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It's No Trick to Lend His Fame, Name

August 06, 2004|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Jeremy McGrath's dilemma was this: He was retired but loved motorcycle racing too much to give it up.

So when the X Games came along with an offer, it didn't take much persuading to get him to say yes.

And just like that, MotoX events at the X Games became legitimized. With one simple entry form, motorcycle racing purists who had criticized the X Games events as a circus act had to pay attention.

McGrath has that kind of power. He's the biggest star that motorcycle racing has ever had. He won seven supercross championships from 1993 to 2000 and almost single-handedly took the sport from obscurity into the mainstream.

"My goal has always been to increase recognition for motorcycle sports," he said. "If participating in the X Games does that, then all the better. I'd do whatever I can to help the sport."

McGrath will make his X Games debut tonight in the Step Up competition, but the event that brought him is the SuperMoto, a mix of motocross, street racing and freestyle.

Long an admirer of the X Games, he had wanted to participate ever since motorcycle events were added in 1999, but there wasn't an event conducive to his skills.

McGrath is a racer, not a trickster, and before SuperMoto was unveiled this year, the motorcycle X Games events were largely trick-based events.

Now he has an outlet to showcase his racing skills to a new audience while at the same time drawing more traditional race fans to the X Games.

McGrath isn't the only traditional racer making the crossover. Current AMA supercross champion Chad Reed and Doug Henry, a three-time motocross champion, also are X Games participants. They have been welcomed by freestyle riders, who have felt slighted by motorcycle purists in the past.

"All of the motocrossers feel that they're better than the freestylers and all the freestylers feel that they're better than the motocrossers, so there's a huge rivalry," said Travis Pastrana, who won an X Games gold medal in freestyle last year.

"People always look at X Games as something other than a core racing event. Well, now you've got guys like McGrath coming out and that's going to legitimize everything else."

Ironically, McGrath is credited with kicking off the freestyle. Early in his career, after he won a race in Orlando, Fla., McGrath celebrated by kicking one leg over the motorcycle body and then back again while in mid-air.

It was the first time anyone had seen such a trick on that kind of stage. McGrath called the move the Nac-Nac and it's still practiced in freestyle today.

"I just wanted to do something that was different to separate myself," McGrath said. "I wanted to excite the crowd. I had no idea it would become so popular. I can't believe how far freestyle has come."

McGrath's legitimizing a sport is nothing new. When he started racing, supercross was a niche sport played out in small arenas. He won more than 100 races in his 13-year career and rewrote the AMA supercross record books during the 1990s.

During his run of dominance, supercross grew into a stadium sport. Angel Stadium sells out twice a year for supercross races. Todd Jendro, director of supercross for promoter Clear Channel , said there was no way to measure what he has done for the sport or what he continues to do.

The X Games, Jendro said, will never be the same.

"Whether he rides go-carts or rides motorcycles, he will lend credibility to whatever he does," Jendro said.

McGrath retired from competitive supercross before the 2003 season, but not before his popularity eclipsed his sport and he became a mainstream star.

He has appeared in television shows and commercials and had a cameo in the movie "Charlie's Angels II: Full Throttle." There are McGrath bobble-head dolls and action figures and a PlayStation video game.

It was a little overwhelming for someone who said he was shy as a kid.

"In the beginning, I didn't set out to become popular," he said. "I set out to win races. Winning put me in the spotlight and being in the spotlight gets you out of your shell so I got used to it."

Since retirement, he has written an autobiography, has begun filming a series of instructional videos and has a clothing line, Nsane Industries, coming out in 2005.

Although keeping busy, McGrath said he still felt something was missing. He has appeared in some smaller-circuit races in the last year, and that led to his X Games appearance.

"I'm looking at this as a hobby," he said. "I don't want to put the pressure on myself to perform like I did in supercross."

There might be another kind of pressure. Although McGrath said he has always admired the freestyle riders, a stigma prevails that they are not "true racers."

Should one of those riders beat the king of racing, it would be a huge victory.

"I'm sure that everyone in motocross wants to see him win," Pastrana said. "Everyone in freestyle not necessarily wants to see him lose, but that's definitely their benchmark. Everyone wants to beat Jeremy."

McGrath is used to that and he said he would approach his race the same way he approached races throughout his career. If he gets beat, he said it won't be the end of the world.

But McGrath is a racer and a racer only, so don't expect him to try and cross any further over the line of the X Games.

"You won't see me doing backflips," he said.

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