Q&A with Ralph Sheheen

Sheheen on James Stewart: 'Anything outside of a win for him (at Anaheim) has to be of concern.'

James ‘Bubba’ Stewart dominated 2007 AMA Supercross season, winning 13 races, his first championship and establishing himself as the ‘person to beat’ in the minds of many. This Saturday, he’ll begin defense of that championship when the 2008 racing season opens live on SPEED (and SPEEDHD for DirecTV customers) from Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. Pacific.
SPEED play-by-play announcer Ralph Sheheen recently talked about where Stewart might stand in Supercross history, what he expects for the 2008 season and what might be shaping up as a three-way battle for the championship among Stewart, 2007 U.S. Open winner Grant Langston and 2007 Paris Bercy Supercross top dog, Chad Reed, the 2004 Supercross champ.
SPEED: Stewart simply dominated AMA Supercross last season, quickly putting an end to the talk, ‘Can anyone replace Ricky Carmichael?’ What is history likely to say about this young superstar?
Sheheen: “Every now and then, we get a rider in Supercross who really sets themselves a part from the rest of the field. When you go back and look at Rick Johnson, Jeremy McGrath, Ricky Carmichael and now, James Stewart, he’s the next guy to elevate the sport to a whole new level. He’s done it in a way that’s completely different. Ricky worked himself into perfection, while James has an incredible amount of natural ability. Not that he doesn’t work as hard as anybody else – he certainly does – but he’s just got this unbelievable natural speed and flow to his riding style that has really left a lot of guys scratching their heads as to ‘how did he do that?’
“It’s been an amazing opportunity to watch this guy ride, and to just sit back and appreciate what it is your seeing.”
SPEED: Some have compared Stewart to rising Formula One star, Lewis Hamilton, who nearly won the World Driving Championship in his rookie campaign this past year. Do you see it that way?
Sheheen: They are both incredibly young talents and they both perfected their craft from a very early age. All the way up the ladder, they’ve both had all the right training and each have been on a collision course with history and championships. James has gotten there quicker than Lewis, but I think they are both extremely talented in their own environment. I think you can draw comparisons with James and a lot of different people, not just racing however. This guy is on the same level as a Roger Federer in tennis; Tiger Woods in golf or a Tom Brady of the NFL. They each re-define(d) how you go about competing in that particular sport. Their competitors have really had to re-evaluate at what level they go about training, competing, strategizing and all the different elements they thought they had a handle on. Everything they had been doing, and knew about previously, has completely been thrown out the window because these great competitors are doing it in a whole different way.”
SPEED: Can anyone compete in 2008?
Sheheen: “If you were to look at the immediate past and base it strictly on those results, the answer would be a definitive, no. But in reality, I think there are a couple of guys that can. Grant Langston from the factory Yamaha team, who won the Motocross championship in 2007, had a tremendous boost of confidence by winning that title. He also ran really well at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas. He’s also got a brand new Yamaha which he received about halfway through the Motocross season, and that bike has seemingly made all the difference in his performance level. I’ve never seen a form of motorsport where mental strength is such a huge part of the success of the competitor. In other forms of racing, there are a lot of mental games that are played – as in you against your competitor and trying to psyche that person out. But in Supercross, the competitors can psyche themselves up quicker, having more impact in their performance and results than any other form of motorsport I’ve ever seen. 
SPEED: Does Grant have that mental edge heading into Anaheim?
Sheheen: “I think Grant has a huge mental boost of confidence right now because of the new bike – he’s very much one with that new bike – he’s got the success of knowing he won a championship with that bike, he beat everyone except for James who ran half to two-thirds of the season before getting hurt. Grant also ran very well at the U.S. Open so he’s carrying a lot of momentum into Anaheim. Maybe that confidence boost will be enough to get him to ride even harder once the Supercross season begins.
