On Monday, our own Steve Matthes celebrated the 500th edition of his PulpMX Show by bringing Jeremy McGrath and Ricky Carmichael into the studio for five hours of epic bench racing. Along with co-hosts Daniel Blair, long-time mechanic Skip Norfolk, and Jason Thomas, the show had many great moments. But we’ve pulled 20 minutes from the show at its apex: when McGrath and Carmichael specifically discussed when their paths in racing crossed.
If you’re not a historian, we can catch you up quickly: Jeremy McGrath was and still is the best supercross rider ever, and his 72 wins and seven titles will probably never be touched. His winning ended, though, at the hands of Carmichael during a few epic weeks early in the 2001 season. In 1999 and 2000, Carmichael struggled in his transition to the 250 class and McGrath continued to win. By 2001 Carmichael had figured it out and the battle for supremacy had begun. RC took control and ushered in a new era.
What was the relationship like between these two superstars? You can listen to their terrific banter by watching the video below starting at 3:36:48 or read through the whole discussion below.
Steve Matthes: I want to get you where you guys’ careers cross. Obviously, Jeremy, 1993, you come in. You take the sport by storm. No way anybody thought you would be that good, that quick. You rip off championship after championship. Ricky comes in end of ’96. Comes to Steel City. Does a 16-6. Eighth overall. He’s the winningest amateur rider at this point, one of them, anyway. When do you first year about Carmichael, and he’s coming? Is it not until ’97 or is it before?
Jeremy McGrath: No, as he said before, our parents are friends. So, when Ricky was young, we were both with Team Green. When he came to California, his mom would stay with my parents. So, Ricky and I have come up from Team Green from when he was ten years old, I think?
Ricky Carmichael: Yeah, ten, eleven.
McGrath: So, I knew the whole time. The same thing you’re seeing in young riders now…
Matthes: So, as you’re racking up these championships, Carmichael is riding 80s.
Carmichael: I’m watching him. I’m sitting on his Team Green box van.
McGrath: So, when I’m trying to ride good in the A class with Team Green, Ricky’s winning everything as an 80 rider, 60 rider, all the way. He’s coming up. It was inevitable what was happening. It was just when was he going to get there? It wasn’t like a question of if, it’s just when. When that all happened, the writing was on the wall. We were going to meet at some point. When he came to the 250 class at the time, the premier class, I was like, okay, I’m ready for him. He was still trying to figure it out, making some crashes.
Carmichael: A lot.
McGrath: Was that the year that you got the peg?
Carmichael: Yeah, 1999.
McGrath: I guess in a way, him crashing a few times sort of bought me a little more time, and then he figured it out a little bit more for the next year. Then with those Daytona wins, started getting some confidence. Then you started training a little more, started doing some of that. Then he finally got the package sort of together.
Matthes: Ricky, you swept the 125 East ’98. Did you think you could challenge him in ’99 as soon as you got to the 250s?
Carmichael: I did after the heat race in San Diego, before I got the footpeg to the leg. We were in the same heat race, and he was right behind me. I’m like, “I beat him!” I’m like, I know this dude was going to try to beat me in the heat race. Then I got a good start in the main. I think Yogi [Ezra Lusk] was in front of me. No, he was right behind me. I think it was [Greg] Albertyn and Larry Ward was right in front of me. I’m like, “Okay, if I can get these guys… Ezra’s behind me. I know Ezra is going to jam him up.” So, that’s what I was thinking. If I can get by these two guys, I can try to build a gap. I think there was only a couple guys blitzing the whoops that night. Myself, MC, maybe Yogi. The rest of the guys were jumping. They were really big. So, at that point, I did. It wasn’t disrespectful, but I’m like, “Man, I think I can do it.”
Matthes: You saw him [Jeremy] in his rookie year. He did it.
