The seven-time AMA Supercross Champion and 72-time main-event winner tapped the throttle to clean the plugs, flicked a toggle switch downward, and put the snarling 850 horsepower V8 to sleep. Unfastening radio wires, unbuckling his five-point harness, taking off is HANS device and full face helmet, and pulling down the window nets, he climbed out of the black and electric green Monster Energy Off-Road Team P2 Toyota. Jeremy McGrath had just completed practice for round four of the Traxxas TORC Series-THE Off Road Championship at Perris Auto Speedway in California.
“Third gear really brought it to life,” he told an engineer. “The truck is awesome.”
After debriefing his crew of technicians, the greatest supercross rider ever removed his firesuit, took a seat, and we began talking.
Jeremy McGrath: Last night was ridiculous. Gosh, I led a lot of laps. I started fourth, caught up, went to the front, was leading, Rick [Johnson] caught up. We battled, for three or four laps. We were back-and-forth. He was leading. I was leading and he was leading. There was a lot of passing and it was fun. So I’m second and he got away from me. Rick was on the gas last night, and after the restart someone hit me. I went around turn one, two, and into three, I’m setup and just turning, and next thing I knew I was backwards. I got turned around. I was behind the field, and I probably could have caught back up a little bit, but then the last guy in the field just one corner later, spins out and he’s nose to nose with me. So it was just like one thing after another. It started good and ended bad. I ended up eighth.
Comparatively speaking to a motocross bike, what’s that truck like over there? That thing has 800 horsepower and weighs 3,750 pounds. Is it intimidating? Does it feel good drive it?
At first, dealing with horsepower like that is very intimidating. It’s frickin’ loud in there! You have earplugs in and it’s still loud. And there’s a lot of stuff going on inside the truck. I’ve never really had fast hot-rod cars that were loud like that, so a few years ago, jumping into that truck was sort of scary. I think mostly once you get used to the noise, the speed is okay. The hardest part about it is learning where to brake — it’s a heavy truck and we’re used to bike stuff. Corners and brakes are the hardest part to learn. Jumping and all that stuff is all relative to what I’ve always known.
You’ve even told me using the throttle, whether it’s in corners or in the air, or even the way you choose lines is pretty identical to motocross.
It is, it is. You can use the throttle in the air to bring the nose up or hit the brakes and bring it down.
Is the racing here too aggressive? There are quite a few drivers out there not using much in the way of finesse.
Well, I think there’s a broad spectrum of talent out there. There are three or four real good guys, but if you get caught up with squirrels, you run into problems. And the restarts, everyone is panicked on the restarts, you know? It’s a long race and last night we were way past way halfway and out running second. It’s a bummer. You know I’m the same in this sport as I was in motocross. I don’t like to hit anybody, and I try come back with all my fenders on. Rick [Johnson] and I were having a great race last night and not taking each other out. And you can race like that, but occasionally you get a knucklehead that’ll want to take your fenders or run you over.
I look inside the truck and see you in there with belts on, a full face helmet, a HANS device, all kind of wires and radios, window nets…. It looks so claustrophobic. Does that bother you at all? Also, is it nice to race something and know that you can’t fall off and hit the dirt and hurt yourself?
I mean, there’s nothing like the freedom of riding the bike. When you’re riding your motocross bike, you’re moving around, you’re in the wind, there are a lot of things you feel great about — you can feel it all. Now when you’re in the truck, you’re surrounded by all that metal. You’ve got a head and neck restraint on so you can barely move your head and you can’t look around. You have window nest. You have a five-point harness. You have radio wires. There’s a lot of stuff that goes with driving these trucks. Now a lot people say, “Oh, man, it has to be a lot better than motocross because you don’t have to worry about getting hurt!” Well, you’re right. You don’t have worry about breaking your legs or breaking you arm or breaking your head, but you sure have to worry about fire. All the times I’ve had trouble with the truck, I’ve caught on fire. It’s a freaky thing. I mean, it takes time to get out of that truck. Fire is a freaky thing to me because on bikes we don’t deal with that. I’m excited about the fact that I can race hard and bang into somebody and not get hurt, but the fire part is sort of eerie.
How did you end up on the Johnny Greaves/Monster Energy Toyota team for 2009? This is pretty much the A+ outfit in the pits, isn’t it?
