Quick learners

Ricky Carmichael, the Michael Jordan of motocross, left two wheels behind to pursue a higher calling in NASCAR. Klaus Thymann

This story appears in the Feb. 21, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

AS DUSK CREPT OVER Daytona International Speedway on a spring Saturday in 2009, NASCAR drivers Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Brian Vickers walked down Pit Lane for a tour of the facility's Supercross course. They had flown in from Atlanta with course designer Ricky Carmichael, and the legendary motocross racer-turned-NASCAR driver was leading the group around the dirt. Compact and freckled, Carmichael could pass for somebody's kid brother wearing Dad's extra-large hooded sweatshirt.

Along the front-stretch fence, dozens of fans crowded for a closer glimpse of the stars. Most clamored for "the champ." But they weren't referring to Johnson, then a three-time Cup winner; they wanted Carmichael. Johnson might as well have been carrying Carmichael's bags.

In 2007, after nine years of racing bikes as a pro, Carmichael decided to pursue a future in NASCAR. Amazingly, he'd won nearly two-thirds of the moto races he entered, including two perfect seasons. He'd claimed an unprecedented 16 championships and earned the nickname GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) from peers. Yet Carmichael never wavered in his decision to switch sports.

"I want to be a Cup driver," he says. This season will mark his third in the Camping World Truck Series, one of NASCAR's three national series. "I don't want to just fill the field. I want to be competitive, and I'm working my ass off."

The 31-year-old Carmichael isn't the only motocross icon transitioning from two wheels to four. Travis Pastrana, who became a legend in moto before switching to rally and launching the daredevil TV show Nitro Circus, debuts in NASCAR's Nationwide Series this July at Indianapolis. He plans to run seven races this season.

Neither driver is driven by money. Truck series' earnings top out around $700,000, and Nationwide drivers can earn double that amount. But Carmichael and Pastrana both made millions on motorcycles, and they continue to draw healthy paychecks from endorsements and other business adventures -- all before they even strap into a race car.

"The top car drivers all race NASCAR," says Pastrana, who finished an impressive sixth on Jan. 29 in the 225-lap Toyota All-Star Showdown, his first race in a stock car. "It's about the racing, the passion to put yourself against the best. That's why NASCAR is right for me now. It's time for a new challenge."
NASCAR could use the help. Sagging TV ratings, slumping ticket sales and the waning interest of longtime fans command the sport's headlines. If successful, crossover stars such as Pastrana and Carmichael, who already have dedicated fan bases, could benefit the sport's coffers. And Pastrana's team, which he co-owns with Michael Waltrip, could have further impact if it becomes a NASCAR pipeline for action-sports stars.

"NASCAR guys are vanilla," says Brian Deegan, another moto star transitioning to stock cars. "They say what their sponsors want them to say. We're not scared to be who we are."

Yes, the moto brigade is bringing buzz, but one fundamental question remains: How well can the bikers drive stock cars on pitched, paved ovals?

CARMICHAEL'S TRANSITION TO RACING CARS began in 2003 with a painful pop in his left knee. He was 20 feet above a Santa Barbara Supercross track, in the middle of a gnarly section of jumps that shared no concern about his pain, when he felt the knee give out. Wincing, he vice-gripped his motorcycle with his thighs, landed and hobbled off his bike. He was rushed to a hospital, where doctors told him that he had shorn off the lower tip of his femur. During surgery to reconstruct his ACL, doctors also drilled holes into the femur to stimulate regeneration. Physical therapy sidelined him for three months. For the first time in his life, Carmichael found himself immobile -- not ideal, considering he'd just signed a three-year contract with Suzuki. During his time off, Carmichael, then 24, realized that wear and tear on his body and the exhaustion of being the face of the sport had taken their toll. He loved racing, but there was nothing left for him to prove. "I didn't know it at the time, but the injury was a blessing," Carmichael says. "It helped me more than I ever could've dreamed."

With the time off, he attended his first stock car race, at Daytona, and met Kasey Kahne. Drivers tend to admire one another, and a few weeks later Kahne's manager called Carmichael with an offer: Come to North Carolina when your knee heals, drive a stock car and see what you think. Kahne's people would provide the car and track time, and Kahne would volunteer his tutelage. "It was surreal," Carmichael says. "I felt honored, almost not worthy."

At first, the cockpit was foreign to Carmichael. He felt cramped, claustrophobic even. The roof and roll cage loomed overhead, and the bulkier helmet and thick driving suit were cumbersome. "I remember getting in there and thinking, What in the hell am I doing here?" he says.

