Ricky Carmichael, James Stewart add new NBC booth bonds to their lifelong friendship
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – With nonstop action laid out in panorama far below the Nissan Stadium press box, Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart managed the Supercross chaos as deftly as ever.
But for two riding legends who combined for seven championships and 98 victories in the premier division, this was a new way to navigate the wicked conditions of a treacherous track such as Nashville (which took a toll on some 450 stars).
Instead of braking, throttling and turning their motorbikes with exquisite precision, Carmichael and Stewart were eyeballing, gesturing and speaking excitedly into their headsets, calling the race on NBC with announcer Todd Harris.
SUPERCROSS IN SALT LAKE CITY: Details for watching Saturday
And in contrast to their fierce battles for victories while ripping through the dirt and mud 20 years ago, this was about cooperation instead of competition. When a rider fell during a heat race, Stewart nudged Carmichael and pointed. Shortly before an on camera hit for the “Race Day Live” show, Carmichael briefly coached Stewart on how much time they could spend on each topic.
For a pair of lifelong friends who recently reignited their kinship through a cathartic conversation about the family bonds (and pancakes) that brought them together and the forces that once drove them apart, being reunited in the booth
“It’s so fun to get back to where we were before we raced together and be in a situation where I feel like we’re working together to be the best we can together,” Carmichael, 43, told NBC Sports. “It’s not like we were racing in a competitive nature. I think we push each other to do the best. We support each other to do the best.”
Their rapport is as natural as their friendship, which is grounded in having been raised in the same region and from similarly modest backgrounds that were built around riding motorbikes.
“As far as how we are and why we get along, we’re both Florida boys,” Stewart, 37, said. “We grew up in the same basic circumstances. We grew up with not a lot of money. We grew up in the same way.”
But until this year, their paths had diverged after their riding careers had ended.
While Carmichael dabbled in NASCAR for a few seasons before becoming an analyst fixture on Supercross broadcasts the last several years, Stewart said he “disappeared” after he stopped riding in 2015.
He worked as a coach with Chase Sexton (the presumptive 450 champion entering Saturday’s 2023 season finale) and also started the “Bubba’s World” podcast in 2021, but he hadn’t given much thought to TV until joining the Supercross commentary team.
Midway through the 2023 season, he began joining Carmichael in the booth – a pairing that Stewart viewed just as he did riding against his old friend.
“Well, just like in my racing career, he was always the pedestal,” Stewart said about Carmichael. “That was the top of the mountain in anything with Supercross. To be alongside of him in anything, I know I’ll be at the top.”
NBC Sports interviewed Carmichael and Stewart together via videoconference about their deep roots as friends and competitors, their rapport in the booth and the sitdown last year that reconnected them.
Here are some highlights from the conversation (which has been lightly edited for clarity):
NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte joined the Supercross broadcast in Nashville and immediately noticed that what makes the Ricky Carmichael-James Stewart combo work is their contrasts, which mirror their distinct racing styles. While Carmichael was the smooth and technical rider, Stewart had breathtaking speed and aggression in a “lap the field or fall trying” approach.
“What I loved about Ricky, who has a tremendous amount of experience, and James, who is learning to be a broadcaster, is they still brought their own views,” Letarte said on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Because what I’ve seen in a lot of sports is if you’ve held the same position as someone else and trying to describe something, they seem to blend over a little bit. I didn’t get that with James and Ricky, I thought they did a nice job of explaining the same things differently, contradicting each other at times, disagreeing at times.”
Carmichael and Stewart agree that they complement each other well.
Carmichael: “That’s a great view that Steve had. We raced the same way, too. We get to the finish line at same time but have two separate ways of getting there. He was going to do certain things to help him win, and I was going to do certain things to help me win. There wasn’t a right or wrong way, and I feel like that’s why we’re so complementary and compatible in the booth.
“I feel like he knows my style, and I know his style. And I feel like that’s what the viewers are able to see. That’s why it works. But when the rubber meets the road, we throw our egos out the door. James doesn’t have an ego. I try my hardest not to have an ego. We know what we have. We’re thankful from where we came from, and I feel that comes across on the broadcast, and it’s just so fun to work with him in a noncompetitive environment because our whole lifetime has always been about competing against each other. Not because we don’t like each other. But to finally enjoy time like this, and we both can raise our levels is awesome to me.”
Stewart; “We’re winning, too. I like that analogy. I’ve thought about this, and I think that’s why it makes it easier because we’re not saying the same thing, but I think as fans, we can talk about what we’re seeing. We’re seeing the same things, but we can talk it in two different ways that everybody kind of understands, and I think that’s why the broadcast has been good because maybe somebody doesn’t understand the way I said it, but they do with Ricky and vice versa.
“People have been able to get that insight and knowledge and learn something. It’s almost like listening to two different languages. My grandmother gets it. His mother gets it. The hard-core motocross fan gets it. I say nicknames a lot. It’s just two different styles. That just makes our broadcast more complete and gets the message across in a multitude of different ways, so it’s been great.”
