Time for a very big year in the history of Monster Energy AMA Supercross: 2001. We’ve been counting them down since AMA Supercross was launched as a series in 1974, each time looking ahead at what we will see come January 3, 2015, at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. We’ve already discussed the rise and fall of many of the great ones—Bob Hannah, Rick Johnson, Jeff Ward—and now we reach the twilight of the greatest of all, Jeremy McGrath.
At the start of the 2001 season McGrath was still at the top of his game. He had already changed the way the game is played, too, using his BMX-influenced jumping technique to create a way to ride motorcycles on an obstacle-lined course. He was an incredible starter and an exceptional corner man, and he worked harder than he ever let on to stay on top. And from 1993 to January of 2001, he was at the top of his legendary game, winning seventy races and seven AMA Supercross Championships. In 2001 he would win his last two—races, no titles.
McGrath still rode for Chaparral Yamaha, having won three straight championships for Dave Damron’s San Bernardino-based megastore. He was now going to do his own team in 2001, with help from Yamaha Motor Corp and sponsors Mazda, 1-800-COLLECT, No Fear MX (of which he was a co-owner with longtime manager Jeff Surwall), SPY, Hot Wheels, Alpinestars, and more. Jeremy was such a mainstream star on the American landscape that he would even have the chance to ask his future wife Kim to marry him on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno—that’s a very big deal!
He had also reached a point in his career where his influence was being manifested in his younger competition. His once-radical jumping technique was now status-quo for rivals like Yamaha’s David Vuillemin, Honda’s Ezra Lusk, Suzuki’s Kevin Windham, and of course Kawasaki’s Ricky Carmichael. Even 17-year-old Travis Pastrana, who would race some of the opening rounds on a Suzuki RM250 before turning his attention to the 125 East Region, could point directly at Jeremy as his primary influence as a racer.
So when the 2001 AMA/EA Sports Supercross Championship kicked off at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on January 6, it came as no surprise that #1 McGrath—now reteamed with his old championship mechanic Skip Norfolk—scored a seemingly easy win. When asked by Cycle News’ Kit Palmer if he thought he and Norfolk could go on another run like they had in 1996 when they won all but one race, McGrath replied, “By no means. This is just the first race; a lot is going on, and there are some first-race jitters, so this race is not really a good judge. I mean, it felt great to win tonight, but I know it’s going to get harder than this. That (win) was relatively easy, a little too easy.”
Rounding out the top five were Lusk, back from the shoulder injury that had kept him from competing in the 2000 SX season, Carmichael on his #4 Kawasaki, Factory Connection’s Mike LaRocco, and the aforementioned Pastrana, who was already being billed as Jeremy’s heir-apparent. Here’s the TV coverage of Anaheim 1 2001, featuring Art Eckman and David Bailey.
In the 125 class, Yamaha of Troy’s Ernesto Fonseca lined up for the first time with the brand’s new YZ250F. The former East Region champion had been hand-picked by the company to skipper the new four-stroke, much to the chagrin of folks like Suzuki’s Roger DeCoster, who called the allowance of a 250cc four-stroke engine in a 125cc class to be “totally random.”
“I’ve always said that it doesn’t make sense,” said DeCoster, then the manager of the Suzuki team, to Cycle News’ Chris Jonnum. “That bike should not be in here. I think it has the potential to destroy the 125 class. I’m not blaming Yamaha; they’ve built a great bike. They saw the loophole in the rule, and Yamaha decided to build a 250 for it, but how much sense does it make when the announcer is going, ‘Fonseca is leading the 125 class on his YZ250’?”
There was one other moment that night that deserves mention: The promoters brought in the late Doug Domokos’ bike to the stadium floor for a moment of remembrance for the “Wheelie King,” once a prominent figure in the growth of the sport. Domokos had recently perished in a hang-gliding accident near Lake Elsinore.
Round 2 was the first wake-up call that something big was happening. Ricky Carmichael, the AMA 250 Motocross Champion, got himself a trainer named Aldon Baker, and he “worked my butt off” all through the off-season. Carmichael looked like a new man, the fat all trimmed, the face now much more chiseled and serious, and his Kawasaki KX250 set up perfectly for him.
