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History Lessons: When Jeremy McGrath got his '3 peat'

September 11, 2013

This classic interview originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of American Motorcyclist.

With due respect to the Hannahs, Johnsons and Wards who went before, Jeremy McGrath has now established himself as the best Supercross racer of all time.

Just take a look at the evidence: At age 23, McGrath has already won more races in the AMA’s 250cc Supercross Series than any other rider in history. He also has three 250cc Supercross championships, tying him with Rick Johnson and Bob Hannah for the record in that category. And before McGrath, only the legendary Hannah ever won three titles in a row.

Even more impressive is the speed of McGrath’s climb to the top, capped by an unprecedented 29th career victory at the San Jose Supercross in June. Johnson’s record of 28 Supercross wins spanned six seasons, while Hannah’s 27 wins were spread over nine campaigns. But a mere three years have passed since McGrath moved up from the 125cc support class in 1993. He’s started only 45 races in the 250cc class since then—and won an incredible 64 percent of them!

But there’s more to McGrath than those statistics reveal. After all, he isn’t called “Showtime” for nothing. Aside from his ability to devastate the competition on the track, his flamboyant style has earned the adulation of countless fans. When McGrath uncorks his famed “Nac-Nac” aerobatics maneuver, it’s the Supercross equivalent of a Michael Jordan slam dunk.

For all his success in Supercross, though, McGrath has been regarded as something of an underachiever on the natural-terrain battlefields of the AMA National Motocross Series. Prior to this season, he had managed just two victories in the 125cc National Motocross Series, and none in the 250cc class. But this year, McGrath has turned that record around, winning three of the first six 250cc Nationals to lead the series points standings.

AM: Early in your career, you wrote in a sponsorship proposal: “I study hard, I work hard, and I will win.” That’s a lot of self confidence—some would say cockiness—coming from a 17-year-old. Has that self confidence always been there?

McGrath: I think so. I think first and foremost you have to believe in yourself. People will say it’s cockiness, but I felt that I had a good view of where I was going, and I think what I said has been pretty accurate.

AM: You didn’t start racing motorcycles until you were 14, concentrating on bicycle motocross before that. Tell us a little about the transition from BMX to motocross.

McGrath: I had ridden motorcycles just for fun, and had an old 80cc Suzuki, a ’78, before I ever raced bicycles. For a while, I was into motorcycles and bicycles at the same time. The reason I went into BMX was because my mom and dad thought I was a little bit crazy on the motorcycle, so I went into something a little less expensive and a little less dangerous.

I finally raced so much in BMX I got burned out. I was just an average guy in BMX. I won some state championships and stuff like that, but I was never the Rick Johnson or Jeremy McGrath of BMX. Anyway, a friend of mine started doing motocross and that kind of turned me on to it again.

AM: Do you remember what first got you interested in motorcycles?

McGrath: Well, my dad was a weekend warrior, so I’ve been around motorcycles ever since I was a baby. He used to ride me around on the tank. I’ve had something or other to do with motorcycles for a long time.

AM: Did you go to many races as a fan when you were young?

McGrath: I went mostly to see Supercross. Rick Johnson was my hero.

AM: Eventually, you ended up becoming a teammate to Johnson at Honda. How did that come about?

McGrath: Actually, the first person to call me from Honda was Rick Johnson. I didn’t really know him—I had met him maybe once—and I was star struck! He called me before he was really supposed to, and told me he was talking to Honda about getting me on the team. That was a great feeling, having one of my idols call me.

AM: Prior to that, you rode Yamahas and Kawasakis. Do you wonder what might have happened if you’d been offered a factory ride from one of them?

McGrath: I’m pretty confident I could win on any bike, but I feel Honda has the best bike out there. My bike is great, and our team effort is great. Part of my winning also had to do with Dave Arnold, our team manager up through last year. Dave had a kind heart and was always in there to do the best for us. His main concern was winning, and that’s what we did.

AM: For some riders, moving from a 125 to a 250 in Supercross is a real obstacle. With others, it’s almost like the 125s were holding them back. How was that change for you?

McGrath: I think I made the transition really well. The ’92 season was my last year on 125s. I didn’t feel I needed to be in there, and it was a real easy year. But I’m glad I stayed, because I got the feeling of winning and learned what it takes. So when I moved up to a 250, I knew how to win.

AM: This is your fifth year having Skip Norfolk tune your motorcycles, and you two obviously have been very successful as a team. What are the keys to that?

