Interview: Jeremy McGrath
By Eddie Graveline
This is a tough one. Honestly, I don’t know where to start. Jeremy McGrath has retired from competition. His decision came as a surprise to fans and industry insiders alike. Within a week, the rumor mill was spinning out of control and the speculation as to why he was calling it quits was all over the map. Thankfully, MC himself made it official during a press conference at Edison Field in Anaheim and set everyone straight. Jeremy’s contributions to supercross and motocross speak for themselves. I don’t think there’s any way to describe his career that doesn’t sound cliché, but he stepped up when the sport needed a spokesman and carried it into the mainstream by himself. Every rider who makes a living doing what they love owes Jeremy McGrath their gratitude. Ricky Carmichael may have been just as fast if Jeremy didn’t come before him, but he wouldn’t be as wealthy as he is now. The press conference was as emotional as it was historical. Jeremy made clear what the reasons behind his decision were. He also laid out a plan for a farewell tour that will give his fans one last chance to meet the king. After all of the official business was taken care of, I got the opportunity to spend some time one on one with MC. We talked about his career, his future plans and his thoughts on what the sport he loves needs to do in order to maintain its current growth rates. It is impossible for this text to give you an accurate translation of the emotion in Jeremy’s voice, so believe me when I tell you that it was heavy. I feel honored to have been able to speak with him at such in important time sincerely hope that what follows helps his legion of supporters understand what has transpired a little better. Jeremy McGrath has just made the most difficult decision of his life, but he has no doubts that it was the right one.
Q: Jeremy, it’s obvious that your decision to retire was a tough and emotional one to make. Can you walk me through some of the events and feelings that led you this point?
A: “Well, first and foremost, last year during the season, I was obviously struggling. I was having some physical problems with an injury to my back, getting arm pump and stuff like that. I was having some bad races and getting really frustrated at times. Even then I had some thoughts like, ‘What would it be like to not be out there and race?’, because there were a lot of people who had a lot of expectations on me. I didn’t think too much of it. After Vegas (the supercross finale) I just wanted the summer off to reflect on what was going on. I thought nothing of it. The negotiations that we had with Yamaha kind of motivated me to get back on, get the best deal and get after it again. So we had our deal with KTM. I signed on, everything was looking good and then I got hurt. My hip was out (dislocated) for six hours. While I was lying on the ground, I started thinking that maybe there are some different things that I can do. I was in a lot of pain and I don’t really know what I was feeling, but I had a lot of time to reflect. Usually with an injury, you just get back on and the feeling goes away in your head, but this time it didn’t. I was really thinking about it and I was thinking about my future. I always told myself that, ‘Hey, if you’re going to have any hesitation it’s time to step away’, because it can become more dangerous if you’re not paying attention or not wanting to be out there. It has to be a natural reaction. It was starting to be more of a thinking process for me. That’s pretty much what it was about.”
Q: From personal experience I know that you start to see things differently as you get older and take on more responsibility. You were recently married, you’ve started your own race team and have several other business ventures. I can easily see how you might start to think that there’s more to life than racing. Did that type of thinking play a part in this?
A: “Yeah, I thought about that, but I don’t think it’s just because of being married. Kim and I dated for four years before getting married. I think it was an evolution of thinking about everything at once. Being involved in all of the business stuff that I am, if I look back now, that’s obviously a big distraction. Each year I would get more involved because the sport was getting bigger, I was trying to make deals and money for myself. I think it became this big operation, this big thing that distracted me. It’s really hard to be a racer and a business guy. It’s kind of like I was saying earlier. I’m good at being a racer. I’m not that good at being a businessman. So I have to work harder at something like that and that takes more time. So I think over the later years, I didn’t dedicate enough time to being a racer. Maybe that kind of reflects on how it’s been for the last two years. I know what my head wants to do, but then, did I prepare myself enough and did I do the right things? I think I honestly tried to fix all of that in 2002 with training my butt off, but it backfired on me. I mean, I was looking forward to this year, but when you get that feeling…I always told myself that when I get the feeling that I shouldn’t be out there or feel hesitation, I’m not going to do that to myself. I’m not going to go out there and be nervous about it. I just have to make sure that I keep that promise to myself and I did.”
Q: Motocross has turned into a sport that almost requires a rider to come from a wealthy family in order to succeed and be noticed. That’s not where you came from, though. You’re really one of the last riders to come from a middle class, working family and rise to the top of this sport. Do you ever sit back and let it all sink in? Does it amaze you to see how far you’ve come, the type of life that you can live and the way that you can take care of your family now?
