The sound is like the drone of angry wasps amplified a thousandfold, but it is the sight that is gripping. Jeremy McGrath roars through the Las Vegas night, more than 200 pounds of snarling motorcycle reverberating through his shins. Make that shin. McGrath has thrown his right leg out behind him: it hangs in the air as if frozen in mid-dismount, an unimpressive maneuver were it performed curbside but quite an attention-grabber given that McGrath is 30 feet in the air.
He calls this trademark maneuver a nac nac. It's risky, it's showy and it sets the 22,000 spectators at Sam Boyd stadium abuzz. McGrath is a born showman. Before he was two he had neighborhood 12-year-olds knocking each other over to build him jumps for his Big Wheel. But McGrath is practical, too. "I like to get crazy because I love to hear the fans cheer," he says, "but I do that kind of stuff only when I have a big lead."
These days McGrath has ample opportunity for aerial antics. The 22-year-old motocross rider from Murrieta, Calif., is the reigning star of Supercross, a series of stadium races that take place across the U.S. on joint-jolting, jaw-jarring dirt tracks. Riders bound along as if they were astride pogo sticks. Pogo sticks, however, don't reach heights of 30 feet. Nor can they crush you should you fall beneath them. The Supercross circuit, which runs from January to June, is punishing and dangerous, and many of the top riders approach the sport with all the frivolity of Benedictine monks.
McGrath's outlook is somewhat more carefree. This is a young man who once spent the day before an important race jumping over milk crates on a bicycle. He is equally freewheeling in his other endeavors. An avid golfer, McGrath may be struggling to raise his game, but he and his buddies have already taken the equipment to new heights.
"We take the limiters off the golf carts and jump them," says McGrath. "Golf clubs go flying off the back." He shrugs, then grins. "If you concentrate and worry yourself to death about things," he says, ' "how can that be fun?"
While some might prefer that he take a more moderate approach—when McGrath, who rides for Honda, uncorked his first nac nac, team officials nearly burst a collective blood vessel—no one can argue with the results. In his first two seasons on the Supercross circuit McGrath has held sway over the 250cc class like no other rider before him. In 1993, his rookie year, he won a record 10 of 16 races. This year he won nine of 15 stadium events. He might have won more had he not been hampered by bad luck (a flat tire in Seattle) and other mishaps (collisions in Dallas and San Jose) before he ended the season in Las Vegas on June 11 by thumping all comers while performing his signature mow in the desert sky.
After two seasons McGrath finds himself nine wins short of Rick Johnson's record 28 career wins, which took Johnson six years to amass. "What he's done is phenomenal," says Johnson, 30, now retired from Supercross and racing off-road pickup trucks. "Jeremy has done to Supercross what Mike Tyson did to boxing—he walked in and just destroyed everybody."
McGrath started riding motorcycles at five—his first bike was powered by a lawn mower engine. When he was 14 his father, Jack, took him to see a local race. Watching intently, Jeremy turned and said, "Dad, I can beat these guys." A few weeks later he did precisely that. Racing in the beginner class in Paris, Calif., he lapped most of the field. The next time out he placed third, to his surprise, in the more challenging novice class, Overexcited, he had gone off in the wrong heat. "I just lost it," he says. "Once you move up in class, you can't go back down." Not that there was any reason to; within two years McGrath turned professional.
If he continues his pace, McGrath will surpass Johnson's career-win record next year—the motocross equivalent of performing the 12 Labors of Hercules before lunch. And some do believe McGrath possesses otherworldly gifts. "He can do things other people won't even attempt," says Johnson. McGrath is somewhat defensive about this, citing a fairly rigorous work ethic. Still, he would sooner show you a new set of golf balls than discuss his training schedule.
He holds out the box. The balls, which are made by Dunlop—one of McGrath's sponsors—bear the goofy cartoon visages of Nintendo's Mario Brothers. "Pretty cool, huh?" he says. "Whenever I can, I get golf balls from them."
On other fronts, too, McGrath is typical of guys not long out of their teens. Should he break Johnson's record, for example, he may want to do some tidying up at home; most of his Supercross trophies hunker by the front door of his house as if massing for a quick exit. He agrees that he needs to buy a trophy case, but that could prove to be a chore for a man whose dining room is furnished only with a heavy bag and a stereo. He walks into his bedroom, picking his way around scattered suitcases and hummocks of clothing. "My room's trashed." he says apologetically, "but my closet's pretty clean."
McGrath's bedroom may be messy, but when he is astride a motorcycle, everything is in order. Supercross's looping tracks are designed with fans and chiropractors in mind. One crowd-pleasing section of track—often referred to as Whoop-de-dos—includes a series of two-foot-high bumps spaced between two and three feet apart. During races, which cover 20 laps and last roughly 20 minutes, riders hit this section and other slam-bang features dozens of times. McGrath whips around the track as if it were freshly laid blacktop, his turns smooth, his jumps precise, his approaches fearless.
Such cool has its history. When Jeremy was seven months old, his mother, Ann, and his dad would ride their motorcycles on the beaches and trails near their house in San Francisco. Jeremy would ride along, his chubby legs straddling Jack's gas tank.
"One minute he'd be sitting up on the tank holding on to the crossbar," says Jack, who owns an auto repair shop in Menifee, Calif. "The next thing you know, he'd be lying back in your lap, asleep."
Apparently Jeremy's urge for big air also goes back a ways. By the age of six he had already jumped off a six-foot cabinet, working his way up to the roof of the family's house. "He thought he was Superman," says Ann, who keeps the books at Jack's shop. "He's never been afraid of much."
His roof vault cost him just a few bits of tongue, thanks partly to the fact that the McGraths lived in a single-story house. Now that their son regularly descends from far greater heights, Ann and Jack can only hope for the best. By motocross standards Jeremy has gone relatively unscathed—his most serious injuries have been a broken leg, a twisted knee, bruised ribs and a separated shoulder. There have, however, been close calls. Leading in a race in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1991, he crashed on the backside of a jump. By the time he squirmed out from under his bike and started running for the side of the track, the trailing riders were vaulting the jump. One struck McGrath broadside and sent him flying through the air. He escaped with only bruises and some short-term mental wobbles.
"We realized he had a concussion because he kept asking the same questions for 25 minutes," says Ann. " 'Where am I?" and 'Did I win the race?' "
Even in an addled state McGrath remains focused; his aim is to become the best rider Supercross has ever seen. Well on his way, he is under mounting expectations and pressures. Yet he is unconcerned. Securing a place in history is certainly important, but there's also the matter of more immediate gratification.
"Oh, yeah," he says, smiling. "Plenty of big air, for sure."
Ken McAlpine has written several stories on motor sports for Sports Illustrated.