Jeff Emig was one of the top AMA Motocross and Supercross riders of the 1990s. In all, Emig won four AMA national championships, an FIM World Supercross title and was a six-time member of the U.S. Motocross des Nations team. Emig helped mold the MX lifestyle that came to prominence in the 1990s and was characterized by a style of dress, music and a love for the sport of motocross. He earned a fanatical following of fans who wore giant fake afros in honor of Emig’s popular nickname "Fro."
During his 11-year professional career, Emig earned 37 AMA national wins. When he retired, he was fourth on the all-time AMA 250 National Motocross wins list, sixth on the all-time AMA 125 motocross list and tied for seventh on the combined AMA Motocross/Supercross wins list.
Cam Jeffrey Emig was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on December 1, 1970. When Emig was a boy, his father and friends began trail riding motorcycles and the family would take trips to the hills of southern Missouri to ride. Emig’s older brother, Brian, was the first to take up the family hobby and young Jeff quickly followed in his footsteps. Again, it was Brian who started racing first and Jeff who followed him into the sport at the age of 7. It didn’t take long for Jeff to start winning, and racing rapidly became a focal point for the Emig family.
Jeff began making a name for himself in the amateur ranks in the early 1980s, winning many of the big amateur races of the day such as Ponca City and four titles at the AMA Amateur Motocross Nationals at the Loretta Lynn Ranch in Tennessee. Emig’s dad moved from his race car building business to running a motorcycle shop. He proved to be an excellent motorcycle builder as well and worked on all of Jeff’s bikes. As a result, Jeff always had some of the best equipment at the races.
From his earliest amateur days, Emig had sponsorship for his racing program. In the mid-1980s, he signed as part of Kawasaki’s well-regarded Team Green amateur racing program. At the end of 1988, Emig had the urge get his feet wet on the professional circuit and entered the final AMA Motocross National of the season in Washougal, Washington. In his very first pro race, Emig’s raw potential was there for all to see. He got the holeshot in the first moto and led the early laps of the race. He faded towards the end of the race and was so exhausted that he told his dad he didn’t even want to line-up for the second moto. He crashed in the second moto, but as a result of his surprising debut, motocross fans now knew about the young Jeff Emig.
In 1989, Emig continued his transition into the pro ranks and, like he had in his first outdoor national, Emig lead the early laps in his first AMA 125 West Supercross race at Anaheim in 1989. A week later, he broke his elbow and worked through the injury the rest of the season.
In 1990, Emig became a factory Kawasaki rider alongside some of the biggest stars in the sport: Jeff Ward, Johnny O’Mara and Jeff Matiasevich. Emig won two AMA West Region 125 Supercross races that year and finished fourth in that series. Emig also finished fifth in the AMA 125 Motocross Championship.
Yamaha pursued Emig and he switched to that team in 1991, saying he felt the team would be able to give him more attention than he had at the stacked Kawasaki squad. For the first time, Emig was assigned a factory mechanic. That year, he and Jeremy McGrath began their career-long rivalry in the AMA 125 West Supercross Series. Emig won four 125 Supercrosses that season and was just beaten out by a scant three points for the title by McGrath. In addition, Emig rode some main AMA Supercross races and scored three top-10 finishes. He continued to climb the ladder in the nationals finishing third in the final 1991 AMA 125 Motocross National Championship.
The 1992 season was a breakthrough year for Emig. That year, he earned his first AMA national win in the 125 class at Red Bud Track 'n Trail in Buchanan, Michigan. Emig remembers his first big win vividly.
"I won the first moto," Emig recalls. "In the second moto, I had a problem with my rear brake but I still finished second and was able to take the overall win. It was like the floodgates opened after that. I had the taste of winning and I just kept it going."
Emig was well behind Mike LaRocco in the championship points, but after his Red Bud victory Emig was nearly unstoppable. He closed out the second half of the season winning six of the seven nationals, chasing down LaRocco in the points and earning his first AMA National Championship.
Going into the final national at Budds Creek that season, Emig was one point down to LaRocco. He had to win both motos to guarantee the championship. Even though he was running a winning streak coming into the race, Emig was so cautious about being over-confident that he changed nothing in his routine leading up to the race. He didn’t even want his family to come to the final round.
"I wanted everything to be business as usual," Emig said. He won both motos. In the second moto it was pouring rain and he clearly remembers the fans cheering him heartily as he made his final lap.
"I turned the final corner to head up the hill to the finish line and it finally hit me that I was about to become a national champion," Emig said. "It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I was completely overwhelmed. All I could think about as I took the checkered flag was all the effort my dad put into helping me get to that point. It was what we’d worked so hard for all those years."
