Through three seasons in the Camping World Truck Series, Ricky Carmichael didn’t approach the sterling results he posted in a career many consider the greatest in motorbike history.
But off the track, the NASCAR foray in 2009-11 might have yielded an intangible benefit: Business savvy.
After watching how stock-car teams pay the bills through creative sponsorships, Carmichael is applying those lessons to his second career as a team owner in motocross, which has been slower to adopt NASCAR’s team economic model after being fueled by money from manufacturers for years.
“After being on both sides of the fence and learning the NASCAR program, I knew this was the way motocross and Supercross were probably going to go,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m thankful I learned so much in NASCAR, and I’m trying to bring that mentality over to the two-wheel side.”
Carmichael, who won a record 15 championships (10 in motocross; five in Supercross), became a partner last October in RCH Racing, which was founded by freestyle motocross pioneer and entrepreneur Carey Hart. After finishing ninth in the Supercross standings with rider Broc Tickle, the team will begin its Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship campaign Saturday in Sacramento, Calif.
Though expectations of results in the 12-round series are modest — Tickle won’t have a teammate until next year — the team still will be distinctive if it doesn’t improve on last season’s fifth-place points finish.
In its third season of sponsorship from Chrysler (its Ram truck brand will sponsor the outdoor season after the Dodge Dart was promoted during Supercross), RCH is proving it’s possible to be a viable organization without being tied solely to money from factories — such as Kawasaki, Honda and Yahama — that are endemic to the sport.
While Carmichael brokered a sponsorship deal with Suzuki that brings critical technology and R&D to the team, RCH remains primarily funded by non-racing sponsors (including Syucan Casino). It’s a necessary arrangement with motorbike sales down since the economic downturn, and the manufacturers less inclined to shell out cash as during Carmichael’s era when the factories paid the entire freight. It costs about $5 million annually to fund a championship rider for a full year of Supercross and motocross.
“Now they can’t sustain that kind of business anymore,” Carmichael said. “(The support) is coming back, but it’s nothing like when I was racing.
“Suzuki thinks our program is the way motocross and Supercross are going. This is the future. I think we can get the same amount of return and results for them for substantially less. We have the best program for pure marketing, and we have a great race program as well.”
While Carmichael handles the competition side of the team, the business side is handled by Hart. The husband of entertainer Pink has been a successful businessman in launching tattoo franchises and a reality TV program, and he sees plenty of marketing potential for sponsors in racing motorbikes.
“What’s really strong with Supercross, looking at it as an underdog. NASCAR is a much older demographic,” Hart told USA TODAY Sports. “The model of NASCAR is so strong, and it’s not getting soft, but people have educated themselves on those programs and now they’re looking at our footprint, too. I think Dodge did a great job of opening that door up as the first big corporate company to get involved with our team. Everyone is testing the waters now, and I think you’ll see a lot more in the future.”
According to demographics supplied by the series, 80% of motocross fans are in the coveted 18-35 age bracket, and its audience numbers are climbing as its exposure increases (after a record 11 Supercross events were live on Speed this year; all 12 motocross rounds in 2013 will be on live TV, starting Saturday on Fuel TV and also on NBC and NBC Sports Network).
In 2013, Supercross averaged a record crowd of 49,911, and its attendance is up 12% since 2000. Last season, motocross averaged 20,750 fans (up for the fourth consecutive year and 5.3% from ’11) and 65,000 live streams per event (775,000 over the 12-event season, an increase of 64%).
Though those numbers still are dwarfed by NASCAR’s fan base, Hart said motorbikes still allow for a more intimate level of access.
“When we’re getting 20,000-plus people per race coming through the pits, they’re having an opportunity to grab a poster, take a picture with Ricky’s motorcycle, or jump on our Suzuki simulator,” he said. “It’s very interactive and touch and feel.”
Hart is confident of re-signing Dodge to another three-year extension when its original deal expires after this season.
But he hopes to add more sponsors when the team expands to two riders in 2014 because “the sport isn’t getting any cheaper. Each year it gets more expensive. And these bigger (sponsors) are expecting more of a return on the investment. A big part of the business is the traction in the pits, and that consists of getting people’s information to really take advantage of (fans) being there to sell them product. You’re going to see more teams like ours.”
Sponsorship, though, also is driven by success, and Carmichael is focused on adding a marquee name for 2014 to pair with Tickle.
“Our sponsors have been in a while and want the winning results, and we’ve been recruiting since January,” Carmichael said. “We’re ready to do this.”