McGrath: Skip knows what to do to motivate me. There’s no other mechanic for me. We talk strategy, but it’s not like some of the guys who are really serious about everything. I know what I’m at the track for and what I’ve got to do, and so does Skip. We have a great friendship, and when you have that type of relationship there’s only a few words that need to be said. With us, there’s just a few buttons to be pushed and it starts happening. Basically, we try and have fun racing. I think that’s the main ingredient for me to keep the spark in it.

AM: When your bike isn’t working the way you like it, do you try to adjust your riding style to it?

McGrath: No, because we can always go back to what I liked before. It’s usually one of those things where you try something new, and if you like it, you race with it. If it doesn’t work, you kind of start from the drawing board again.

AM: How bad is your bike when it’s bad. . .and how good is it when it’s good?

McGrath: In ’93, my bike couldn’t have been better. In ’94, we had some problems and we struggled, trying different stuff before we finally got it good and I got some confidence in the bike. Relatively speaking, I’ve had a great bike the whole time. There’s just small stuff to deal with.

AM: Once you and Skip find a good Supercross set-up, is it likely to work in most stadiums?

McGrath: Basically yes, except for Daytona, which is tricky, sort of in-between Supercross and motocross.

AM: Daytona is also about the only place where you’ve never won a race. Of the other races, is there any one you look forward to the most?

McGrath: Anaheim was definitely my favorite this season. I started back in the pack and Larry Ward had a 10-second lead. But I kept on it and started catching him and was in the lead just past halfway. It definitely made me happy to win in front of my family and friends. I love going to Anaheim, and San Diego also.

AM: Obviously, you’re known for your jumping ability. Yet one of the tricks to going fast is to keep the wheels on the ground as much as possible. Do you have to remind yourself about that when you’re racing?

McGrath: Not really. When I’m practicing, I have a lot of fun and I don’t worry about going fast. That’s why I don’t get into those heated battles some guys have in practice. I try to ride by myself and mess around a little. But I know that when it’s time to race, it’s time to race. There’s a racer inside me, and I can switch the light on.

AM: This year, even though you were dominating a lot of the Supercross races, Mike LaRocco managed to stay close to you in the points with consistent finishes until he broke his arm in Charlotte. Would it have been close for the championship if LaRocco hadn’t been injured?

McGrath: The point system is designed to create a close championship, so even though I was winning more races, Mike was right there. It’s too bad he broke his arm. I think it definitely would have come down to the wire, although I’m pretty confident I would have been champion regardless. One of the factors of the game is being able to stay healthy, and some guys seem to be a little more fragile than others.

AM: The record for Supercross victories that you broke this year belonged to your old hero, Rick Johnson. Did that add something to the accomplishment for you?

McGrath: I think so, because Rick is a modern guy rather than an old timer. To beat someone who’s such a great rider, and a mentor, means a lot to me. But I’ll probably notice it more in 10 years than I do now. Right now, I still look at each race more than I look at records.

AM: With your third Supercross championship this year, you tied Johnson and Bob Hannah for most titles, and only you and Hannah have three straight. Are you thinking ahead to next year and the opportunity to become the sport’s first four-time champion?

McGrath: I don’t see myself giving up or anything. I want to win the championship again next year, and I have one more year on my contract, so next season is a big one for me. I need to really show my stuff so I can get another contract.

AM: That’s one of the tough things about racing, isn’t it? You can hold all the records, but if you start finishing fifth instead of first, you’re going to be looking for work.

McGrath: You definitely have to be on the ball in the last year of your contract. It’s one of those things that’s unfortunate. You have times you feel you’re worth a million bucks, but then there’s times that make you feel you’re not worth anything. You’ve just got to know in your heart that you’re doing what’s right. Sometimes there’s stuff that’s just not agreeable, but for the most part it’s great.

AM: Now that the Supercross season is over, you and Skip have to concentrate on the outdoor races. How much of a difference is there in the way you set up a bike for Supercross and motocross?

McGrath: We use the same bikes, but with some different parts and completely different set-ups. The Nationals have high speeds and the bikes have to work on the big bumps. Supercross has relatively slow speeds and smoother tracks, but with a lot of jumps that call for stiff suspension.

AM: Of course, there’s an adjustment in your riding, too. You’ve heard the rap: Jeremy’s a great Supercross rider but he can’t cut it in motocross. How important is the National Motocross Series to you?

McGrath: It’s definitely a big challenge, but I really want to win and I think I can. Last year I had a lot of fun late in the season. I was concentrating hard and riding really well. There’s days when you’re on and days when you’re off, and physically it’s very demanding. I prefer Supercross, but I definitely want to prove what I can do in the Nationals, and I hope to do that this year.