“Another guy I would put into that category is Chad Reed, who’s on the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Yamaha Team. He ran the Supercross season, took the Motocross season off, rested up, got training, came and won the U.S. Open and won the King of Bercy Supercross (a big off-season Supercross event in France). He’s run really well at every event he’s been in getting ready for the Supercross season. Here’s another guy whose now rested up, charged up and fired up to give James a run.Chad’s a former Supercross champion and he might have enough of that inner strength, mentally, to give him (James) a run for his money.
James (Stewart) is coming in after having knee injury. We don’t know, until we see him in competition, what’s going to be the result of that injury (an injury he suffered during the 2007 Motocross season). Even if he’s a tick off – as mental as these guys can be – that might really throw him off in the coming weeks. Right now, he’s sitting there telling himself, ‘I’m okay; I’m okay; I’m okay.’ But you don’t really know if you’re okay until you get out there and compete against the guys you’re going to have to run with. If Chad and Grant step up – and you’re a tick off – all of a sudden your in the ‘oh no’ mode. That could make a huge difference. James is an amazing competitor and he might not have any problems with that knee – and if he doesn’t, these guys really have their work cut out for them.”
SPEED: How important is Anaheim 1?
Sheheen: “Anaheim 1 is there biggest race of the year. Each competitor has a huge amount of pressure on them to perform well. Now, many of those bright lights will be focused on James. How will he react? They will be asking him ‘are you really the guy everyone thinks you’re going to be?’ ‘Is the knee going to give you a problem?’ He’s got to come out smoking right out of the box. If he doesn’t, everyone’s going to be shining an even brighter light on him. Maybe he isn’t the ‘Man of Steel’ and maybe he can be beat. Anything outside of a win for James has to be of concern to him. Now, I’m sure they will say that it’s a long season – and it is – but in this sport, mentally, you don’t want to give the competition any kind of hope or belief that they stand a shot at being competitive. “
SPEED: One of the most overlooked parts of the equation is the equipment. How much will that matter in this upcoming season?
Sheheen: “In Supercross, it’s 80 percent rider and 20 percent machine. I think all the guys at that level – Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha – all have good machinery. What it really comes down to is the rider and his feeling of comfort on said machinery. A guy like Langsten may feel more at home on a Yamaha than say another Yamaha driver. These guys – if they feel good or bad about something for whatever reason – it can eat them alive. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
SPEED: What should fans look for broadcast wise on SPEED in 2008?
Sheheen: “I don’t think there’s a motorsport out there that’s better made for high-definition television than AMA Supercross. To see these guys flying through the air in HD is going to be one of the coolest things I think we’ve ever had a chance to see. I’m really excited to see what this sport’s going to look like coming through your television in hi-def. That would certainly be our biggest innovation and certainly it will take this sport to another level through the television world at SPEED.”
SPEED: What surprises can we expect for 2008?
Sheheen:  “We have this great crop of young driver coming up. James (Stewart) is still young, but he’s already got a new group of riders nipping at his heels. Look at riders like Ryan Villopoto and Ben Townley, who are each coming up through the Lites class. And then you’ve got even younger guys like Nico Izzi and Trey Canard just getting into the Lites class – who have people already saying, ‘Wow, wait until we get to see these guys.’ There’s just a never-ending revolving door of great talent coming into the sport, and their on such a fast track up the ladder that you don’t get much breathing room. The other thing that will be interesting to watch is that we have the debut of the new Joe Gibbs Racing Team – which is a huge thing when a major player from another form of motorsport has taken a look at Supercross and said, ‘that’s another form of motorsport our company needs to be involved with.’ Also, we’ve got Mike Alessi taking over in Ricky Carmichael’s slot with the factory Suzuki team. He’ll have Ricky’s mechanic – Mike Gosselaar – and he’ll be working underneath Roger DeCoster and all of that – who’s a legendary rider in his own right. And you have kind of a rebirth with Team Honda, who had been one of the dominant forces in Supercross for so many years. They really had a horrendous season last year as far as performance goes for Honda. They are coming into this year with some new riders, a new outlook and a new lease on life.”  
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