Still, San Diego was Jeremy’s turf, and no one might have guessed that would be the site of the first major battle of what would be a one-month revolution for the throne. But the night was cool, the track was choppy and rutty—much like an outdoor track—and that played perfectly into Ricky’s strength and Jeremy’s Achilles heel. The battle they conducted that night is better watched that read.
At the same race, another Yamaha of Troy rider—New Mexico’s Justin Buckelew—won the 125 class, but he was actually on a 125. Fonseca had stalled the YZ250F, and that in turn showed its primary weakness at that point: It was hard to start.
McGrath was rattled at San Diego, and he showed up at Anaheim 2 ready to immediately respond. Not only had Carmichael passed him and pulled away to win, the never-surrender Mike LaRocco had passed him in the late stages too. That left Jeremy and Ricky tied for the points lead. What transpired was yet another gem, this time with some incredible dicing on both their parts. Watch the main event from the 37:00 mark here and watch Carmichael’s ridiculous move on the exit of the first turn.
It was a fantastic display of both race-craft and sportsmanship on the part of both McGrath and Carmichael, as RC ran it in hard on McGrath at one point (51:00 mark), and then basically slowed to let Jeremy back by, showing McGrath respect. He never took another shot at Jeremy, though he had a few opportunities. McGrath won by a fraction of a second, and it marked his seventy-second career AMA Supercross win. It was also his last.
Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix was next, and this time there would be no battle royale: Carmichael simply rode away from Jeremy and everyone else in what would become his signature orange Fox Racing gear. McGrath finished second, and once again there was a tie at the top of the points standings: MC and RC both had 92 points after four rounds.
Just before the next race, McGrath held a press conference at Anaheim to announce a new sponsor for his team: Hansen’s Energy Drink. According to Mark Hall, the link between his small company and Jeremy was a “natural one” because they were trying to reach “the exact same demographic.” Hansen’s, of course, would later become Monster Energy, and Mark Hall remains the Chief Brand Officer and Director of the Corona-based company that would eventually become the longtime title sponsor of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship.
The third and final Anaheim race of 2001 would be the moment of change, when Rick Carmichael’s rise passed over Jeremy McGrath’s descent as the fastest supercross racer in the sport. It started with a strange moment during opening ceremonies that ended up as an iconic photo. Troy Lee had long made unique and cool helmets for McGrath to wear at Anaheim, and this time he had built in some pyrotechnics that would fire off during the opening ceremonies when Jeremy hit the switch next to his kill button. But because there was a tie in points, it was decided that Jeremy and Ricky would take the lap together. So when they reached the big triple side-by-side in front of the main grandstands, Jeremy went for the button, but the switch did not work. Carmichael, meanwhile, threw his Kawasaki so far sideways and flat that the crowd gasped—it even caught Jeremy’s eye.
Later that evening, Carmichael put on the best race of his supercross career to date. He suffered a rotten start while McGrath grabbed the holeshot and tried to take off.
“This might be a little bit of a peek into the future of this series,” mused David Bailey, as prescient as always. Start watching this one around the thirty-four-minute mark, and you will see what became the masterpiece among Carmichael’s many wins to come.
Bailey: “Look at the crowd. People cannot believe what they are seeing. How’s the conditioning of Carmichael? Come on, the guy had to work his way to up second and then take it up another notch!”
And as Art Eckman pointed out, this marked Kawasaki’s first back-to-back wins since Jeff Ward in 1988. Little did he or anyone know that eleven more wins would follow in rapid and consecutive order. By the time the series left California for its eastern swing, the transfer of power was fully underway. Carmichael would not lose another main event through the end of the season. After Phoenix and Anaheim 3, Carmichael would go on to win Indianapolis, Atlanta, New Orleans, Daytona, Minneapolis, Houston, St. Louis, Pontiac, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and finally Las Vegas. His 2001 tour de force was comparable to Jeremy’s 1996 triumph, where McGrath almost had the perfect season. To this day they still jointly hold the record for most consecutive AMA Supercross wins (thirteen) and most in a season (fourteen, though there was one less race in 1996, so Jeremy still holds the nod for highest winning percentage in a single season: .933).