Carmichael: “When I’m in the booth, I’m thinking about, ‘Hey, if I see something that I know James can elaborate on, I want to get it to him,’ because I want our viewers to realize that and listen to what he has to say because he has insight like a lot of people don’t and does a great job sharing that.”
Stewart: “You can kind of give people insights but also give people the things that I wish I was able to say when I was a racer, and what a guy is doing by doing that. We can speak for the riders. If we were racing and had sponsors, that would be kind of hard.”
Carmichael: “I haven’t even told James this, but I love when we’re in the broadcast booth, and James is explaining how or why the racer did something. I’m anticipating what I think he’s going to say or how he would have done something, and it wasn’t what I was anticipating. So I’ve learned a few things about how James would approach certain situations whether it be a line on a track or race strategy. So there’s been a couple of times when he’s said a few things, and I was like, ‘Wow, I wasn’t really expecting for you to say that.’ Not that it was good or bad. I was just thinking it would be the other way. So that’s been fun for me to learn what James’ approach is.”
Stewart: “When we raced each other, it was about winning the race. The victory now is when we’re done, we had fun, but people are like, ‘That was a great show.’ That’s how the victory goes now.
“He’s been a huge help, probably more than he even knows. I am big on timing. I like to know how much I can talk because sometimes I talk a lot. I go from a kid who didn’t talk at all to a kid that just never shuts up. So for me, he’s been helping me a lot on that. If Ricky is killing it, then he makes me step up, and I’m better and vice vera. For us to win, the only way is for the both of us to get something out of each other that only each other can.
“And it’s the same thing as when we raced. The show is way better with him in there. He’s elevating his game and making me elevate mine. And you have Leigh (Diffey), Todd (Harris), Will (Christien), Daniel (Blair), the whole crew. It’s a team effort. Everybody just seems like they step up when they see one guy firing, the other guy fires, and the people who win are those watching the race like dang, ‘That was good.’ And the fans and my grandmother. That’s our victory.”
THE PODCAST SITDOWN
An episode late last year of “Bubba’s World” served as an unofficial dry run for their broadcast collaboration. During the course of nearly two hours, Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart discussed the various stages of their careers and how their friendship intersected (and sometimes suffered) as a result.
No topics were off limits during a no-holds barred discussion that touched on Stewart blocking Carmichael on Instagram and the awkward dynamics of sharing a manufacturer when Carmichael owned a team and Stewart rode a factory Suzuki.
The conversation left them on the verge of tears while mending many fences and reminding them of why they were so tight as kids despite drifting apart as adults.
Stewart: “It was catching up on probably 30 years of history. It was a good conversation because we always had that ‘I wonder what that dude was thinking back then.’ It was good because I’m hearing many things for the first time like “Oh, I wish I would have known that.’ ”
Carmichael: “It certainly was a conversation that needed to happen. You’re around a lot of great athletes, and I just feel like a lot of the stuff toward the end, more after I had retired from racing when I had RCH and James was riding for Suzuki, there were so many people in between us. Things were being said, and shame on me for not reaching out to James. Me being a little bit older, I should have went and said ‘Hey, everything cool?’
“Some people got in the way, but as I got invited to come down and talk to James for that conversation on ‘Bubba’s World’, we just could air all the grievances. ‘I never said this. Did you say this?’
“The thing, too, is people don’t realize when I stopped racing, I did those three or four years in car racing. I was pretty much gone from motocross and Supercross. I’d dabble once in a while, and that’s when James was having a lot more success, and he’s out there winning and other guys are coming up. I was kind of gone from that time and gone from everyone, not just James, some other great friends in the industry. I wasn’t talking on the day to day. It takes effort to reach out. We have our entourages and our people, and that got in the way.
“But it was a much-needed conversation, and now it’s so good, and think what people are seeing in the booth is just a reflection of how we are so like-minded and cut from the same cloth and how we had nothing and a lot of that correlates. We have a lot of the same beliefs.”
Stewart: “I think now with both of us being fathers, you just enjoy to learn and love and have an opportunity to catch up and talk about the racing side but also just life. It was a good conversation for me. It was really big, just on the standpoint of ‘Damn, I love that guy.’ Just catching up on all those relationships, it was good. Going in our different directions, doing different things and being preoccupied with things at the track, life, all these different things. It makes it hard to come up to somebody and have the conversation like what we did (on the podcast). It just reminded me he’s exactly who I thought he was, and that’s why we get along.”
Carmichael: “I left that (podcast taping) and had a four-hour drive home, and I just felt so good. I felt like a ton of weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Now I’m bummed that when I was retired, and he was at (the Suzuki factory team), I’m like, ‘Damn, it would have been cool to have you race for us!’ But at the end of the day, the roots are deep, and I think that’s why we work so well together.”
THE COMPETITIVE HISTORY
Though their careers had only some overlap – Ricky Carmichael won his first 450 championship the year before James Stewart won his first – they built a strong respect while racing each other hard. Though their rivalry lacked the acrimony of their battles with Chad Reed, Carmichael and Stewart have fond memories of highly competitive and sometimes contentious battles.
