Don’t Panic

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Ricky Carmichael, GOAT / Supercross - The Players' Tribune

The secret is in the dirt.

On the West Coast, the dirt is usually harder, and more firmly packed. On the East Coast, it’s typically softer. Every rider has his own dirt preference, and it honestly makes a difference in the dynamics of a race — just like a clay court plays different from a grass court in tennis.

It might seem like a subtle thing, but in this sport the subtleties really, really matter. And the thing is, you really only get a feel for them by messing up a few times.

For example, the first time I ever got on a motorcycle with a clutch, I was around five or six years old in my parents’ backyard in Clearwater, Florida. So on this kind of bike, the clutch is on the left handle and the throttle is on the right. The idea is to gently twist the throttle while letting the clutch out slowly in order to get moving.

At first I was excited to be on a bigger bike, but looking back on the experience, what I remember most wasn’t the joy of being on this cool machine or that distinct sense of freedom you get from riding. No, when I think back on that particular moment, the first thought that comes to mind is, Ahhhhh!!

I’d never been on a bike with that much power before. My parents hadn’t either, so they didn’t really have any pointers for me. I was in over my head, and before long I was completely out of control. That’s a terrifying feeling no matter what age you are. It’s almost like skydiving without a parachute. You don’t know where you’re going to end up, but you have a pretty good sense that the result is going to be bad.

Not knowing any better, I did the last thing you’re supposed to do in that situation: I panicked. When you panic, you tend to twist the throttle that much more, which results in even more speed and less control.

Next thing I knew, I was crashing right through our screened-in porch — which suddenly became an outdoor porch.

What’s interesting is that a lot of people who grew up riding have a story similar to this. Whether it’s a busted screen door or a broken arm, at one point or another we’ve all experienced what happens on a bike when you panic. But what’s interesting isn’t the fact that so many of us have these early memories of crashing. It’s that we still had the desire to get back on the bike and try again.

I think it’s because once you experience how ridiculously fun it is to tear it up on a dirt bike, you don’t view the crashes as mistakes. They’re just lessons. Yeah, they’re hard lessons — sometimes painful and expensive lessons — but it’s not just a coincidence that many of the best riders in the world also happen to be the people who have fallen off their bikes the most.

Over the course of my career, I experienced some amazing highs. I won 15 championships across both motocross and supercross (don’t know the difference? All good, I’ll get to that a little later) and got to travel the world.

I’ve crashed in just about every way possible that you could think of — going over the front of the bike, off the back, falling sideways, to name just a few. But no matter how bad the crash was or how scary, one of my first thoughts was always, How soon can I get back on the bike?

You can call that crazy. I prefer to think of it as passion. Honestly, maybe the two things aren’t all that different.

Regardless, I want to explain some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years and why this sport is something I’m proud to dedicate my life to.

Remember what I said earlier about panicking?

I want to touch on that some more because it kind of gets to the very heart of what distinguishes athletes in supercross. Watching from the outside, there’s so much going on during a given race — the roaring engines, the cheering crowd, the fireworks — that it’s easy to assume that this sport is all about flash and adrenaline. That’s kind of true in a sense, but what’s even more important is being able to be in that setting yet remain in control with a clear mind. To be able to have three or more riders bumping into you and mud splattering on your face and still be entirely focused on what you have to do. That’s what it takes.

If you aren’t focused, or focused on the wrong thing, bad stuff can happen. Take this one experience I had at a supercross event in Las Vegas in 1999. For some context Monster Energy Supercross is a world-class motorcycle racing series that takes place over 17 weeks in some of North America’s most iconic stadiums on meticulously manicured, man-made dirt tracks, many of which I now have the privilege of designing. Similarly, motocross occurs outdoors on terrain that has been set up with obstacles. This particular supercross race was during my second year as a pro, and my bad day began with a crash that seemed innocent enough:

I lost my balance and end up off of my bike. Not great, but it happens, not a huge deal. But… there’s more:

Yikes.

It’s clear that in that moment, my only focus was to get back on the bike. My adrenaline was pumping, I was probably a little pissed off about falling and as a result, I put myself in a really dangerous situation. When I talk about lessons in this sport being painful, well, there you go.

I’ve had plenty of moments like that which have humbled me greatly over the years. There was another crash I had in St. Louis in 2006 when I was flying through the air headfirst at which point I found myself praying to God in that moment that I would be able to walk again. At that point, I was nearing the end of a really successful career but that didn’t make me immune from the dangers associated with this kind of racing.

If you’ve never ridden before, supercross might appear to be a relatively simple thing — as if the bike is really doing the work. In truth, racing dirt bikes is a lifetime pursuit. The physical demands are extreme and constant, and you spend so much time just getting your body prepared through daily workouts and training.

I knew, when I was just seven or eight, that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And from there, the training regimen wasn’t so different from what goes into traditional stick and ball sports. You need outstanding balance and cardio to be elite in any sport, but you also must develop muscle memory through constant repetition. It takes years to reach the point where proper form on jumps and turns is just second nature. As you continue to advance up levels, everything becomes about that pursuit of a 10th of a second advantage.

Where do those tenths of a second come from? Well, that depends on the week.

Just like in other motor sports, we have a team of engineers who provide us with the insight needed to get an edge. If the rider represents the artistic side of the sport, our engineers are the scientific side. We ride on different kinds of tracks all over the world in varying conditions, so the data our engineers provide us is based on different calculations that account for everything from weather to, yes, the dirt.

Before a race, you’ll usually have about three days of practice to get a feel for the track. You use that time to get your bearings, and then during a given race day, the conditions will be constantly changing as preliminary races take place on the track. That’s where the advice of your engineers come in. They can tell you what sections of the track you’re getting a little too much wheelspin or provide some data on what the suspension is doing on certain jumps or turns. So like I was saying, from the outside what appears to be chaos is actually pretty calculated.

But ultimately, more than anything else, the biggest thing is simply feeling the bike — getting an understanding of its strengths and limitations, and using your knowledge and hard lessons to get the very most out of it. That’s what makes a champion.

I’ll often get asked about the future of this sport.

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. We’ve come a long way since I began racing on the circuit. Our TV coverage used to be pretty minimal, and when events were shown, it was on tape delay with little production value. I mean, we used to use hay bales as track markers.

All that has changed. The sponsors, the technology, the live coverage and the quality of the riders in general are at a much higher level than ever before. I firmly believe there has never been a better time to be a supercross fan — and I know this is only going to get better.

For starters, whether you ride or not, we have a product that combines a level of speed and physicality that simply doesn’t exist in other motor sports. I’ve never met a person — whether they’ve ridden a dirt bike before or not — who has attended a race for the first time and didn’t walk away having a really awesome experience.

And once people do get it, they’re in. This is a big reason, why ratings, attendance and social engagement are all on the rise at a time when other sports see declining returns.

Supercross is the the most impressive two-wheeled racing you’ll find anywhere in the world. Our sport is fueled by family (heck my mom was my trainer) and those who become a part of our community end up discovering some awesome stories like mine under every helmet.   

More than anything else supercross is a community. It’s a community that stretches beyond gender, race and nationality. I’ve done training sessions all around the world with people of all ages who want to learn how to ride, and no matter where I am, I see the same spark and passion. We all share that.

I’m realistic. I don’t expect everyone to get this stuff. But that’s okay, because the longer I’m around, the more and more I encounter people who do.

My greatest joy comes from teaching someone to ride for the first time. I love being able to see that moment when it all clicks, and they realize how amazing it feels to get dirty on a bike.

Yeah, I know they’ll probably fall eventually.

But I also have a good feeling they’ll get right back on and keep going.

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