Ricky Carmichael: Four Wheel Drive
After 100 laps and 1 hour, 22 minutes and 17 seconds of racing, Ricky Carmichael pulled into the paddock area of Auto Club Speedway, shut off the 358 cubic inch engine, undid the safety net, pulled off his helmet and climbed out of his #4 Monster Energy-backed Chevrolet Silverado. Pelted with chunks of Good Year rubber and covered in a thin emulsion of grease and oil, the jet black and electric green truck had certainly just been given the once over twice in the San Bernardino County 200.
“You finished eighth and were top rookie, dude!” exclaimed one of the mechanics, before beginning to tear the carburetor off the engine for post-race technical inspection.
“I’m top rookie?” smiled Carmichael.
As he waited to do a post-race interview with the Fox network, Italian-born driver Max Papis jogged over to see Carmichael.
“You’re the man,” said the friendly Italian, a former Formula 1, Champ Car, 24 Hours of Le Mans and Indianapolis 500 competitor who had placed fifth in the race. “You did really, really good.”
“Thanks a lot,” said an appreciative Carmichael.
In only his second NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, Ricky Carmichael had not only been able to crack the top 10, he had set a number of the fastest laps of the race along the way. It had a been an excellent afternoon and a far cry from Daytona – held just days earlier – where he had been crashed out on the 49th lap while running comfortably in the top five. And it was there the dark Daytona pit area while watching a crew of mechanics tend to his thrashed truck, he told the crowd of 100,000 fans, “It’s just a shame, man. It’s just a shame. I think I was out there earning everybody’s respect out there tonight. One of these days I’ll get some good luck at one of these things.”
Many close to Carmichael knew better things were just around the bend for the supercross superstar turned NASCAR pilot and a sense of optimism followed RC and company to across the nation to California.
Ricky Carmichael’s race weekend on the 2.0-mile, 14-degree banked Auto Club Speedway began on Thursday, February 19, 2009. In final practice for the second round of the 25-race 2009 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Carmichael was scored a somewhat surprising third fastest with a lap of 42.269 ant 170.33 miles per hour.
“It is weird being here racing a truck because I’m so used to doing moto, but this place is pretty hairball.” Conceded Carmichael, his first time racing in the Golden State in one of NASCAR’s elite classifications. Having won 150 races and 15 championships in his brilliant motocross career – 26 of those races in the state of California – Carmichael explained just what it to took to hustle a 3,500-pound piece of race machinery around the quirky Fontana, California-based circuit.
“I really just played with my entry into the corner – getting into the corner and using more of an arc to try to keep rolling so I didn’t pinch myself off in the center of the turn. Coming off the turns, I really didn’t move around too much. You’re such on a fine line because you’re wide open pretty much the whole way. When the tires wear you breath it a little bit and let off just to get the tires to set and then you’re back on it wide open. It’s crazy. This place is way harder than Daytona. Way harder. My teammate – Ron Hornaday – said, ‘This is probably going to be the hardest track for you.’ So I kind of feel like I’ve been thrown to the wolves, but shit, we ended up third in practice. We were good in practice and I think most of us made mock qualifying runs, so we’ll see what happens. I now so guys are going to step it up. If I can qualify top 10, that would be damn good.”
On Friday, February 20 at precisely 1:40 P.M qualifying for Saturday’s race began. The eighth driver sent out to qualify was Carmichael. Two laps later after roaring around the relatively flat oval in his Kevin Harvick Inc.-prepared Chevy, Carmichael stopped the cocks at 41.858 and at a speed of 172.010.
“Shit! He’s 3/10ths [of a second] faster than anybody!” shouted a team member.
Five minutes later, down at the far end of pit road, Carmichael sat on the pit wall, the look on his face showing both amusement and shock.
“Shit, man, I don’t know what to say,” offered Carmichael. "I’m still shaking from all the adrenalin. You just have to friggin’ throw it out there, man. The team is so awesome, really. When you’re going wide open like that you really have to lean on them and truck set-up. If we don’t get the pole, I’m still excited. I can’t complain.
“I was keeping my fingers crossed,” he went on about his fast lap. "I was on that edge. I wouldn’t have wanted to go any faster and that’s it. We’ll see what happens. I just want to finish the race and get the best finish we can. I want to make it past halfway and see what happens.
“It’s crazy, man. You just have to – and pardon my French – you just have to nut-up. The thing about the trucks is that you’re wide open. You have to have so much trust in throwing that thing in there. I lifted maybe one millimeter between one and two. The rest I was open on both laps. Dude, I mean my adrenalin and my heart rate is just fluttering (laughter).”