Stewart: “I’ve obviously known Ricky a long time since I was probably in diapers back in Dade City. He used to come over to my motorhome. I watched him growing up. He was older than me but also still in my era where I was watching him. We always had a relationship. When you go pro, it’s just the competitive nature. We were friends and cordial, but we raced each other. And when you have so much on the line, you’re on different terms. You just don’t have the opportunity to have the conversations like (we do now).
“And we were so competitive, and not in a negative way. I would say our competitiveness was way different than mine’s and Chad’s and RC’s and Chad’s. It wasn’t a hatred. I just wanted to win, and (Carmichael) wanted to win. So we wouldn’t have spoken (while racing each other) because we always felt that was an insight into the other guy. Not playing games but just I had my way of going about things. He was in Tallahassee and had his way of going about things. We just raced. Once he retired, I was still racing. So it’s just like these other guys racing every weekend. It’s hard to find the time to sit down and chat.”
Carmichael: “I was a little older than him, so I used to watch his dad race at Dade City. I was around when James was in diapers. He’d come up once in a while to Tallahassee in the summer and ride with us. You knew he was going to be the next guy. I knew at some stage I’d be racing him in the premier class. When we started racing together when he moved up to the premier class, there was always a mutual respect there. The roots were so deep. We came from the same mold. Our parents had nothing, and we had no other way to do it but to succeed.
“That’s where the mutual respect came from and the deep roots that we had with each other. I don’t think there was anything that was going to be able to break that. Were we competitive? Of course we were. Did we want to beat other? Of course. But the competitiveness and the rivalry was nothing compared to what I had with Chad. I wanted to beat Chad Reed as bad as anybody did, and I could feel James was the same way.”
Stewart: “If I didn’t win the race, I didn’t mind Ricky winning. If I didn’t win the race, and it was Chad Reed, I wish the race was canceled. Now, me and Chad, we play golf together.
“I wanted to win because I had to, the way we grew up, we had no choice. It was either winning races, or you don’t eat. Just that mentality just makes you competitive.”
After Saturday night’s Supercross season finale in Salt Lake City, James Stewart will move into coverage of the Pro Motocross Championship, and Ricky Carmichael also will broadcast five motocross races before returning for the inaugural SuperMotocross World Championship Playoffs.
Though the booth lineup has yet to be confirmed, Carmichael and Stewart are hoping to be reunited for SMX broadcasts as the 2023 season concludes to determine the inaugural SuperMotocross champion at Chicagoland Speedway, zMax Dragway near Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
In the meantime, Carmichael and Stewart are enjoying their time in the booth and away from the track. They shared a memorable dinner at The Palm restaurant in Nashville the night before calling Supercross.
Stewart: “(After retiring from Supercross), Ricky went away and did a sport. I don’t even know what I was doing. I disappeared. Coming back, I worked with Chase for a little bit and started to dabble back in things. And then doing this podcast, things just started happening to where a year ago, I really wasn’t even thinking about doing (broadcasting). I really didn’t even know what I was doing. I just enjoyed talking and seeing the races, and I felt like I got this competitive void that was filled a little bit by talking about it, and people seemed like they liked to listen. When you’re not racing, and especially when you’re not like ‘I’ve got feed my family off this,’ it just makes you see things in a different light. I watch movies different now that I’ve got kids. I see it differently.
“Going out for dinner, it’s away from work, but it helps us in that field. Because when I showed up the next day, it was like, ‘What up, man?’ ‘Man, I’m so full off that food.’ And the show just continues like we’re having a conversation.”
Carmichael: “I learned this from Leigh and Todd: When you have a good quarterback, it’s all for the team. They don’t overstep. They’re there to say, ‘Would this make it better if I did this for you?’ That’s my approach with James. How can I make him better? One thing that sticks out with James is out time. He gives great explanations, but he’s big on timing. So I try to say like, ‘This hit, you’ve got 20 seconds.’ He adapts. It’s for the greater good. I’m not out to beat him or him out to beat me. It’s for the broadcast and our viewers. Like James said, we’re not going to retire off this. I think it’s a true passion that we love to share our insights.
“My mom is so hard-core, but she’s like, ‘Man, you guys are so good together. It was so good listening to you guys.’ It’s like James was saying with his grandmother. When we can capture those people and they’re enjoying it, that’s what it’s all about.”
Stewart: “I just enjoy doing it. When I started doing the broadcasts with him on NBC, and just the fact that people love it, and it’s easy. I enjoy it. It’s just like having a conversation with this guy (while) we watch races. It’s just growing. I don’t even know where the future is. I just know it’s been super beneficial on a professional level but also a personal level just being around him in the booth and just the opportunity has been great.”
Carmichael: “Those times kind of away from everything that you build that bond and get to enjoy life, and you realize just how much you have in common, and you walk away from the weekend saying, ‘Man, that was an epic race. That was so much fun in the booth with you, but what we did away from work was also special, too.’ Those are the moments that I’ve learned since I’ve gotten older that you can never get back, but those are the moments that are really special at the end of the day when we don’t have this anymore.”