Emig capped off his excellent 1992 season by being named to the U.S. Motocross des Nations team for the first time. The U.S. won the competition that year. Emig would go on to be named to the U.S. squad six times during his career.
It was around this time that Emig’s nickname "Fro" originated. A friend and fellow racer, Denny Stephenson, drew a design on Emig’s desk notepad that read Jeffro. The artwork was put up on his fridge and everyone started calling him Jeffro and it was eventually shortened to just "Fro." Then the nickname starting showing up on his racing pants and ads with variations such as "Fro-Daddy." After a freestyle motocross video featured Emig riding with a giant fake afro and a 1970s disco suit, it didn’t take long for the fans to follow his lead. Groups of wildly enthusiastic fans starting showing up at races with giant afros.
Emig continued winning the next year, but mechanical problems with his bike prevented him from defending his 125 championship in 1993.
In 1995, got his first AMA Supercross win, but it was a bit tainted. It was the season finale at Las Vegas and many riders decided to boycott the round after a power outage forced the promoters to run the race with temporary lighting. Emig felt he’d raced at plenty of night tracks with worse lighting and he decided to race. His first supercross victory was not popular with many of his fellow riders. Despite the Las Vegas controversy, Emig, who already had established himself as one of the best motocross racers in the country, began to emerge as a serious AMA Supercross contender. In '95, he scored points at every round and finished the year ranked third in the supercross series behind Jeremy McGrath and Larry Ward.
The 1996 season solidified Emig’s legend. That year, he went back to Kawasaki. Emig kept Jeremy McGrath from having the perfect season in AMA Supercross by beating him at the St. Louis Supercross. The St. Louis round was a homecoming of sorts for Emig. Dozens of friends and family came to watch him race and Emig remembers there was something special in the air that night. The win over the seemingly unbeatable McGrath will always be remembered as one of the truly epic races in the history of supercross racing.
Emig and McGrath carried their battle on to the outdoor nationals in the 250cc class. The duo traded wins early with the defending champ McGrath taking the early advantage. Then McGrath was injured at the Millville, Minnesota, round, giving Emig the opportunity he needed to get back in the title hunt. It appeared that Emig would easily pass the injured McGrath in the points and win the title, but McGrath healed quickly and won the second-to-last round in Binghamton, New York, setting up a battle at the final round in Delmont, Pennsylvania.
Emig and McGrath were separated by only two points and Emig recalls the tension was thick in the air with anticipation.
"That race was hyped so much," Emig said. "This was the battle the fans were waiting for." Just like it had been in 1992, Emig knew he had to win both motos to clinch the championship. A record crowd showed up that day, saw a great battle between the top two riders and it was Emig who emerged the victor, closing out one of the most exciting seasons in AMA Motocross.
That win over McGrath at the end of 1996 seemed to launch Emig into the stratosphere. He won the 1996 FIM World Supercross title in the 'off-season,' then came back in 1997 and won his first AMA Supercross Series title and easily defended his AMA 250cc Motocross Championship. Along the way, he won the grueling Daytona Supercross. The ’97 season proved to be the highwater mark of Emig’s career.
He was named AMA Pro Athlete of the Year for 1997.
In 1998, numerous injuries kept Emig on the sidelines much of the year in both supercross and motocross. During the 1999 season, he was arrested for marijuana possession while on vacation in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Emig pled guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia, and the charges for marijuana possession were dropped. Emig was fined $500 for the infraction, but lost his factory Kawasaki ride in the process. Emig gained a great deal of respect for taking full responsibility for his actions and blaming only himself for losing his factory ride despite the minor infraction he was guilty of.
Emig made a triumphant return to racing by winning the U.S. Open of Supercross in Las Vegas in October of 1999 on a privateer Yamaha. He proved that a talented rider didn’t need a factory ride to win a big race and even further solidified his support among fans.
Emig was poised to make a full return to AMA competition full time in 2000, but was twice injured in preparations for his comeback. The last crash just prior to the start of the outdoor nationals caused serious injuries. Emig was momentarily paralyzed in the accident and even though he fully recovered he decided to retire from professional racing.
Emig continued to be involved in racing as a team owner and later became an ambassador for motocross by making appearances at various amateur racing events across the country. He also started a family with his wife, Jennifer. He continued racing for fun.
Emig will always be remembered as one of the true fan favorites in the history of AMA Motocross. His style and connection with the fans helped raise the sport to a higher level during the big growth spurt of motocross and supercross racing in the 1990s.