In the end, only Kyle Busch – a 12-time race winner in the premier NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and widely considered to be the finest, most talented driver in the sport – and 2008 and reigning champion Johnny Benson wound up being the only two drivers faster than Carmichael.
“Oh well, dude,” he sighed afterwards. “You can’t be greedy. Ain’t much I can do. It would have nice to sit on the front row, but dude, I can’t complain.”
Still, 45 minutes later, reality set in: He REALLY wanted to start his second NASCAR race from the front row.
“Damn, I wish I could have held on,” he mused, staring at a timing monitor inside the team transporter. It would have been awesome to be on the front row."
Sunday, February 21, 2009. Race day. As the sun struggled to burn through morning haze of the Inland Empire, Ron Hornaday, driver of the #33 Camping World Chevrolet and a three-time Truck Series champion, stood outside the team’s 18-wheel truck. It was at this point that I asked Hornaday, Carmichael’s KHI teammate, why he believed the California track would be the toughest the rookie would face all season.
“It’s wearing out,” started the Californian. "It’s just one of those tracks that’s a superspeedway, short tack and everything else combined into one track. And the way these trucks drive around here, it’s slippery. This is a driver’s racetrack and you’re going to have to drive the heck out of it.
“In fact Ricky just came by and asked me about the start today,” Hornaday went on. “He asked me what they’re going to do in the first corner and stuff like that. Basically I told him to hold it wide open the first lap just because you’re not up to speed yet. You have to just see where everyone is going to sort out and try and find somebody who is not doing anything stupid and just learn. That’s what he’s got to do.”
And how did Hornaday, a wheelman with 38 wins and 138 top 10s to his name in Truck Series competition, think of his teammates chances of making it in this four wheel form of motorsport?
“He’ll be fine. The passion of his wanting to win and knowing of his background of just racing hard, he’s got that seat of the pants feel and it just shows. He just wants finish this one. That’s all he’s got to do. He’s got the savvy about the feel of what the truck does. That goes a long way. He’s going to go long way.”
When the green flag dropped to begin the San Bernardino County 200, Ricky Carmichael flew through the gear pattern getting up to speed with the 36 other trucks entered and headed pell-mell into the first turn. Right from the onset, he was deep in the mix, running in the top five with leader Kyle Busch, Jeff Bodine, Mike Skinner, Ron Hornaday and a band of others. As the 100-lap race wore on, Carmichael moved up and down the leader board, right in the middle of it all, racing hard and earning the respect of the other drivers. On lap number 46, Carmichael made his second pit stop, crewmembers affixing four new Good Year tires to his truck. As the race neared the twilight stage of 25 laps to go Carmichael dove down pit lane for a quick “splash and go” stop, taking on just enough petrol to finish the race. It was at this point that the team made a slight chassis adjustment to the truck. Carmichael left the pits in an asphalt wrinkling cloud of smoke. He’d dropped down the tall scoring pylon, but he kept on trucking, and when he ultimately met the checkered flag, he flashes across the finish line strip in eight place. The team was thrilled with the result. Meanwhile, over the in-truck radio, Carmichael was bummed. He wanted more.
An hour later, back in the pits, he’d calmed down and had come to terms with the fact he drove a hell of a good race.
“It was good,” he reflected. "When I got my last set of tires they made an adjustment and it really freed the truck up and really helped it. I guess I was one of the fastest guys on the track (Note Carmichael was the fastest truck on the track on laps 78, 81 and 82). I just screwed us up on track position at one point, but man, you live and learn. If I would have kept going with the way the truck was, we would have never finished where we did.
And just how was the truck when it was acting up?
“It was like I was on ice,” he explained of the ill-handling Silverado. “I was really up on it the whole time. I just had to counter steer, but you know, that’s how you go fast. You just have to be able to roll with it.”
You have to be happy, dude," I said to RC. "I mean on Friday morning, you said you’d be happy as hell to just finish the race and get out of here with the fenders on the truck. You certainly did much better than that!
“No! No! I’m super pumped and I learned a lot and these guys worked hard,” replied Carmichael, nodding adamantly. “I wish we could have done better for them, but personally, I’m happy. But you know what? You always want more.”
A racer is a racer… The next “truck stop” for Ricky Carmichael and the #4 Monster Energy Chevrolet Silverado: Kansas Speedway and the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 on April 25.