450 Words: McGrath Xchange

450 Words McGrath Xchange

September 18, 2013 10:25am

Another inter-office email transcript ripped off and stolen for your perusal—this one with Jason Weigandt (Weege) and Steve Matthes riffing on the legacy of Showtime. You just never know when a good-old bench race is going to break out around here!

Weege: While running through our Top 25 Team USA riders countdown, Jeremy McGrath’s entry in 1993 really stuck out to me. Has it really been twenty years since MC’s magical breakthrough season? It just doesn’t seem like it. Too many of the trends MC started back then are still in vogue now. His style and showmanship were so fashion forward that nothing from the McGrath era seems to stick out as outdated. Just listen to your Pulp Show celebrating the 90s from Monday. If anything, the 1990s pack seems to look cooler as the years go by! Why is it that 1970s leisure suits and bellbottoms look ridiculous, and 1980s short shorts are hopelessly dated, but anything from the 90s still seems worth emulating?

Try it, but you simply cannot poke holes in the 1990s. At the Utah National, I went to a minor league baseball game on Friday night, and they celebrated ‘90s night. And pretty much everything was awesome in its own right, not just ironically funny way. Last week I went on vacation at Disney World and stayed in a 90s themed hotel. The hotels from the other eras made fun of trends and fads of those days. But the 90s hotel? They decorated it with cool movies and music, and giant fake laptop computers. Laptops are still cool! The Internet is still cool! Pulp Fiction is still cool! Nirvana is still cool! Economic booms would still be cool! And anything Jeremy McGrath did in the 1990s is still cool.

Are we in trouble? Did society peak in the 1990s, with Jeremy McGrath serving as our sport’s high water mark? And I’m not talking straight results. I know Carmichael broke MC’s records. I know today’s laptops can lap ones from the 90s. But Jeremy McGrath was cool the day he broke through, and was cool when it ended. He never was hated, never got booed, never had issues dealing with fans or media or anything. He had it all, and so did the 1990s.

McGrath from 1994--it wouldn't get much better than this.
Racer X Archives

Matthes: Tough to argue with this and I’m a guy who’s number one preset on my satellite radio is the 80s, my favorite CD of all-time is Van Halen’s 5150 (debuted at number one in 1986) and I love Rambo and Rocky movies. In short, I’m stuck in the 80s in many ways but the 90s, yeah they were cool.

And as you said, Jeremy McGrath was just effing cool. Think about the riders in the 80s. You were either a Rick Johnson or Jeff Ward fan, you couldn’t be both. It was a Betty versus Veronica thing (another 80s reference folks) and the riding styles and tracks were pretty different than what we see nowadays. But Jeremy McGrath? That shit is timeless. And really it was a perfect storm for Jeremy and his 1993 season that double-stamped his legacy.

You had the great Jean-Michel Bayle who decided that he was bored with racing supercross and retired. You had Damon Bradshaw, the heavy favorite to rebound from his crushing defeat in ’92, struggling with his riding, his personal life and his desire to keep racing at the highest level. He retired. Sure you had defending champion Jeff Stanton who’s forte was never supercross but he was in great shape and determined as all hell but even six-time has admitted he was getting a little burned out. The sport was there for the taking, and that’s exactly what Jeremy did! Of course you talk to people now (I just did a podcast with Rich Taylor, who was testing for Honda R&D back then, and he says that you could see McGrath on the PEAK 125 team and he knew he would be an all-time great, but I’m not sure I buy that. Yes, he was a two-time 125 SX champion, but so was Brian Swink and he didn’t make the jump to the big class like Jeremy did. Today people talk like they knew this was going to happen, but no one saw MC’s 10 wins and a title coming, I don’t care what they say).

Up until Anaheim 1993, MC’s results while moonlighting in the 250 class had been 20-10-6-5-8-6 and then he scored a mere a fourth and a fifth to open up the 1993 season. Not exactly the beginning for a guy that would go on to win 72 of these things, eh? It all changed after he got that first win in Anaheim (catching and passing Stanton for the win was symbolic in a way that we never really thought about) and MC was on his way. He was groundbreaking in the way he soaked up (not scrub, soaked) the jumps and was so perfect lap after lap. It was as if someone put him on the planet to race supercross.

Weege, you know my feelings about McGrath and although I suspect he’s not really fond of me these days (the unanswered requests for interviews are many, which was very unlike him for years) for reporting on the failures of the L&MC team, but Jeremy McGrath was and remains the man.

I’m racking my brain but I cannot think of anything that MC did in all his years of racing where fans were divided on him or unleashed the wrath on him? Weege?

