Twenty-plus years ago—on Saturday night, January 16, 1999, to be exact about it—this writer was covering the San Diego Supercross inside the cavernous Qualcomm Stadium for Cycle News. Team Honda’s Ezra Lusk won that evening before 60,000+ So. Cal motocross fans and before I went looking for him, I needed to seek out runner-up finisher Jeremy McGrath. I’d met Jeremy along the way through Davey Coombs and a few others, but I barely knew him and I was intimidated as hell. Long story short: I found him and he was, and as he always has been, an A+ dude who put me right at ease with his race opinions and observations, and more than anything, calm demeanor. McGrath, with seven Monster Energy Supercross Championship titles and 72 main event wins next to his name in the AMA record books, is simply the greatest supercross racer ever. So who better to seek out for a read on what will soon be the new season? Over the weekend, Racer X caught up with a racer who transcended his sport and brought it into many a living room in this nation. Take it away MC!
Racer X: Jeremy, I’ve known you for 25-plus years now and here we are with an all-new Monster Energy Supercross Championship upon us in a few weeks’ time. How are you seeing it all, my man?
Jeremy McGrath: [Laughs] Well, I was really surprised with last year’s series, so let’s just start with that. That came out of nowhere, for me, at least. For whatever reason I have this sense that Eli Tomac has entered a more mature level. I don’t know… I’ve talked to him a lot lately and it seems like every time I talk to him he seems more calm and he’s in a calmer state. I know he gets pretty spun uptight at times and in the past he’s been known to make some crazy decisions and things happen and mistakes happen and things like that. I look for Eli to be strong and more consistent. It’ll be interesting to see if Cooper Webb can keep his sort of pace. That was really surprising for me last year. Jason Anderson is back, so you never know. That’s kind of a roll of the dice. For me, it would be really cool if [Ken] Roczen is riding well, which I assume he is by now. He’s had a few years removed from his injury. I think the series, as a whole, is going to have some good racing. I’m not sure we’re going to have a guy that is dominating every week. If there happens to be a guy dominating, I would say that would have to be Tomac. That’s kind of the way I’m seeing it at the moment.
And you’ll have 450SX class rookie Adam Cianciarulo in the mix as well.
Well, that’s what I was going to say—the wildcard will be Cianciarulo because he’s got some confidence and he’s riding well. I mean there were three motos at Monster Cup. It wasn’t like it was one moto that he won. Adam was riding great and rode great every moto and won the overall. It’s exciting when you look at all those aspects. I thought last year, when Jason Anderson came out as the number one rider from the year before, he had a disappointing run at A1 (14th), and then had a pretty good run at Phoenix (second) and was ninth at A2 and then he broke his arm. I don’t know. You can never tell with him. Who else is there?
That’s a great question. We just went through Kawasaki. How about Yamaha? How are you sizing up Justin Barcia and Aaron Plessinger?
Right. That’s another one. We all thought that Plessinger was probably going to come out pretty strong, but he disappointed a lot of us, I think. The kid is a great rider but nobody knows what happened to him last year. And Barcia? I don’t know. He seems to be having a resurgence of will and determination and he has that fight in him to be at the front. I don’t if where he’s at translates into wins or anything like that, so we’ll see. I don’t know.
Red Bull KTM will send Cooper Webb out, but his teammate Marvin Musquin is out for the season due to a knee injury. The whole thing seems like a bit of a mystery. Furthermore, the Rocky Mountain ATV/MC-KTM-WPS effort with Blake Baggett and Justin Bogle is very serious. Those guys can totally win races. How are you looking at the combined KTM effort?
I think the Rocky Mountain guys are probably going to get a little more attention now that Musquin is out for a little bit. Baggett, he’s another guy that is strong, but you just never know when you’re going to get the best of himself, you know? I don’t know.
How about Chad Reed? What’s he up to? No doubt in my mind that he sells tickets if he shows up at the opening round at Angel Stadium.
I don’t know exactly what bike he is riding. Do we know that? When Musquin went down there was that post about the 22 on the KTM. I thought that would be pretty funny and it would be pretty sweet if Chad got that ride. [However, KTM has announced there will not be a replacement for Musquin.] It wouldn’t make a lot of sense, though, because two years ago, I think he was racing the Husqvarna and was having a bunch of trouble riding it at the time. It’ll be interesting to see what bike he rides. I’m not sure.
What’s it going to take to win the whole thing in 2020? We’ve got all these riders and teams and various instances and variables… Seems like a toss-up, eh?
Well, there are enough guys that you are going to have to be consistent, which is what we always say, right? I don’t know. I would look for someone to have a breakout year really, right? But I have no idea. I have no idea of what it’s going to take. It’s going to take a bunch of good starts. It seems like if someone can get a fast start and get some confidence on these guys. Wait. Let me say this. Confucius says we should be watching Roczen and Tomac and Cianciarulo, maybe. That’s what it seems like. Last year Roczen and Tomac, they didn’t get off to a fast start; they kind of took a while to get going and then they finally started having good races. I mean it’s still incredible to me that Eli is still not a supercross champion up to this point, right? Just because he has had so many race wins. For him, he has to come out—and I wouldn’t say that he needs to light the world on fire in race one—and be up in front to see what the other dudes are doing and then kind of put the power down from there.
