When the 2021 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship started earlier this month in Houston, a familiar voice was not heard on the NBC Sports Network’s broadcast from NRG Stadium. After some 14 years as host of Monster Energy AMA Supercross, Ralph Sheheen was not in the TV booth, as changes led the network to a take different route for this season. Sheheen released a statement about the change of plans on his Speed Sport motorsports website which you can read if you missed it. I wanted to go a little deeper with Sheheen about the changes and his future plans. While he is missed from the race calls, believe us when we say he’s still going to be very busy in other facets of motorsports in 2021! We caught up as we were both at home, getting ready to watch another round from Houston.
Racer X: Ralph, I have to tell you, in the last twelve, fourteen years I’ll bet there’s never been a supercross in which neither of us were in attendance at!
Ralph Sheheen: That’s pretty true! I know I did 15 years. I know that letter said 14, but I miscounted—it was actually 15 years. And over those 15 years, I only missed three, including the first three in January 2020 when NBC wanted to put Leigh [Diffey] in there. So outside of that, I did every one of them. Actually, the first ones we would have done would have been December of 2005, because you remember back then the SX season started in Canada in December, so it would have been Toronto and Vancouver with Denny Stephenson [as color analyst]. So, I really counted ’06 as the full year. But my career with supercross goes all the way back to 1989. It was the Coors Extra Gold Championship back then, and I did the race at the “Old Sombrero” in Tampa with Larry Myers. That was actually the first one I ever did. Jeff Ward and Mike Kiedrowski won the race in the two classes back then. Then over time I did a bunch of them with ESPN, Charlotte and all that, and a bunch of different ones. Then TNN had Daytona every year because of Bike Week while ESPN had basically all the others. So, I used to do Daytona every year with Steve Evans. I was around supercross a bit every year for quite a while, then ESPN took the whole thing over. That’s when it kind of went away completely for me, at least before CBS grabbed that FIM World Supercross thing that we did at Pasadena at the Rose Bowl.
The ’99 race that Ezra won.
Yup. I was a part of that with Mike Joy. I think it was Ricky Johnson who was on that show with us.
It’s amazing to think that you’ve been to almost every race since ’06, but your roots, like an aspiring amateur kid that comes on and does the Junior Supercross Challenge and then does the SX Futures, and then you’re in the 250 class, then finally 450SX.… You really paid your dues.
Yeah. As a fan of the sport, my roots of passion with supercross and motocross goes even further back. As a kid, we went to one of the original Hangtown Motocross Classics. One year Evel Knievel actually made a jump there between races. It was at the first venue called Plymouth [CA] in the early ’70s. So, I was there for that and was just a kid watching Evel do his thing.
I knew you already had your lifetime card, but if you’ve seen Evel Knievel live in your list of events, man, you just moved up another notch!
Do you know the story that I actually called one of Robbie Knievel’s jumps and Evel was my color commentator?
I can only imagine! That’s pretty cool.
Let me tell you something. That’s a story you and I need to have a couple of beers over, because it takes a while to tell, and it’s an amazing story. I know you would appreciate it. I’m going to save that one because that’s going to force you the next time you come to Charlotte to give me a buzz for lunch! Anyway, I actually PA announced Hangtown numerous times with old Bill Stephens, if you remember Big Bill from out west. Then when I was in school at Chico State, there’s a little track outside of Chico called Cycle Land. It’s owned by a guy by the name of Lowell Moural. Lowell used to run Friday night motocross races, and I was the PA announcer for that. Then after that, the next big step was Hangtown Motocross, then moving back east to Charlotte. So, the motocross stuff with me actually goes pretty far back.
Back then, there weren’t a lot of opportunities, unless it was live announcing. Fans today don’t probably realize how spoiled they are that they get to watch on a Saturday, or nowadays maybe even a Tuesday. They can watch practice all afternoon, then timed qualifying. It’s a practically a cliche to say it now, but we used to be on once a year and that was the U.S. Grand Prix at Carlsbad!
Yeah, absolutely true. When I started doing television with supercross with the TNN and ESPN stuff, everything was tape-delayed, and not just overnight. It could have been weeks before it was on. So, you had already read about it in Cycle News and knew everybody who had won; it was just a matter of tuning in to watch and see some racing.