Carmichael: Right. I fell on the second or third lap, and then I took four or five weeks off. Come back at Tampa. I pulled the holeshot. I led for like twelve laps or something, ten or twelve laps. At that point is when I knew I had my work cut out for me. I’m like, it’s going to be tough to beat these guys. I realized how good they were. I remember 2000 was probably tougher for me than ’99 was because ’99 I had gotten hurt, and I missed so many races. I’m like, okay, whatever. That’s a wash. [Struggling again in] Two thousand was like, maybe I’m just a 125 guy. I thought that I was in shape. I wasn’t. I knew that I was practicing more than anyone else. The off-track stuff though was where I needed some fine-tuning. I was trying to poach his trainer, Corey Worf.
Matthes: Were you really?
Carmichael: Oh, absolutely. [Laughs] I don’t play fair when I want to win!
Matthes: So, when you won Daytona in 2000…
Carmichael: Yeah, but Daytona to me, that’s an outdoor race. At that time, it was.
Matthes: So, you’re like, “The kid got Daytona. It’s an outdoor race.”
Carmichael: [To Jeremy] You had me. If you would have just hung one more lap, you would have had me.
McGrath: Yeah. Because you were on the brink?
Carmichael: Dude, I was on the brink! You had me. I was right there. I kept saying to myself, “If he goes one more lap, he’s got me. I was going to surrender.” We were going!
McGrath: We were hauling! Daytona for me was always a difficult race.
Carmichael: Because you wouldn’t change your clickers! [Laughs]
McGrath: We’re not counting Daytona. Anyway, again, all these things that were happening with him, still building confidence for him. So, I was doing my thing, winning races. It’s just how it was going, and it was all normal. But then when we came around in 2001, it was a different story.
Carmichael: I made a transformation.
McGrath: He was way more ready. He knew what he had to do. All those other things were growing pains on trying to get ready for 2001.
Carmichael: I said, “Okay, here’s my shortcomings. This is where I need to be better. This is how I need my motorcycle to feel so I can ride it as fast as I can. Even if it’s not set up right, I need it to be this way so I can hold the gas on longer.” Then I said, “This is where I’m having issues fitness-wise in the race. I need to fix that.” I said, “If I can fix those two things, that’s the only thing else I know that I can try.” So, we made those changes. Johnny O [O’Mara] hooked me up with Aldon Baker, and then I got super in tune with my motorcycle, and we went into 2001 like that. Then we go to Anaheim. I run third. I get pumped up. I was so angry after the race. He wins. Yogi gets second. I get third. I was just riding around the last half of the race because I was so pumped up. I was so pissed. Then we went to San Diego, and it was an epic battle. I ended up winning. I’m like, okay, that was good.
Matthes: So, backing up a little bit. ’99, rough year. In 2000 you get Daytona.
Carmichael: I knew I wasn’t ready.
Matthes: So, you’re like, I can’t beat this guy yet?
Carmichael: Yeah, because Daytona wasn’t a real supercross. So, that win to me didn’t help me at all to try to win.
Matthes: Short guy. I remember in ’99, the gossip in the pits is like, “Maybe he’s just a 125 guy. Maybe he can’t hang onto a bigger bike and last the 20 laps.” All of that stuff, supercross-wise. Outdoors we knew you had that on lock. We’re just like, “I don't know if he’s going to figure it out.” I remember thinking and talking to people like, “I don't know if he’s ever going to figure this out.”
Carmichael: I had the same thought. I thought a hundred percent. There was a time I was like, I just don’t think it’s going to happen. That’s where I’m like, what are the things that I need to change to try to make it happen?
McGrath: I can tell you from that year, from 2000 going into 2001, I didn’t do anything different. I didn’t expect him to do a change. I was like, if he does exactly what he did in 2000, I’ll do what I do, and it will work out fine. I won round one, but then San Diego I was like, oh, shit! Anyone who knows anything about fitness if you’re not ready…
Carmichael: Yeah, but you might have been like, “It’s just one race…”
McGrath: That wasn’t just one. That was a crazy race. That was a statement race. I was like, if he can do that, I’m behind.
Carmichael: You’re saying because I didn’t get tired?
McGrath: Yeah. I was like, it’s going to be hard now. That’s when I realized it was going to be hard for me. I’m like, I don't know, I can’t keep up that pace. So, that means I wasn’t ready.
