Don't underestimate Supercross racer Jeremy McGrath. Beneath the Gen-X getup—homeboy jeans, body pierces and the spiky hair that changes color with the seasons—beats the heart of a showman, not a slacker.
"I'm a big believer in image," says McGrath, 26 and sporting a near-natural brown 'do this spring. "It's gotten me a lot of attention." No doubt, but McGrath's real appeal is his unprecedented success. Since he started racing in the American Motorcycle Association's Super-cross series in 1993, he has won 51 races—almost twice as many as any other dirt biker—and four straight national championships, from '93 through '96. This season McGrath has won six of 11 events in which riders muscle 250cc dirt bikes around temporary courses built in arenas and has a 59-point lead (a win is worth 25; second, 22) on Kevin Windham in the standings.
None of which has escaped the notice of the swelling legions of Supercross fans. This year the series is averaging more than 50,000 spectators per race. " Jeremy McGrath has done for Supercross what Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt did for NASCAR," says Bevo Forti, a former mechanic and a 20-year veteran of the Supercross circuit. "Ten years ago our fans were motorcycle enthusiasts, but now we've added race fans who are into extreme sports."
A few years ago McGrath began winning by such wide margins that on the last lap he had time to perform Nac Nacs, his patented feigned midair dismounts in which he slings one foot over the seat and returns it to the foot peg before landing. Crowds went wild, and other riders soon imitated him. "You pay dearly out there if you don't do it right," he says. "Riders are going no hands and no legs just to get the fans' attention. I'm one of the tamer guys now."
McGrath has had, by Supercross standards, a long career, interrupted by only a few broken bones and torn ligaments. That's partly because he is so adept at handling his 215-pound cycle and because he works with a personal trainer who puts him through three hours of riding and two hours in the gym at least three days a week.
It's strenuous, soaring and bouncing on heavy machinery 28 weekends a year, and there is only one rider over 30 competing in Supercross this year, 32-year-old John Dowd. McGrath figures he has maybe three more years left racing dirt bikes, but he's considering a second career, in open-wheel auto racing. "I know I would have to devote myself fully to racing cars, but I love being an athlete," he says, pausing to consider the possibilities. "It would be a great way to keep my career going."