McGrath made team and career and sponsor decisions that should have been controversial, but somehow came out looking good each time.
Simon Cudby photo

Weege: That’s my point—somehow MC went through a decade of dominance unscathed, and the very fact that he was dominant makes that tough to do. Even now, some fans are starting to get the pitchforks out for Ryan Villopoto simply because they’re tired of seeing him win so much. That’s the way it normally works—but it did not work that way for McGrath. The normal ebb and flow is this: the new kid comes in and beats the old champ, and that’s cool because new blood and new excitement is, well, exciting. But then the fans realize their old fave is really being put out to pasture, and that doesn’t go over well. By then, the new kid is winning way too much, and there starts to be a backlash. Only if the new kid keeps and keeps and keeps on winning do we realized we’re seeing greatness in action, and we build appreciation again. Follow that bouncing ball—love, hate, love, retirement.

Carmichael most certainly went through every one of those phases. James Stewart has ridden the highs and the lows. Villopoto may now be bridging the gap between “sick of seeing him win” and “appreciation for how good he is.” But McGrath? Straight butter.

And his career includes many controversial decisions! McGrath split from Honda. McGrath split from Suzuki. McGrath went SX only. McGrath only won one outdoor title and only went to Motocross des Nations two times. Heck, he clearly went to KTM for the money at the end, and that decision was a failure. No one made fun of it! Plenty of targets there, but no one really took a shot.

You know what? His influence is still with us. McGrath’s Nac-Nac invented freestyle as we know it. Back then, racers were still known as the best jumpers, and there’s a bunch of Fox videos with names like Terrafirma and Fly confirming MC’s mastery of the skies. It was his influence that pushed Travis Pastrana and company to take that baton and push it to the next level. And dominance? No one ever expected riders to win 10-plus SX races in a season until MC came along. No one ever uttered the words perfect season until McGrath started flirting with it. Dominance looks totally different post-McGrath.

I know I’m biased toward the 90s because I grew up in that decade—I graduated college in 2000, greeted by the greatest job market this country has ever seen. Yeah, I’m nostalgic for the time. But ten years after the 70s, we made fun of disco. Ten years after the 80s, we made fun of big hair. Twenty years later, the 1990s still rule. Plus, in motocross terms, bikes and tracks in the 1990s were damn good. You know that 1993 CR250 that MC loved would still be a fun mount. You know those late-90s YZ250s ripped. Dude, is there anything to complain about at all? Are we taking steps forward or backwards here?

You could probably tell a few stories about wrenching for Birdwell and making three cents an hour to make things sound a little darker. But wait, wasn’t McGrath cool to you—the completely unknown privateer mechanic—back then anyway?

We had it pretty good in the '90s. Sorry kids!
Paul Buckley photo

Matthes: I was a greaseball privateer mechanic making $300 a week and dreaming of being a factory guy like Albrecht, Berluti or Gosselaar. And you know who was cool to me? Jeremy  McGrath, that’s who! Yeah, he probably didn’t know my name, but he certainly knew my face from the races and the few times I was at the same party as him. And you know what? Jeremy couldn’t have been any cooler to me. Always a, “Hey man” or a question about something or another. Troy, Ohio 1997 is one that stands out where we were all staying at a Red Roof Inn and he was hanging out while I was building Ty Birdwell’s bike. Yeah he was probably on his way to some party or something, but he stopped and talked for ten minutes. The guy made you feel like you existed and believe me, back in those days not all the riders took time to talk to a greaseball privateer mechanic.

When he decided to skip outdoors in ’99 it wasn’t real popular but he explained it in a manner of the heavy travel and he was getting burnt out. It wasn’t this massive controversy or anything like that, everyone seemed to accept it and understand. And besides, it meant new winners!

When he left Honda at the end of 1996, primarily because the aluminum framed 1997 Honda blew chunks, people were okay with that because the bike did blow chunks and Honda was keeping him from jet skiing and having fun. When he did the Suzuki deal and then pulled the chute three-quarters through the outdoors everyone pointed their finger at Suzuki for the crappy bike that cost him the ’97 SX title. He could do no wrong! That was how much respect everyone had for him.

In fact when I did a podcast with Ezra Lusk a couple of years ago, Yogi admitted that perhaps his biggest regret ever was t-boning the crap out of McGrath at a supercross race. He said that Jeremy never, ever, did any rider like that and it wasn’t cool for him to do it to Jeremy. These guys were fighting tooth and nail for a supercross title. Years later, Lusk still felt bad!

Being on his team in the 1999 season with Ferry was pretty cool, even though he only raced Washougal and Summercross (guess who was maybe the most happy for Tim Ferry after he won Summercross? Yeah, his teammate McGrath that’s who) and I recently asked Ferry who was his best teammate over the years? And keep in mind, this is a guy who had been teammates with Villopoto, Stewart, Reed, Vuillemin. He said without hesitation that it was Jeremy McGrath because he helped him out a ton at the track, was happy for his success and taught him how to ride supercross.

Please keep in mind this whole time he was making the most money of anyone out there, he was in-demand more than any other rider, he was winning everything there was to win and he had an entourage that was just missing someone named Turtle. He didn’t have to do any of the above stuff but he did.

And that was what made him so cool. It’s been 20 years since he burst onto the scene and I’d be bold enough to say that we haven’t seen anyone even close to Showtime since.

Weege: That’s pretty bold. But it’s hard to compare anything to the 1990s!