Jeremy McGrath was easily the most popular motorcycle racer of the 1990s and perhaps in the history of the sport in the United States. A seven-time AMA Supercross and AMA 250 National Motocross champion, McGrath’s popularity transcended motorcycling. He starred in national television ads for a popular long distance telephone service, appeared on network television shows such as NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and was featured in countless newspaper and magazine articles during his reign as the "King of Supercross." Video games featuring McGrath were among the best sellers during the height of his popularity.
AMA Supercross grew rapidly during what became known as the "McGrath Era." He dominated AMA Supercross like no other rider before him and rewrote the record books. His riding tricks while leaping the high jumps of supercross, the most famous of which was called the Nac Nac, helped spawn freestyle motocross. In addition to his eight AMA championships, McGrath twice represented the United States in the prestigious Motocross des Nations competition and was a member of the winning teams in 1993 and 1996. McGrath also won the AMA Pro Athlete of the Year Award in 1996.
McGrath was born in San Francisco on November 19, 1971. His family moved to Southern California when he was a child. His first motorcycle was a mini-bike powered by a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower motor. Unlike most of his contemporaries, McGrath did not come through the mini-bike racing ranks. Instead he honed his early racing skills on the very competitive Southern California BMX (bicycle motocross) circuit.
By the time he was in his mid-teens, McGrath had become one of the leading BMX racers in the nation, but he grew tired of the sport and looked for new challenges. Motocross was the sport McGrath wanted to get into. His parents agreed and at the age of 15, McGrath began racing motocross. Even though his parents helped, McGrath had to support a major portion of his racing by bagging groceries at the local supermarket. Even though he came to racing much later than most top motocross and supercross riders, McGrath was able to translate many of the racing tricks he’d learned in the rough and tumble world of BMX and bring that to motocross racing.
After just three years riding as an amateur, McGrath made his AMA debut in 1989. He finished his first Supercross season ranked eighth in the 125 West Region Series.
Riding for Kawasaki’s support squad in 1990, McGrath began to make his first impact on the sport. That year, he won his first 125 West Region Supercross race in Las Vegas and finished the season ranked second in the series. Mitch Payton saw the untapped potential of McGrath and hired him to ride for the Splitfire/Pro Circuit squad in 1991. McGrath won the 125 West Supercross title in 1991 and 1992.
While McGrath was becoming known as primarily a Supercross specialist even at this early point of his career, he proved he had skills on the outdoor circuits as well. In 1991, he was ranked fifth in AMA 125 motocross and eighth in the class in 1992. McGrath also began to make his name known internationally when he won the Tokyo Supercross in 1992.
McGrath’s major breakthrough race came at the Anaheim (California) Supercross on January 23, 1993. McGrath was riding for the Honda factory as junior teammate to defending AMA Supercross and 250 motocross champ Jeff Stanton. The season was expected to be a learning experience for McGrath, riding in his first full season of AMA Supercross. In Anaheim Stadium that night, in front of his friends and family at a venue he considered his home track, McGrath passed Stanton and won his first AMA Supercross race. McGrath said that pass on Stanton was perhaps the most memorable in his career.
"There’s hardly a day goes by that the pass I made on Stanton to win my first race doesn’t replay in my mind," McGrath said.
After winning his first AMA Supercross race, the floodgates were opened. McGrath went on to dominate the 1993 AMA Supercross Series, winning 10 races and earning the championship.
McGrath’s amazing 1993 season proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. From 1993 to his retirement from full-time Supercross racing after the 2002 season, McGrath obliterated every record in AMA Supercross racing. He won the AMA Supercross Championship seven times (1993, '94, '95, '96, '98, '99 and 2000), and usually in dominating fashion.
His utter domination of his competition didn’t hurt the sport. During his reign atop the world of AMA Supercross, attendance rose to new levels and television ratings soared. Most experts attribute the dramatic increase in the sport's popularity directly to McGrath. Beside his obvious racing skills, McGrath also had a mystique about him that gave him Hollywood-like star power, but he maintained the accessibility and genuine friendliness with his fans that made him the most popular rider the sport had ever seen. Nearly every motocross rider who came to the pro ranks during the second half of the 1990s and the 2000s cited McGrath as his racing hero.
The stats McGrath compiled in AMA Supercross are simply astounding. A record-shattering 72 career AMA Supercross victories, seven AMA Supercross Championships, a single-season record of 14 Supercross wins, the longest winning streak in series history at 13, and the most consecutive seasons with an AMA Supercross win at nine. At the time of his retirement, he also held the coveted record of the most combined AMA Supercross and motocross victories with 89 career wins. Ricky Carmichael later bettered that mark.
While McGrath’s obvious skills in AMA Supercross are well documented, often overlooked was his formidable record in outdoor motocross. McGrath won a total of 17 career AMA Motocross Nationals. His 15 career wins in AMA 250 motocross placed him sixth on the all-time win list. He also won the 1995 AMA 250 Motocross Championship and had the ’96 title well in hand before a late-season injury caused him to come up just short to rival Jeff Emig. McGrath also led the U.S. team to two Motocross des Nations wins –1993 in Austria and again in 1996 in Spain.
During his career, McGrath rode for Kawasaki, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha. He was the first rider to own and ride for his own factory-backed team.
McGrath announced his retirement before the opening round of the 2003 AMA Supercross Series in Anaheim. He attended many of the 2003 Supercross rounds, giving his fans and fellow competitors a chance to thank the sport’s biggest hero.
When asked about what he considered highlights of his career, McGrath cites his first AMA Supercross win in Anaheim in 1993 as the most memorable, but he's also proud of a few other parts of his career.
"I’ve had so many great races," he said. "My three Daytona wins were great because a lot of people said I couldn’t do it. My outdoor national title was something people said I could never do. I get mad at myself a little bit because I should’ve won the ’96 title too, but I was thinking I was invincible and tried a jump at Millville that I never should have attempted and got injured."
Though retired from full-time Supercross and motocross competition, McGrath continued his racing career after being inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. He became one of the early stars of the newly formed AMA Supermoto Series in 2003. He and his wife, Kim, continue to live in Southern California.
In July 2007, a bronze sculpture of McGrath doing his signature "Nac-Nac" stunt was unveiled at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum. The sculpture was commissioned by Supercross series promoter Live Nation to honor the legendary rider.
McGrath’s legacy in the sport of motorcycle racing will be felt for generations to come.