How about the 250cc classification guys? You see any of them rising to the occasion—and maybe even above and beyond—in 2020?
Well, I think there is no doubt that [Austin] Forkner is the guy that we’re all looking at. I mean he was flying last year. He just kind of did that rookie thing where he was a little bit careless and didn’t manage his technique a little bit and lost it in the whoops. I look for Forkner, obviously. The champion on the East was Chase Sexton and that kid is a really good rider. A guy like him is going to try and potentially repeat his championship. It’s hard to say. Mitch [Payton] has a bunch of good guys and Factory Connection always has a bunch of good guys. Obviously Troy Lee’s team has a couple of new guys. I don’t know. I really don’t know.
We’ll see how it goes, huh?
Yeah, the thing that is cool with the Lites class is that you can always expect a guy that is going to be up there that you never expected. The racing is always super-good. I think if anyone was going to dominate, it’ll be Forkner. He’s also going to have to manage his speed and make sure he can do all these things without making mistakes.
Super-broad stroke question here, but what is Jeremy McGrath’s state of the supercross nation here on the eve of the 2020 Monster Energy Supercross Championship?
Well, you never really know what’s going to happen when you rider dirt bikes, right? That part alone is exciting. One of the thigs that Feld [Entertainment] has managed to do is really keep a good amount of public interest in this thing. I think there is just enough flash, just enough dress-up, just enough night life feel to it that makes it all a little bit of a scene. That is kind of cool for supercross. Do I think there is a lot of flashy riders out there at the moment? Guys that are willing to step out on the edge of the cliff and just be their own guy? I don’t necessarily think there is one guy out there like that right now. It seems like for quite a few years that part has been kind of dry. These athletes are amazing. Supercross has evolved into a different type of sport since I was involved in it. The athletes are stronger, their technique is better, they’re riding better and the machines have gotten better. I don’t even know what you can do to slow them down now! The thing that I don’t like about the 450 part of it is that the bikes have literally outgrown the stadium floor size. They have to figure out how to slow these guys down a little bit because it seems like when they hit a jump and want to go however far they want to, the bike doesn’t have a problem doing it. They can’t slow these bikes. I wish it was a little more difficult for them and they could sort of apply more technique to the situation. That’s not the case.
I don’t want to embarrass you, but you won the supercross title seven times. Sometimes I have to stop and think about that. Seven times a champion with 72 main event wins. Your body of work is just remarkable. We’re all about to roll into Angel Stadium for the 2020 season. You ever stop and think about what you pulled off?
Well, thank you. It seems like that the longer that I’m removed from racing as a career, the more I look at that and go, “Wow.” Seven times? That’s pretty incredible.
When I was doing it I didn’t think that. I was like, “Ah, shit. I should have eight or 10.” Now, when I sit back and look at it, I think, that’s a long string of being able to race and compete at the front and win championships. That’s a lot of years. We always ask if we somebody else coming up and doing that. I don’t know. I don’t know if that can happen. It’s so hard and it’s so competitive. In my mind, the greatest overall rider in the history of the sport is [Ricky] Carmichael. We’ve seen the best of the best, and he was only a fine-time supercross champion. It’s interesting to think about it that way. James Stewart is in there. He won it twice. Chad Reed won two. Those two guys also are some of the greatest guys we’ve ever seen and they only have two titles. [Ryan] Dungey has four titles and [Ryan] Villopoto has four titles.
All astonishingly great champions who were just brilliant at what they did. Still, and nobody is going to change my mind on this, you were the Babe Ruth or the Valentino Rossi or the Lewis Hamilton of the sport. You and your image—and winning ways—took it all to a bigger and better place. I mean I know of a host of auto racers who all admire you and what you’ve done.
I think that we all lived in a great time. NASCAR, IndyCar, I mean how cool was IndyCar in the 1990s? We all were into it. I mean guys we hang out with today who are all our age, they were watching us while we were watching them. I don’t know if there was any greater era than when we were all in it. The 1980s and 1990s seemed like the sweet spot for all of racing. For me, when my style came around, versus the style of the 1980s, the transcending part was due to the new style of technique. That made it unique for me and probably made it easier for me for a long time because my style was so different from anybody else’s. It was also so much better it was more efficient. Guys in the 1990s were still riding like the 1980s and I was riding some new style that they were all trying to figure out. It took everyone a long time to figure that out.
Your BMX background had a heavy hand in it all, huh?
Yeah, totally. I think that all got a lot of attention because I was just doing stuff at the time that nobody else was able to do. Now, when we see a winner in supercross, the winner is doing what all 20 guys on the gate are doing. It doesn’t look different. Everyone else looks the same in the class. When I was doing it, it was like, “Dude! Look at the way that guy is riding! It’s like these other guys can’t do that!” So, that kind of stuff really helped me in the popularity department, you know? Again, I think the 1990s allowed that, you know? I always hear the guys from our era talk and they are like, “Could you imagine if all the guys today went out together after the races?” That’s just impossible. Nobody would do that. But that’s what we did every weekend back then! We all raced each other and then it was like, “Hey, where are we going?! Where is everyone meeting at?!” All the guys were hanging out together, you know? You were there. We were all hanging out and stirring up dust, you know? They don’t do that now.
Main Image: Monster Energy