In the 125 class, the bombastic Pastrana would calm down enough to win the East Region Championship for Suzuki, and Fonseca would thump his way to the West Region title. The East-West Showdown winner would be Yamaha of Troy’s Nathan Ramsey.
Besides the end of McGrath’s domination, there were two other massive developments in 2001 that upset the balance of power within the sport. First, after riding for Kawasaki ever since he was on 65s, Carmichael would shock everyone when he switched over to Team Honda as soon as the 2001 AMA Motocross Championships had ended. He then showed up at the US Open of Supercross in Las Vegas and was asked to wear a cape and crown during the opening ceremonies as he was lowered from the ceiling. Ricky was roundly booed, as many saw the ill-advised get-up an affront to McGrath, still the King of Supercross. The boos would continue well into 2002, but Carmichael would eventually work his way through that too.
And then there was Jam Sports. At some point during the long contract negotiations between supercross promoter, by that point known as Clear Channel, and the for-profit AMA Pro Racing had broken down. It was over money, for the most part—the cost of each race sanction and the overhead of the events. Despite various warnings of what happened in the IRL/CART split that pretty much destroyed open-wheel car racing in America for a generation, AMA Pro Racing shocked the industry by announcing that fall that they had decided to bring in a Chicago-based music promoter named Jam Sports to take over the production of AMA Supercross. Clear Channel, which has been basically promoting the series since day one, was not going to just go away. (PACE Motorsports eventually joined with SRO, Super Sports, and MTEG, then was sold to SFX, which became Clear Channel, then Live Nation, and now Feld Motor Sports.)
What followed were long months of bitterness, mistakes on either end, and a general unrest throughout the sport, which had been thriving up to that point. The defining moment came when Clear Channel announced that since the AMA would not sanction them, they would ask the FIM to sanction their events instead, and they would call it “the FIM World Supercross Championship,” which meant no AMA “national” event could be held on the same date. That led cooler heads to prevail, and ultimately a deal was reached to keep the AMA and Clear Channel together, and there would be some serious litigation to settle.
The addition of the FIM, however, was set for twenty years. That deal did not end with the settlement, and it let to some strange scheduling—races in Europe before Christmas, then later Canada, and now nothing outside the US—and some new rules, including the FIM levels for sound and unleaded fuel (which in turn led to Ricky’s “fuel gate” in 2006). It would also eventually lead to the AMA allowing the FIM to hold the reins as far as drug-testing goes, as the FIM was ahead of them on that front. And we all know what that ultimately led to. But that’s later.
But back to 2001. While Ricky’s rise was not exactly meteoric, it did seem like it all took off at once. Jeremy had been practically unbeatable for much of his 250cc career in supercross, having learned well from past masters like Bob Hannah, Rick Johnson, Jeff Stanton, and more. Jeremy’s influence in turn helped create Carmichael, then Chad Reed and James Stewart, and ultimately Ryan Villopoto, Ryan Dungey, Ken Roczen, Trey Canard, Justin Barcia, Eli Tomac, and all the rest. Jeremy McGrath’s riding technique, his showmanship, and his sheer charisma—let alone his domination—remain the standards in supercross.
2001 AMA Supercross Championship
- Ricky Carmichael Kawasaki 392
- Jeremy McGrath Yamaha 328
- Mike LaRocco Honda 285
- Kevin Windham Suzuki 260
- Ezra Lusk Honda 254
- Tim Ferry Yamaha 221
- Stephane Roncada Kawasaki 165
- David Vuillemin Yamaha 154
- Michael Byrne Kawasaki 143
- Sebastien Tortelli Honda 139
125 East Region
- Travis Pastrana Suzuki 154
- Nathan Ramsey Yamaha 146
- Mike Brown Kawasaki 135
- Nick Wey Yamaha 123
- Tallon Vohland Kawasaki 86
125 West Region
- Ernesto Fonseca Yamaha 168
- Rodrig Thain Suzuki 139
- Justin Buckelew Yamaha 137
- Grant Langston KTM 131
- Ivan Tedesco Honda 128
For previous years in the 40 Years of Supercross countdown, click here.