A: “First of all, all I ever wanted to do was ride these tracks. That’s where it started. I loved motocross and I loved riding my motorcycle, but I always wanted to ride on a supercross track. To take a step back and look at what this sport has done for me is amazing. My parents supported my whole amateur career and paid for it. They did everything for me. But when I turned pro and was starting to get a little help, they helped me get my first checking account. They gave me five hundred dollars. It was getting so expensive and they kind of said, ‘We want to see if you can go out and make it on your own because we’ve done what we can do for you. You’ve got to do it now yourself.’ I think about the days when I was going to the races, writing a check for forty bucks and I only had five hundred in there. I was not that happy about it because that was almost one tenth of the net worth (laughs). But winning the local race would get me a hundred bucks, so I’d make fifty bucks or whatever. It was just a learning curve, really. You’re right, though. The sport now is really expensive. Almost all of the kids that come up now have families that have the big rigs and everything, with the exception maybe of some of the kids with Team Green. The sport has evolved into something that’s big and there’s a lot of money involved now. Sometimes you see it with the 125cc guys, that they’re not acting like themselves because they’re making a hundred thousand or two hundred thousand dollars. They act more like a rock star or something. I think it’s important to remember your values. You know, I didn’t get into this sport because of money. I was lucky and made some money, but I got into this sport because I loved it. I have passion for it and it’s my lifestyle. Sometimes I think that maybe some of the kids are taking it for granted. It’s not a lifestyle for them, you know.”
Q: You know, you’ve been at the top of this sport for so long that a lot of young fans don’t realize where you came from. I read a story where Goat Breker was saying that he remembered you hanging out at the racetrack after everyone went home and collecting tear offs that you thought could still be used. Your family didn’t have the forty-foot motor home and couldn’t buy you five bikes a year and I think it’s important for people to know you as that guy.
A: “Yeah, I mean I would come home from school every day and ride my motorcycle. I would go to the local races and Gayle Webb would have her D.A.R.E. program and hand out stickers. That was like the coolest thing. I’d come home with a handful of stickers. I think you’re right. I think some kids are missing those values. We’ll see. I mean the next generation is really going to tell.”
Q: You’ve said that you want to dispel some of the rumors that have started since word of your retirement first got out.
A: “Everyone’s been pretty supportive. The knee-jerk reaction is more like, ‘Man, that sucks. Why is he retiring?’ But then they’ll step back and go, ‘Yeah, I think it’s probably the right time.’ I think it’s important for everyone to know that there was a lot of speculation that I didn’t get along with my bike and that’s why I retired, but that’s not why. If I were riding my Yamaha, I’d still be having the same decision. You always have trouble when you change bikes because there’s so much trial and tribulation with testing and all of that stuff. When you get hurt and get behind like that, you’re just chasing your tail and it’s a lot more work. Everything that I’ve based my decision off of had nothing to do with the bike. It’s just the way I feel in my heart and I’m keeping a promise to myself.”
Q: Explain the details of what you’re going to be doing with the supercross series this year.
A: “I plan on being at all of the supercross events, being part of the opening ceremonies, probably giving a speech to the fans during the first intermission and doing a parade lap on my bike, a slow lap. As far as plans to get the truck to every race, we’re in the middle of discussions on all of that. It’s kind of hard to get everything decided when you pull the plug in the twelfth hour (chuckles).”
Q: The sport of supercross has changed a lot since you started fifteen years ago. What sticks out the most in your mind?
A: “I think that how it’s changed, and I’m probably not alone, but I think a lot of the riders are making too much money for not producing. You take someone like Travis Pastrana, who’s a legend in freestyle pretty much, but he’s never done anything really racing yet. He won the 125 motocross title, which is good, but supercross-wise he’s been hurt all of the time. I don’t know, there are a lot of guys out there who haven’t done anything and are making a lot of money. It seems strange to me how the industry is always looking for the next best guy and they’re trying to beat the next guy to it. The kids, I mean the riders are the ones capitalizing on it.”
Q: That brings up a good question. There is a constant debate on whether Travis Pastrana should continue to race and do freestyle or choose between the two and just focus on one. Most people involved in racing feel that he should drop freestyle. You’re a guy that has always had a “big picture” perspective on the sport and might see good in both sides. What’s your opinion on Travis’ busy schedule?
A: “I think there’s no doubt that it’s affected his career. But Travis needs to do what Travis wants to do because that’s the most important guy in his life. I think that I wouldn’t agree with some of his scheduling because it’s a bit distracting, but if he’s okay with not putting everything into being the best racer in the world, that’s fine. A lot of people in the racing world would feel differently or feel that it’s a shame, but Travis looks like he’s having fun. Freestyle looks fun for him. It’s not his fault that everyone (sponsors) stays involved. If someone didn’t like it, they should break off. I don’t have a problem with it. It just seems like a shame to me that he’s so good and if he would just focus a little more, he could be the best.”
Q: How would you like to be remembered by the fans?
A: “Most importantly, I want to be remembered not only by what’s on paper, but as someone that the fans can relate to, who gave the sport a face. Someone who gave the sport more of a friendly, family atmosphere and gave it a sense of reality, really. I think that’s important. I wanted to be a role model for kids as well.”
A: There’s no doubt that supercross is more popular than ever, but most people involved would like to see it get even bigger and become one of the most major forms of motor sports in the world. What do you think needs to happen in order for that to become a reality?