The world was a much different place and a much smaller place. It’s a great time to be a fan. But when I got the press release that you weren’t going to be part of the NBC Peacock coverage this year, I was kind of surprised. I’ve really become accustomed to your voice and your insight. I love the banter and counter-banter that you and Ricky [Carmichael] have, and what you and Jeff [Emig] always had. But, like being a long-term factory rider, there comes a time when the upstairs people make a different decision.
Yeah, exactly. You just never know when or why. Sometimes a guy can end up winning a championship and he’s still out the next year.
Like Chad Reed in 2008.
Right, exactly. So, it was definitely a shock, and not something I was expecting. I was already mapping out my season and having conversations about what we were going to be doing and all that. Sure, on the financial side you’re bummed that it’s not there, because it was definitely a good thing to be a part of, workwise that way, but passion for the series was even bigger for me. To see it just come to an end without being able to really say goodbye to the fans and my friends in the industry and all those that have been so kind and supportive over those 15 years was really a letdown and a bummer.
Neither of us were in Houston. In fact, not a lot of people are in Houston. Unfortunately, this COVID thing has done a number on live events and public gatherings. Otherwise, it would have been great to have a little farewell party on the eve of the opening round, and I’m sure it would have been very well-attended by the riders and industry and fans.
Well, thank you. That’s all part of why I’m not there. This pandemic has put a lot of companies in challenging positions and put them in areas where they’ve got to make adjustments. It’s just been tough on everybody. Even though I’m not there, supercross is definitely something that I feel very, very passionate about and always will. I always felt like it was something that I was hopefully leaving my mark with, making an impact on it in a way. You never want to be the show; you just kind of want to add to it, if you will. I always hoped that that’s what I was doing with those calls. If there was a great finish, you didn’t want to be bigger than the moment. You just kind of wanted to add a little bit even more excitement to the moment. One thing I can tell you is that none of it was ever faked—the excitement, the passion, the thrill you heard in my voice was for real. Anybody that ever sat next to me in the booth can tell you. I was coming up out of the chair as much as anybody. It was a real thrill to be able to call those races. I would get asked constantly, “What’s your favorite thing to call?” I would always say, “If you’re going to call an entire season of a series, there’s nothing better than a season of supercross because every Saturday night that gate drops, and you just never know what’s going to happen.” It is just that land rush to the first corner, and there’s no way of guaranteeing what’s going to come out of that first turn, because it’s not about this guy’s bike is so much better than that guy’s bike, or he has a huge technical advantage, whatever it might be. It’s how much heart does that guy have, how much determination and want and desire does that rider have over the other guys on the gate that makes the difference. I think as race fans, that’s what we all want to see and supercross delivers that every Saturday night.
Absolutely. I know that I was jumping off my couch a few times watching Justin Barcia get that win on the maiden voyage of the GasGas.
That’s the perfect example. You just never know. I firmly believe that the majority of the guys on the gate every Saturday night—and every guy on the gate is the best rider in the world on that given Saturday night, no doubt about that—they all just about have a chance of pulling off a victory. Bam Bam has certainly gotten more than his share of wins and proven that he can do it, so why not? There’s no reason to believe he couldn’t win a whole season and a championship. Any one of those guys at the top of the sport is capable of doing that. They’re all fast. They’re all skilled. They’re all fit. Over the course of the season, it’s staying healthy. This sport is so brutal on the body that if you have too many crashes, it’s just really difficult to survive a season of it. But if you can keep yourself off the ground and up front, boy, it could be your year, as we’ve seen. Every year I just wanted to get to that last round in Vegas or Salt Lake City, depending on where we were, and have more than one guy capable of winning the title, and then it’s on. As a race fan, that’s all you can really hope for is having a handful of guys capable of winning the title and then drop that gate one more time and just see who’s going to go for it, who’s going to hang it out a little bit more than the other guy and just let it rip and claim the crown. If you can get that—if you can get through 17 rounds and have that—boy, that’s a wonderful year.
That is every promoter’s dream. One more question about TV before we talk about what else you’ve got going on right now. I’m going to put you on the spot, Daniel Blair-style: who was more fun to work with, Jeff or Ricky?
