were living through those riders, one corner at a time, leaning forward and peering over one another, for the time being, the rest of their lives forgotten.

Did Ricky take Travis out intentionally? Was Anaheim justified in booing him for it, mistakenly or not?

It doesn’t matter. Not one bit. Ricky doesn’t need defending by the press, or anyone else.

The fact that sixty thousand people could be moved to the point of outrage, and stand together voicing it, is a humbling display of the power of Ricky Carmichael. It’s astounding. Phenomenal. Think about it. One man, standing at the foot of a mountain of his adversaries, all calling out for his demise, but not one of them stepping forward from the safety of the masses to face him.

Ricky Carmichael stands as he always has. He doesn’t offer apologies for what he doesn’t feel is his fault. He doesn’t try to explain things. He just says that most people don’t understand him. He stays focused on his own goals. He doesn’t let anyone rattle him. Period.

He goes on winning. With, or without public approval.

No, no one needs to cry for Ricky Carmichael. He doesn’t need our help. He is a man of great conviction. He is a man of great accomplishment. He is a modern day hero.

Next up: Supercross. Contact or Spectator Sport?

Disagree with me? Does the sport have more to do with winning than the level of courage the racers have to display to win? Why do you go to Supercrosses? Write to me at [email protected] and let me know. Include your age and hometown, if you’d like, and I’ll put as much feedback as I can into the final installment.

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