AM: When the motocross season wraps up in this country in the fall, you and several other American riders go off to race in international events. Last year, you ended up winning the World Supercross Championship during the AMA’s off-season. How do you approach those overseas events?

McGrath: That’s my vacation. We go there to put on a show, make some money and hopefully win some races, but I don’t train for those races. If you train all year, when January comes you’re burnt. So if I’m tired over there, I’m tired.

AM: It really does get to be a year-round season, doesn’t it? And it must be hard to stay motivated, not so much on Saturday night when you’ve got 40,000 people cheering for you, but on the practice track during the week, when you’re on your own.

McGrath: At the track, there’s the fans cheering for you, and there’s a zone that you get in that the fans create. That’s relatively easy. But you’ve got to pay your dues at home. I’m not known as a big trainer. Basically, training sucks. But I’ve got to do it like everybody else, so I just try to make it fun.

AM: In addition to being the most successful Supercross rider in history, you’re also one of the most popular. What’s the best part about your relationship with your fans?

McGrath: The best part is that I’m a fan, too. After my heat race, I love to sit in the bleachers and watch the other guys race. I think the fans can see that I’m not trying to be someone I’m really not. I can hang with anyone. It doesn’t matter that I can ride better than anyone. I’m just a normal guy.

AM: What’s the worst part?

McGrath: Those times when I want to be alone, and there’s people outside the van wanting me to talk and sign things. I hate to say no to people, but it gets to me sometimes.

AM: Would you like to be able to go sit in the stands without being noticed?

McGrath: Sometimes that would be nice, but the fans are great and I like hanging with them.

AM: You’re obviously a very talented athlete, but do you feel you’re also an entertainer?

McGrath: Sports are definitely entertainment, and people want to see excitement and the wild stuff. All I ever hear is, “Are you going to do a Nac-Nac, or do this, or do that?” I think I change the sport a little bit by performing some of those jumps. But racing is a lot more than that. Every guy on the track wants to win, and that’s the biggest thing for me.

AM: Are you surprised to have accomplished as much as you have in this short period of time?

McGrath: It came as a surprise in the beginning, but after you start winning you know what it takes and want to win more. If you’ve got the tools and the desire, and you’ve got the mechanic and the right combination, then you should be able to win. The first year was surprising to me. But the rest isn’t.

AM: How do you deal with the business side of racing?

McGrath: I have Dave Stevenson as my financial manager, and my mom is like my business manager. My mom and I talk all the time, and Dave just lives an hour away, so we sit down once a month and go over things. When serious business comes up, we have a big talk about it, but for the most part I let them handle it and they just fill me in.

AM: It seems like you’ve got a really close family.

McGrath: Yeah, my mom and dad and my sister and I are definitely very tight. Our family is relatively small, and other than them I don’t have many relatives. I live only five minutes away from them, and I go over a lot to eat those home-cooked meals and hang around.

AM: What happens when there’s a temptation to get a big head? Do they straighten you out?

McGrath: Oh, yeah. My dad will give me a swift kick!

AM: Besides motocross, do any other types of motorcycling interest you?

McGrath: I’m interested in all types of motorcycles. I like street riding, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of dual-sport riding on an XR650. When I get done racing motocross, I’m definitely going to have four-stroke bikes for the street and dirt.

AM: When you go dual-sport riding, is it a different Jeremy McGrath? Are you just putting around and enjoying the scenery?

McGrath: Nah, we haul! The XR definitely has limits compared to my motocrosser, and you’ve got to be careful, but I’m always pushing.

AM: Do you have anything special in mind for life after motocross?

McGrath: There’s only so many years that you can do this. It takes a toll. But I want to be in the sport for at least another two years, maybe a little longer. I don’t want to milk it until I’m 30 or 31. That was fine for Jeff Ward and Guy Cooper, but I want to make my mark and then move on.

When you’re done with motocross you’re still young enough for a transition into car racing, which is what I’d like to try. But I’m not finished yet. This is a great sport, and I love everything about it. There’s still things I want to do and records I want to beat.

Someday, the challenge won’t be the same. The adrenaline won’t be there, and I’ll know it’s time to move on. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. Right now, though, I’m really enjoying what I do. So, yes, I do have some plans in the works for another career, but that’s sometime down the road.

AM: Do you have any regrets—anything you wish you’d done differently?

McGrath: Not really. I’ve worked hard for what I have, and I’m very happy to be in the position I’m in.

It’s great to be able to find the thing in life that you’re best at. Not a lot of people do that. I feel real fortunate in that way, and I’m just trying to make the most of it.

 

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