All right, here’s how the story went down. You know I had been moonlighting with [Jim] Baldwin driving that celebrity truck. Then Rick Johnson left the team and I got the full-time seat on Baldwin’s team. Last year was my rookie year and first full-time season. I had a deal for the next year. But obviously CORR doesn’t exist now, so the Jeremy seat didn’t exist either. I never really got worried about it because I’m not the guy out here with a ton of experience, but I’m the guy out here who wants to win and the guy out here who can drive the truck. These guys all know that. I’m competing now for wins. The very best scenario that could have happened to me was landing on Johnny’s team. They have factory Toyota and Monster — all the people I’m dealing with in moto. And Johnny’s a former motocross racer. So I started talking to John abut driving on this team. Monster was sort of pushing for it. We had to get clearance from Toyota. And obviously, I had to get clearance from Honda. I had to get clearance from Erik [Kehoe] and Ray Blank and the team bosses at American Honda. In this sort of world these days, I was pleasantly surprised I was allowed to do it. And the rest is history. I was really happy to get it done. We’re like Hendrick Racing here.
Yeah, I just signed a new two-year deal with Honda for R&D on the race bikes. I’ll also be doing the X Games. I’m going to do Step Up and race. In fact this next week coming we’ll have some more Honda testing going. Yeah, I keep busy riding a ton, too.
So between these trucks and the bikes, it sounds like you are able to enjoy the best of both worlds without being on the road every weekend out of the year.
Yeah, it’s sort of like a dream job these days. I’ve got two little girls and I’ve been home. So I can choose to test or not, you know what I mean? I can go, “Ah, I don’t feel like riding this week.” It’s awesome.
If you had to look into a crystal ball, how long are you going to race these trucks?
As far as driving the truck, I couldn’t tell you how much time. I love it so much. I love it. It’s challenging which is keeping me super-motivated. I don’t have it figured out and mastered at this point. I’m decent, but until I can win these things on a regular basis or get some wins under my belt, there’s a lot to learn. And that’s the cool part. I don’t have it mastered by any means, so the fun of having something all new is awesome. It’s cool to get your head back in the game.
Okay, here comes the irony. You’re both Monster Energy drivers. You’re the best supercross racer of all-time. Ricky Carmichael is the greatest motocrosser of all-time. Now, here you are both racing trucks. Have you been watching what RC is doing over in that NASCAR asphalt world?
Yeah, I have been watching him. In dirt, let’s just say your lack of experience might not show as much because you’re sliding and in dirt all the time. Ricky is a phenomenal athlete and I’ve always been a friend of his and a fan of his. He’s done amazing things in the motocross world. He’s done a ton more than me. Obviously, this is a smaller stage than what he is doing. He’s got a lot of pressure on himself. He’s sliding out a lot, it looks like to me. I think a lack of experience sort of shows. And they’re not giving him the respect. It’s sort of a double-edged sword. When you’re someone like Carmichael who comes into that sport, they know he has a wallet full of money. They know he’s been given sponsorship and stuff because he’s a motocrosser. You know guys that have worked hard and are finally achieving something for themselves, they don’t take that lightly. I sort of get that out here. I’ve got a lot of podiums and seconds, but until I win races, it’s different. These guys are starting to know that I deserve to be where I’m at. Now, until he gets to the point where he’s deserving, I think he’s going to continue to have problems. I mean he had a great run at Fontana until his pit crew messed him up, but since then he’s been sliding out all over the place. I don’t know, it just doesn’t look that fun to me. It’s probably taking a little motivation away from him.
You gave NASCAR a shot and I spoke to you a lot during that phase. I sort of got the sense that your heart really wasn’t in it.
Obviously, we were paying for a seat. It was cool to hang out with Junior [Dale Earnhardt Jr.] and that was a great experience, but driving around an oval track is just not Jeremy McGrath.
You told me you’d actually get bored in the car.
Bored! I was running short track and you can’t get bored running short track. I’m sure you could take a nap driving at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Granted, going 180 miles per hour would be really fun, but I’m not too afraid to admit that I wanted to do it. I felt like I needed to try it. And I had the opportunity there, so why not try it. I’m okay with admitting, “Hey, this is not me.” And 10 years from now if I didn’t take that opportunity, I’d be like, “Man, I should have tried that.” In no way does that change that I’m a huge fan of NASCAR. I love NASCAR. I’m a super-huge fan. It’s just not Jeremy McGrath. Jeremy McGrath is out here driving this off-road truck and getting sideways and banging into guys and doing all that stuff. That’s my style.
Anything you want to say to your motocross fans?
I want to tell my motocross fans not to worry. I’m never going away. Motocross is my first love. I’ll always be around. In fact, I’ll see you guys at the X Games real soon.