[Laughs] Okay, this is the honest truth, because I’ve been asked basically that question before. The way I explain it is that I’ve been very blessed with those two in the fact that I’m kind of like Al Michaels was when he had Monday Night Football and then Sunday Night Football. He was with John Madden for years on Monday, and then on Sundays he was with Cris Collinsworth. Both were outstanding. They’re just different in their style. What Ricky brings to the broadcast is different than what Jeff and I had. Jeff and I had that Monday Night Football party-style atmosphere. The entire Fox show was that way. It was electric. It was a once-in-a-career time that I’ll never forget. It’s not just with Jeff, it was with everybody on those broadcasts. We had Ricky on a bunch of those, and it was really something with the three of us in the booth.
One of the moments that I’ll always remember that makes me crack up every time was when [Ryan] Dungey forgot to take the Joker Lane at Vegas at the Monster Energy Cup and [Ryan] Villopoto stops up on the jump to remind him of it and the three of us all start cracking up in the booth at the same time when Dungey realizes his mistake! It was moments like that I think the fans jumped in on and really had a lot of fun with us. Sending in the pictures of the watch parties and all that sort of stuff. The thing that, as much as Ricky is hilarious to work with and our friendship is super strong, and I feel like he’s a brother just as I do with Jeff, Ricky, as a five-time champion in supercross, it’s just ridiculous how much he knows and what he sees the other riders doing and his ability to explain it. It’s really remarkable. So, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the time to sit next to those guys and see their insight and what they’re picking up on and educating all of us as to what is happening in the race. It was really an amazing opportunity as a fan of the sport to sit with those two great champions and have so much fun with them.
Having known both those guys since they were kids and watched them through their careers, and then through their broadcast careers, I have to say that you made both of those guys much, much better. I think your professionalism as a host, your way with letting the race flow and then teeing them up for some great insight, and also feeding off their excitement really helped those guys become that Cris Collinsworth, that John Madden, that Troy Aikman that you see ex-athletes or ex-coaches become. So, I think you get some credit for that too.
Thank you. My goal with those guys, and I always told them, was I want you two to be the big stars. If I can just get you guys going and you’re really excelling, then we all go forward. It’s no different than Pat Summerall was with John Madden back in the old NFL days, where you didn’t really hear as much about Pat Summerall, but Pat was a key part to John Madden’s success, and they had an amazing run together. So, did we.
I think a better answer to my question, Jeff or Ricky, you should have just said “Hands down, Denny Stephenson.”
[Laughs] Here’s the thing about Dbo. I never laughed so hard in my entire life as I did spending a year on the road with Denny. On the air, off the air, lunches, dinners, hanging out—I have never laughed so hard in my life as I did with that guy.
He was the Dean Martin of the supercross/arenacross rat pack of the ’90s. Didn’t quite have the on-track talent of the other guys, but he had a hell of a lot more fun.
Oh, yeah, just such a good guy. Man, we had so much fun on the road together. That was the thing, especially during the years at Fox. It was just an epic crew there all the way around with Pete Richards and Chris Bond and Rick Minor and Frank Wilson, all the people involved at Fox that put that whole thing on. We had a real family. Everybody was super, super passionate about the sport, and I think it showed in the broadcast and how it came out. That was really, I think, the peak, the epitome of where supercross reached on television. That era right there with Jeff and Ricky and Jenny Taft and Juliana and me and the whole crew there, that thing was just electric.
I know that last Saturday night, while I was on the couch watching, I was also working on a magazine. I have a feeling you may have had a busier weekend even though you weren’t at NRG Stadium.
You’re right. I was at the Chili Bowl. One of the things I do is I own Speed Sport, which for those that maybe don’t know much about the four-wheel racing world, it’s kind of the Cycle News of the four-wheel world. It began life as a weekly newspaper just like Cycle News did. We own the brand now and turned it into a full-blown media company, similar to what you have with Racer X where we’ve got the magazines and websites and podcasts and national television shows that we produce and content and all that sort of stuff, just like you do with Racer X. We were doing our first live production for MAVTV, which was pretty amazing when you think that this company that once used to be a weekly newspaper and now actually is producing live television. Trust me when I tell you it’s a big difference going from taped to live. To do our first one from the Chili Bowl was a pretty big deal. The Chili Bowl in the world of open-wheel dirt racing—they run midgets, which if a sprint car is basically a 450, let’s say, a midget would be like the 250—it’s just a huge event for them. So it was a really big accomplishment for us. We’re looking to do eleven more of these “live” runs, as we call them, from a variety of major motorsports events around the year.