Yet he instantly loved the challenge. For the first time in years, Carmichael was turning laps in the name of consistent improvement, not perfection. "It was hard for me to get much better in motocross," Carmichael says. "In the car, I just wanted to improve. It was an amazing feeling." Almost as amazing as the speed. Once he felt a stock car engine power him down the straightaway, he was hooked. "I can go zero to 60 mph a lot quicker on a bike than I can in a race car," he says, "but that's all I can go: 60 mph. In a race car you're flying at 150, 200 mph."

IN 2007, at a NASCAR Super Late Model event at Columbia County Speedway, in Lake City, Fla., Carmichael entered his first competition on four wheels. He finished third in his heat, then crashed into the fence during the feature race. He wanted more. "Ricky calls me and says, 'I think I'm going to race NASCAR,'" says Sprint Cup driver Clint Bowyer, a childhood rival-turned-buddy. "I'm like, 'Get the hell out of here! You'll never be able to do it!' It would be like walking into an airport and trying to fly a plane. And you know what? He's done a damn good job."

Good, but not great. In 2009, after a handful of Late Model races and 13 NASCAR East Series events, Carmichael jumped to the Camping World Truck Series at the recommendation of Harvick, the Sprint Cup driver for whom Carmichael drove. Harvick pushed the CWTS because it offered excellent schooling by veteran drivers and would let Carmichael correct driving mistakes in relative obscurity. In 25 races last year, his second season, he finished in the top five three times and the top 10 nine times, and he led his first lap. "There have been times where it clicks, and I'm starting to get 'the feel,' " says Carmichael, who now drives the No. 4 Monster Energy Chevrolet Silverado for Turner Motorsports. "If I can harness that feeling, I can bring my racing mentality from moto to four wheels."

Rick Johnson, who made the transition from moto (where he won seven titles) to stock cars in the early 1990s, is one of the few racers who knows what Carmichael and Pastrana face. He cautions against bringing too much moto mentality to the track. "Carmichael rides with intensity like no other," Johnson says. "It equated to a lot of championships and a lot of wins in moto. But it's a totally different art in stock cars."

Early in his stock car days, Johnson was baffled watching NASCAR legend Ernie Irvan coast around corners, then accelerate out of them during a race in Martinsville, Va. The strategy, known as rolling through the corner, went against everything he had learned in motocross.

"The art of the roll will drive a motocross rider crazy," Johnson chuckles. "You're going so fast you're sliding while you're coasting. That's something open-wheel and moto guys aren't used to feeling. They're used to two feelings: braking and accelerating." Another key to speed in stock cars is forward bite, getting horsepower to the ground off the corner. Driving a car too hard into the corner upsets the ability to get off the corner and compromises the entire lap. Rolling easily off the throttle, coasting into and through the corner and picking the throttle back up after the car turns is critical. Drivers want to keep weight balanced evenly on the tires, right at the edge of losing control. Mash the throttle too quickly and they lighten the load and spin out; wait too long and the car will push into the wall.

Carmichael believes his moto knowledge will help him adjust his driving to the varying characteristics of NASCAR tracks. If a moto track is dry and hard-packed, throttle control is key. The same is true on a NASCAR track with old pavement that's worn and slippery. On the other hand, on tackier moto courses and on NASCAR tracks with grip, such as Talladega Superspeedway and Texas Motor Speedway, throttle precision isn't as important. "The adjustment is involuntary, but it's become a big part of my mental shift," says Carmichael.

He also had to learn the importance of a consistent racing line. Turns 1 and 2 often require different entrance and exit points than Turns 3 and 4. The arc into Turn 1 might be only two feet different from the entrance to Turn 3, for example, but consistently missing those two feet can have a big impact on a performance in a 250-mile race.

"Guys who find speed in one sport can usually find it in another sport," Pastrana says, quoting Jeff Ward, another driver with a background in moto. "But balance in a car is achieved with your feet; balance on a motorcycle is all body. On a motorcycle you just change body position, and you can do that infinitely more than you can change a car."

On two wheels, Carmichael's ability to outwork and outwill his competitors was the difference between GOAT and goat. Moto strategy is about the rider, while four-wheel drivers are at the mercy of their equipment. Drivers who aren't emotionally strong enough to settle in, stay composed, and verbalize changes the car needs to go faster will fail.

"I'm used to being the difference," says Carmichael. "In motocross it's 80 percent man, 20 percent machine. In a car it's 70 percent machine, 30 percent man." Regardless of the new ratio and faster speeds, Carmichael knows he must continue to push through one lap at a time. That's racing, no matter how many wheels you have.