Carmichael: I could see, like, “Oh, he’s tired.” That’s the first time. I had never seen that from you because I had never been in that position. I was like, “Dude, this is the King. He ain’t getting tired. There ain’t no way.” I’m like, “I think he’s tired!”
Matthes: He cruised. A lot of his races it’s like, I got a nice lead and it’s Nac-Nac time, everybody.
Carmichael: But if he needed to go the distance, he could. You were in good shape.
McGrath: There was plenty of battles that I had with Windham late in the race. Typically, I could hang, but when that happened [with Carmichael in San Diego], I was like, oh, shit. So, then we had the next week Anaheim battle.
Matthes: And then that infamous poster that you probably wish was never out there!
Carmichael: Dude, I almost crashed in that poster too! Did I ever tell you that?
Matthes: That was a parade lap.
Carmichael: I slipped. I was out of control in that picture.
McGrath: The reason I looked like this is because it scared me.
Matthes: Everyone looks at that photo and is like, “It’s symbolic.” That was a parade lap!
Carmichael: Everyone says, “That was the passing of the torch!” I’m like, no, that was me about to bust my ass!
Matthes: Jeremy’s got wires hanging off his helmet.
McGrath: Yeah, there was going to be fire shooting out of my helmet, but I was scared to do it because I was afraid my head was going to catch on fire! [Laughs] Troy Lee would always come up with something. He’s like, “Just put these gloves on and in the air touch this thing and some flames will go off.” I’m like, um… I chickened out. I’m like, I ain’t doing that!
Carmichael:[Laughs] Really? I swear in the picture you can see your finger touching. Might have been the opposite finger.
McGrath: Maybe. I was scared.
Matthes: So, you guys swap wins and Ricky gets you in round five. Now you can’t get it back. And you’re like, “I got this guy now.”
Carmichael: I knew. This is nothing disrespectful at all, but I knew at the second Anaheim, because I could back off. I could pull him back in. I could see he was getting winded.
McGrath: I was on the limit.
Carmichael: People would say, “He let MC by.” I didn’t let him by. I thought he was going to get me back. Honestly, I didn’t care that I lost the race because I knew you were in difficulty at the end of the race. That race was such a learning experience for me. I was able to learn by following you. I learned how you rode. I was so amazed. I was like bowing down to him. I was like, “This guy is so cool.” I was in awe and star-struck, but I’m like, “Oh, this is how he does it.”
McGrath: And you could ride behind me with ease at that time, so you could really watch me. Instead of [struggling] like, “I’ve got to keep up.” If you’re suffering to keep up, you don’t concentrate on that stuff. You were doing it with ease. So, you were able to watch some stuff. Which is a different view that you had when you were just hoping you don’t crash.
Skip Norfolk: From my position, I got to see exactly that. I got to see you learn, and go, “Okay.”
McGrath: That was honestly the night I learned that I ain’t going to be winning no more.
McGrath: Yeah, that was the night. It wasn’t Anaheim. It was San Diego. Anaheim when I won, it was like, all right, well…
Matthes: I kind of got him.
Carmichael: Oh, really? This is great.
McGrath: San Diego I was like; I don't know if I’m going to be able to keep up.
Norfolk: It’s so cool to live through this story again and relive it. You’re talking about being at the tippy, tippy, tippy top of the sport, and being able to have that conversation with these two is freaking amazing.
Carmichael: Let me ask you this. In 2000, DV [David Vuillemin] was pretty good. Really good. I figured you were probably more focused on him going into ’01. I thought you were more focused on DV than he was me. You had every right to be.
McGrath: I was riding with him [Vuillemin] every day. I was at the Yamaha track with him every day, so I was used to it. He was riding good, but I wasn’t worried about him.
Carmichael: So, then we went to Phoenix. I won Phoenix. Then we went to Anaheim 3, and then that one was more gratifying for me because I was buried in the pack, and I caught up. I was always that kind of guy like, if I wasn’t pulling away from you at the end of the race, and you were catching me, even though I won, I would still be like, “No, he was better than me that weekend.”
McGrath: Took you a long time to believe it.
Carmichael: A hundred percent.
McGrath: But you watched me for a long time.