Isn’t it amazing how we had talked earlier about the world is getting to be a smaller place because of technology and the reach and all the ways that you can find content? But when we do GNCC races, or even RacerTV does Loretta Lynn’s, it’s not the big TV truck and the semi haulers and stuff like it is with big networks. Everything is sort of downsizing because the equipment is getting so much better.
You’re right. We actually rolled into Tulsa with ten people. Ten people to produce a one-hour live television show? That’s incredible.
That is unbelievable. I can remember not being able to find a table under the tent back when ABC would show up for an outdoor national in 2004, 2005. Just dozens and dozens of people.
Yeah. We didn’t do that out of a TV truck. We did it out of a 10’ x 10’ tent.
Did you drive out there or did you fly out?
I wasn’t that crazy. I flew out and we were there for the whole week because it’s a weeklong event and then we did the show live on Saturday night, the main race night.
I was going to say, I can only imagine the road trip that you and your new Speed Sport cohort, Mark Carter, could have driving out that far.
Oh boy. We threw Carter into the Chili Bowl for the first time in his career, and he fell in love with it. He’s a longtime moto and extreme sports guy. Now we’ve got him fully embedded into the car racing world, too. Here at Speed Sport, we do have a huge passion for bikes and motorcycle racing, so we’re going to find our way to do something with motorcycles, for sure. We’ve talked about them. We cover them in the magazine and the websites and all that. We’re just trying to figure out the right way to do it on TV. We used to do flat track racing as part of our series, but hopefully we’ll find another way to get back into it.
Right on, Ralph. Well, I know there were a lot of people last Saturday who, while they certainly enjoyed the racing—and Leigh Diffey is a top-shelf professional—I’m sure a lot of people, myself included, missed hearing your voice.
Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say. I want everybody to know Leigh is a friend of mine and he is a great broadcaster. This is not about Leigh. This is corporate stuff. Leigh wasn’t trying to get my job or spin me out or anything like that. It’s not that kind of a situation. I really did miss out on that opportunity to say goodbye to everybody. I wrote that letter, hopefully some people saw it online or on social media, where I just wanted everybody to know that the last 15 years of being able to be in that booth and bring the action to you on a Saturday night, whether it was Fox or Speed Channel or on NBC, whatever it was, was the best time in my broadcasting career that I’ve ever had being a part of a sport. I love supercross. I’m hugely passionate about it. All the people in the sport I consider dear friends. The fans have been absolutely fantastic. Everybody reaching out since this all came down has been so heartwarming, I can’t begin to tell you. When you stare into that camera on a Saturday night and you’re welcoming everybody into a stadium before the racing gets underway, you don’t really know what the viewer on the other side is thinking, but now I do. Having seen all the messages that I got through social media and texts and emails and stuff, it’s just incredible how everybody has reached out to tell me how much they enjoyed the last fifteen years. I want you all to know that I was just up on the seat as much as you guys were, enjoying those moments, watching those incredible athletes, and who knows? Maybe we’ll get a chance to do it all together again somewhere down the road. But if not, I look forward to seeing everybody at supercross someday soon because you can’t keep me away—I’m as much of a fan as anybody.
Oh wait, one more thing: You did get to announce that other 2021 opener, the Anaheim 1 race, right? You know, the one that Justin Barcia also won?
[Laughs] Yeah, well, you’re right, that really was the ’21 opener, and the first GasGas win as well. Wasn’t that pretty funny?
That gives you another year! You were on the supercross beat for 16 years, not 15!
[Laughs] That’s right. And that gives me one more year. It’s been the 16 best years of my broadcast career! That was pretty fun. [Director] Wes Williams called me up and asked me, he goes, “Would you want to do that?” Yeah, sure. Why not? Just for fun. We knocked it out and sent it back to them. Troy Lee and those guys did a whole marketing social media thing, and it was pretty cool. It was a lot of fun to be a part of it.
Thank you, Ralph. Yours was a job well done. I’m sure that we’ll get to hear and see you at the races again soon.