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Caraviello: To make it in NASCAR, Carmichael broke from sport that made him

March 16, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

To make it in NASCAR, Carmichael broke from sport that made him

The greatest motocross rider in history sits in a director's chair in a sun-splashed garage area, the sound of engines -- those measured in cubic inches, not cubic centimeters -- humming all around him. Supercross, the stadium motorcycle tour he helped make famous, is competing the same day in Indianapolis. If he were there, he'd certainly be a threat to win. On two wheels, he was always a threat to win. Instead Ricky Carmichael is at old Darlington Raceway, preparing to race a modified pickup truck, and hoping for a top-10 finish. He wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

On the surface, it all seems so incongruous, the idea of walking away from something you're so good at to start all over somewhere else. Yet that's what Carmichael did in 2007, when at the height of his motorcycle career -- he won almost everything he entered that season -- he traded in his goggles and shin guards for a steering wheel and a firesuit. Four years later, after advancing through late models and regional tours and ARCA, he's beginning his second full-time campaign on the Camping World Truck circuit. Progress has been slow and steady, not unsurprising given the dramatic change in vehicle. The past two races, his night has ended in a crash.

"I don't have any regrets one bit. ... This for me is a personal challenge I like, because I've never done it. ... I used to race motocross. Now I race NASCAR."

--RICKY CARMICHAEL

It's all a stark change for a rider who won more than 70 percent of the races he entered during his motocross career, who's gone from being the biggest star in one sport to a driver trying to make it in another. And yet, good luck trying to find any trace of dissatisfaction in Carmichael over his career change. If anything, a competitor who won so much for so long seems to relish the challenge.

"I don't have any regrets one bit," Carmichael, who drives a No. 4 truck fielded by Turner Motorsports, said prior to Saturday's event at Darlington. "You've got to swallow your pride every once in a while and be happy with what you've accomplished and move on. I had a great opportunity to do this, so I put my right foot forward and did it. I'll always be involved in motocross and Supercross. Always. But this was a great opportunity for me, and it just happened to happen at the perfect time."

Sponsorship from energy-drink company Monster, which followed him from bikes to NASCAR, has afforded Carmichael time to develop. By the end of last season, when he recorded five top-10 finishes in a span of six events, it was clear he was beginning to figure out things. He opened this year with an eighth-place run at Daytona. Carmichael says he's more confident now, knowing what to expect at each race track, knowing what positions he can and can't put himself in. Even so, there are moments where the learning curve is evident -- like Saturday at Darlington, when he spun off Turn 4 and was hit hard by the onrushing truck of Johanna Long.

* Video: Carmichael crashes at Darlington

"I'll take the blame for it," Carmichael said afterward. It was one of those times when the scope of the transition he's trying to make came into clearer focus. Not many in the NASCAR garage area are able to relate to it. But one person, another former motorcyclist who made the switch to stock cars, can.

"I've tried to be there as much for him as I can," said five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "I was fortunate, I had an intermediate step to get me onto four wheels and I was still kind of on the dirt and jumping, which is off-road truck racing. He's going from kind of a three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional world in a stock car, when you take the jumps and stuff out of it. He has a very tough challenge ahead of him, but when you grow up racing on dirt, especially on motorcycles, you learn how to adapt. You learn how to challenge yourself, you overcome fear, you overcome a lot of issues that kind of get in the way. And I think in time, Ricky will be just fine. I think he's shown a lot of promise week after week. I know he's had a lot of bad luck here as of late. I think he's great for our sport. I hope he doesn't lose hope."

Such a thing hardly seems possible. "I am really having a blast," Carmichael said of his NASCAR experience. Plus, he's invested an awful lot in this effort, walking away from a safe, comfortable livelihood to take on a degree of anonymity and struggle. There are enough open weeks on the 25-race Truck Series schedule where he could have conceivably raced bikes on the side, and juggled something of a double career. But to those who succeed in it, NASCAR is an all-consuming thing. Carmichael recognized that. And he willingly made a competitive break from the sport that had made him.

"To be good at anything you do, you have to be 100 percent involved in it," he said. "I had a lot of involvement, not from the racing side, but in motocross and Supercross, the first couple of years [in NASCAR]. Now, my focus is strictly here. In my off weekends I'll go [to motorcycle events], but I don't have much during the week stuff that I do with motocross or anything. This is my deal. This is my future, and I'm planning on moving up the ladder in this deal. I've got a great sponsor with a great organization that's given me nothing but the best I could ever ask for. So it's all up to me. And I know for me to keep advancing as I've been advancing and doing, I have to put 110 percent into it, have to eat, sleep, and breathe it."

There were times when he wished he was still racing motorcycles -- that first year away from it was particularly hard ? but the longer he's been off the bike, the rarer those pangs have become. Still, "there are times I miss being the guy everyone's cheering for, and miss all the fans," he said. "It's the sport that made me." Understandable, given that from a popularity standpoint, Carmichael in motocross is a figure comparable to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR. Even today, the lines at his autograph signings at motocross events dwarf those of most other riders. Coming up through the amateur ranks, Johnson never competed against Carmichael, but was aware of his reputation nonetheless.

"When I was racing he was in the lower classes coming up through, and everybody talked about him," said Johnson, who switched to off-road trucks in his teenage years. "He was obviously a short guy, so as a kid, there was this really short kid flying around tracks just destroying everybody. ... He was a small guy, but plenty fast. He had the strength to overcome the size deficit and was going to be the next guy, and sure enough, he lived up to that."

These days, Carmichael gets his motocross fix in other ways. He's still a team advisor for Suzuki, still does photo shoots for sponsors, still signs autographs at motorcycle events he attends. He often does commentary for Supercross television broadcasts. Carmichael also designed the track for the Supercross stop earlier this month at Daytona International Speedway, after which he hosted both an amateur event and a training academy on the same layout. It all allows Carmichael to keep one foot in a motorcycle world he'll always he a part of, while keeping his competitive focus solely on NASCAR.

"That's what it's all about," he said. "I will be in that sport forever. It's been way too good to me."

He's in a very different world now, one where the final results may not reflect the progress he's made, where despite a dozen career top-10s and a 13th-place finish in Truck points last season he's still very much learning on the fly. He left a world where success was measured in race wins for another where success is measured in improvement. And yet, there's something inherently satisfying about being able to make real gains, about experiencing tangible growth in a stock car as opposed to the microscopic increases he always looked for in a skill he had already mastered.

"It's a good thing, but every year [on motorcycles], you're just looking for that half a percent to get better," Carmichael said. "When you've been doing it for 23 years, since you were 5 years old, it wears on you. There's a lot of practice that gores on during the week. It is a lot of the same routine, the same old thing. ... When I get here, we haven't gotten to practice all week, so I'm ready to go. There's so much. Instead of making a half a perfect gain in motocross or Supercross, I'm able to make 5 percent, 7 percent gains in this deal. That's the cool thing. The gains that I'm making are much bigger than what I was in motorcycle racing. Just the challenge alone is fun. This is something I wasn't supposed to do, you know? In motocross, I was expected to win all the time. This for me is a personal challenge I like, because I've never done it."

He's doing it now, with no hesitation and no regrets. Now, when the greatest motocross rider ever examines himself through his mind's eye, he sees something else -- a race car driver.

"I like to think I've been able to hold my own in this deal. Hopefully, I've gained the respect of my peers," Carmichael said. "If you're realistic, and for the lack of races that I've done in these things, I think I've done pretty good. I used to race motocross. Now I race NASCAR."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.