Carmichael: I did. Think about this. He’s the King of supercross. No one is ever going to touch his records in supercross. He’s the baddest man to ever do it, and he always will be. It’s gnarly.
Matthes: I didn’t realize you go that far back with him.
Carmichael: No one knows that. It didn’t seem right to me [to beat him].
Matthes: He had so many people beat before the gate even dropped. He had so many riders over a seven, eight-year span beat before they even stepped up to the gate. Then you’re the guy like, I can beat this guy. I actually can play with him a little bit. Catch him back up. You must have been like, “Holy shit. This guy is the f***ing King.”
McGrath: It took you three years to get that. This is what I am proud of. I had a long, great, fun career. I won a lot of races, but I am stoked that it was him that came along to beat me. Because he’s not just some guy, this guy is the greatest guy in the sport. So, for me, I was lucky that it was the guy that cracked the code that’s going to go on and be the greatest. So, it wasn’t just like, DV beat me. No disrespect to him. It didn’t end up being a couple of guys. It went from me to you, for a long time. I can say I survived three years of you trying to figure that out.
Matthes: You fought him off for three years.
McGrath: Eventually Father Time says it’s going to happen, and it did. That was okay. Any kind of [negative] stuff that people believed that we might have been between us…
McGrath: I’ve known this guy since he was ten years old.
Carmichael: I sat on this dude’s box van. I had lived at his house.
McGrath: To me, I don’t look at that as anything that’s not great. That was great. We were racing together. It was cool. We were buds.
Matthes: Was there any sort of hatred or rivalry?
McGrath: Nothing. The only thing I just thought was weird was the Honda thing, the US Open thing [the next year]. But I know that wasn’t him. That’s why I think it’s funny because it wasn’t you. They put you in a bad spot.
Matthes: Yeah I did that US Open Story. Todd [Jendro] at Feld said that he’s the one that asked you to do that [wear a crown].
Carmichael: Trust me. Does he regret it?
Matthes: Yeah. Todd is like, “That was a bad idea.”
Carmichael: It’s crazy to hear what you think about that, because I thought for sure after San Diego, I’m like, he’s coming after me now. He’s coming back. There’s no way.
McGrath: No, I was suffering.
Carmichael: I didn’t believe at San Diego. I didn’t believe.
McGrath: You passed me, and you were so far ahead of me.
Matthes: So, as he’s racking up wins in ’01, you’re on the podium and you’re saying to him, “Good job?”
McGrath: Yeah. I’m happy for him. It is what it is.
Carmichael: But you’ve got to understand, when I was following you, I was just mesmerized. I was idolizing you while I was behind you. I’m like, “This dude is so awesome.” Your style and how he’s doing stuff, the clutch… Your guys’ bike sounded so good, too. I thought, “Man, I wish my bike sounded like his.” I’m literally racing you like, “I wish my bike would sound like this.”
McGrath: I thought the same thing about Bradshaw when we first came in. Bradshaw had that Yamaha with that shorty silencer. I was like, “Damn, that thing is so bad.” Then to go racing and then go beat him – different situation, of course, but it was the same sort of thing.
Norfolk: For me, the fun part hearing these guys talk is after practice sessions or in the tunnel, things like that, the conversations that these guys would have, it could range from, “Man, my bike is doing this…” They were talking about bikes and how they were fixing each other’s bikes. It was so cool to just see these guys because they were having a conversation that nobody had a clue what they were talking about.
Matthes: I thought, as with any racer that I’ve been around, at some point there is some friction.
Carmichael: Ezra used to get so mad at me in ’99. He’s like, “Dude, you just let MC pass you. You just let him pass you. You don’t even put up a fight.” I’m not going to race you tough, and I’m not going to block you or go out of my way if I know I can’t go the full distance. I’m not just going to do that, to someone I truly, really respect. Like, why? If I’m going to be racing you in the future, I’m just digging myself a hole. So, he would get so bummed with me. I’m like, “What do you want me to do? Just block him up?” Now I’m making myself look like a clown by doing that, and I don't want to do that. I had some wild moments. There’s no doubt about it. But I’m not going to race you like a jerk-off if I don’t have to.
Main image by Simon Cudby