A: “National TV is what it needs. It needs some more personalities or some people who are willing to put more time into being personable. I mean, you saw the four guys that were up here (David Vuillemin, Ricky Carmichael, James Stewart and Travis Preston in the press conference before round 1). No one on regular TV is going to want to watch them interviewed. Riding, yeah...”
Q: That’s a good segue to my next question. You’ve been the biggest link between supercross and mainstream audiences for a long time. Not that you’re going to disappear completely, but now that you won’t be on the track and the podium every weekend, do you feel that it’s important for another rider to pick up that torch and reach out to new fans? Do you feel that any of the current riders are capable?
A: “I think you’re going to get some animosity and adversity out of Chad Reed. Travis Pastrana is pretty good on the podium if he could be there all the time, but he’s so inconsistent you know, that you just don’t know. Ricky (Carmichael), I don’t think he cares. I don’t think he tries to relate. I mean, he got a bad rap all year because of some of the stuff he says and the switch (to Honda) and all of that. It just didn’t go over smooth for him. So he’s got a bad taste for the fans, I think. Stewart seems like he’s pretty good at it, but you just never know. I don’t see anyone out there that’s like me, or even a different version of me. They’re all making a lot of money and I think that the PR side of it doesn’t matter anymore. It used to matter when if you did that, you could make yourself more popular and make more money. Now I don’t think it matters.”
Q: This is just my opinion, but I think that you dominating the sport the way you did when you did was good because we needed something extraordinary to make people notice from the outside. Now that it’s more visible, though, I think that it’s detrimental to have boring races where one guy always dominates, especially if that guy can’t get it done PR-wise. Do you feel that more parity on the track would be beneficial at this point in time?
A: “I think so. No doubt. I’m going to be at every race this year, so I’m biased toward seeing some good racing. I don’t want to see one person dominate. Also, I think that if someone beside Ricky Carmichael can win, that’s going to protect my records (smiles).”
Q: Getting back to your race team, is there any chance that we might see another rider on the McGrath Racing KTM this year?
A: “No, no. We’ve thought about a bunch of different options, but we’re kind of waiting on Bud Light to see what happens there. So that’s pretty much out. We don’t have that option.”
Q: You’ve said that you’re an enthusiast and that you won’t stop riding motorcycles. I’ve got some questions about places that you might pop up. How about riding freestyle?
A: “My bag of tricks is way too small for that business now and I’m not going to start doing back flips (laughs). You might see me at some of that stuff, but maybe just checking it out. The events that you maybe will see me at would be Mammoth, some local races because I could just go race with my friends and that’s fun. A Day In the Dirt and maybe the Vet World Championships at Glen Helen, but I don’t know.”
Q: How about Loretta Lynn’s? Would you go just to keep Jeff Emig from cherry picking?
A: “I don’t think I’ll go to Loretta’s. It’s such a long week there. Who knows? I may show up…wherever. I want to go do some riding. I want to go race some enduro races. That’s one thing that I’ve always found interesting that I never got a chance to do. I just want to do different stuff that I’ve never been able to do.”
Q: I know that you did a little playing around on a road race bike a few years ago. Have you thought about looking into that any more?
A: “I’m going to do a little more. I’m going to get a bike now that I have more time. I’m not interested in racing anything. I just want to have fun.”
Q: I get the feeling that you want to help the sport continue to grow. After this year and your farewell tour, how will you do that?
A: “Well, the one thing that I think Clear Channel should take advantage of is that I’m willing to do that. They should take advantage of it and use me to do that. Not to say that I’m the best PR guy, but I know what the sport’s about, I can speak on behalf of the other guys and make it sound right. If they need a face, I think that’s how I can help. That’s important.”
Q: Are you and Kim planning on starting a family soon?
A: “Yeah, pretty soon. Not right away, but probably after this summer.”
Q: You’re doing an autobiography and that’s got to be a new kind of challenge for you.
A: “Trying to recall all of the memories is pretty hard.”
Q: You’ll be working with a co-writer on that?
A: “Chris Palmer is going to do it. He did some stuff for me in ESPN Magazine. He’s doing it for me. We’re more than halfway done. We spent a week together doing it and we’re up to the year 1997. We’re getting tons of interviews from different kinds of people.”
Q: When will it be released?
A: “03 it comes out. Fall of 03.”
Q: Well, this is an emotional thing for anyone who is close to the sport. We’ve talked in the past, but it’s not like we really know each other. Still, your retirement has affected me emotionally and I know I’m not alone. More than anything, I’m a fan that has enjoyed watching you for years, but it’s more than that. I have a two-year-old son now and he has your action figure, the pajamas and the whole bit. We were watching the new “Bar to Bar” video the other night and every time you came on he started yelling your name. It was incredible to see how excited he was about you. You’ve made an impact that transcends what happens on the track. Whether your records stand forever or not, your contributions to the sport and the way you’ve carried yourself will never be forgotten. For myself and on behalf of all the readers, I just want to say thank you.
A: “Thanks, thanks for that. It feels good to be more than just a winner. I think I’ve tried really hard in my career to be the overall package instead of a one-dimensional rider. It’s been good for me and everyone’s been good to me. I’m happy about that.”