By winning all 24 national outdoor AMA motocross races last year, leading, incredibly, 352 of 365 laps, Ricky Carmichael established himself as arguably the premier American motocross rider of all time.
Now the 23-year-old Honda rider from Havana, Fla., wants to become the best of all time in supercross, the stadium version of the popular motorcycle competition.
That will take some doing, considering Jeremy McGrath set the standard high, winning seven national championships, 72 races overall, before announcing his retirement last week. Carmichael has two supercross championships and 26 event wins.
"Jeremy caught me by surprise, I definitely didn't see it coming," Carmichael said of his main rival's departure at 31. "He needs to do what makes him happy, so I'm all for him if that's what it takes. It's going to feel strange taking my place on the starting line and looking around and not seeing Jeremy."
The 2003 season started spectacularly for Carmichael when he fell twice before making an all-out charge from dead last to finish second in Saturday night's opening race of the AMA supercross season before a sellout crowd of 45,505 at Edison Field.
"I can't feel too bad about second place after I went down twice and was back of everybody after the third lap," said Carmichael.
Chad Reed, a rookie rider from Australia, led every lap as he benefited from several pileups behind him. His winning margin on a Yamaha of more than 20 seconds was one of the largest in supercross racing.
"The season is 16 races long and Chad has won one," said Carmichael. "He got a good start and I just got too far behind. I still think David [Vuillemin] is the rider to beat for the championship."
Vuillemin, the Frenchman who won last year's first race and finished second in the series standings riding a Yamaha, was fourth Saturday night. Tim Ferry, also on a Yamaha, was third.
In the THQ World Supercross Series, Vuillemin and Reed won the opening rounds last month in Europe. After three races, Vuillemin leads Reed, 67-66, as the THQ and AMA supercross series merged. Carmichael did not ride in the two European events.
"I didn't see any need to go over there and Honda didn't think it was necessary, so I stayed home with my family and prepared for Anaheim and the 16 races we have over here," he said.
In the world championship, a rider who did not race in the two European events is not eligible for the title, even if he wins all the U.S. races.
Clear Channel Entertainment and Dorna Motorsports of Spain, co-promoters of the world event, hoped the unusual rules would prompt more U.S. riders to race in Europe and more European riders to race in the U.S., but it hasn't worked that way. Carmichael was only one of several U.S. riders who stayed home.
"Next week will be different," promised Carmichael. The series moves to Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix on Saturday before returning to Edison Field on Jan. 18 and Feb. 1. "And I'm a lot better off than I was after the first race here last year."
In last year's opener, Carmichael crashed, suffered a broken hand and mild concussion, was carried off the track on a stretcher and finished 21st and last. When he eventually won the championship, it was the first time a rider had come from last to win.
"This was different tonight," he said Saturday. "This time I got a bad start and got caught up in some pileups. Last year I just made a mistake and went over the handlebars. I knocked myself a little silly and broke a bone in my hand. I made a lot of hard work for myself getting back. I didn't miss a race, but I was hurting."
Carmichael finished fourth the next week at San Diego and surprised everyone, including himself, when he won the fourth round in Phoenix and again the next week at Anaheim.
"I wasn't really sound until after the seventh round, in Atlanta," he said. "That's when I felt like I was completely back. I only lost once after that, when I fell at Pontiac [Mich.] and Nathan Ramsey beat me."
Then came the amazing outdoor motocross season in which he was literally unbeatable.
Even though Carmichael rides a Honda CR250R in both motocross and supercross, the two events are quite different animals.
Outdoors, the emphasis is on quick turning and huge jumps, some of which call for landing from 60- to 90-foot peaks. Motocross tracks are longer, using the natural topography, and are full of axle-deep ruts that must be negotiated at top speeds. Supercross consists of one 20-lap points race, run after preliminary heats. Motocross has two motos of 30 minutes plus two laps, with an overall winner determined by the two races.
Even the bikes are prepared differently.
Racing bikes, which can cost as much as $80,000 -- compared to about $10,000 for a stock production racer -- are drastically different in power delivery when it comes to supercross and motocross. The SX bikes need to have huge bursts of power and quick acceleration to clear double and triple jumps. The MX bikes require a broader power supply for high-speed stretches and climbing long, steep hills.
Carmichael had already broken nearly every amateur and 125cc record before he moved into the prestigious 250cc class in 2000, in hopes of overtaking McGrath, who had failed to win the championship only once in the previous eight years. When he won only one event, at Daytona, Carmichael decided the only way he could challenge the champion was to get in better physical condition.
"I lost 20 pounds and when I showed up at Anaheim for the first race [in 2001] I looked like a completely different guy," he said. "Instead of being a little roly-poly for my height [5 feet 4], I was a lean racing machine. I lost a lot of weight with a strict diet and with Aldon Baker, my trainer, I went into a long-term program that focused on riding, hard riding, as well as aerobics, running and riding my bicycle."
The anticipated McGrath-Carmichael duel was short lived. McGrath won the opening round in Anaheim, Carmichael won the next week in San Diego, McGrath repeated in Anaheim, but in Phoenix the rivalry tilted to Carmichael. He won there and in the next 12 races, equaling a record set by McGrath in 1996, and ran away with his first supercross title.
"I never expected to win as many races as I did," he said. "I just wanted to be a serious contender and the next thing I knew, I was winning every night."
Saturday night's full house showed its appreciation for McGrath's career when it gave the retiring champion a standing ovation as he circled the track where he had won eight times in a ceremonial farewell.
Carmichael has built two supercross tracks and one for motocross on property he owns near Tallahassee, Fla., where he trains under the watchful eye of his mother nearly every day.
"My mom is really tough, but her support and my dad's support is what kept me focused all those years I have been riding," he said. "She doesn't critique my riding, she just comes along to make sure I'm all right. And now that I'm married to my longtime girlfriend, Ursula, I have someone else to watch over me."
He and Ursula, whom he met while riding in the Loretta Lynn amateur championships when he was a teenager, were married during the off-season.
"I hear people say that being married might slow me down, taking away from my practice," Carmichael said. "But Ursula was with me all last year so she knows my routine and is very conscious about my training."