On April 27, 1996, Skip Norfolk blew it. Almost 20 years later, he repeats himself ad nauseam in recounting one of the more sour memories in his career as a race mechanic for Jeremy McGrath.
"I didn't do my job..."
“I let the guy down…”
“I wasn't able to…”
“I failed him.”
McGrath only recently learned of this burden Norfolk has carried around for two decades. He had no idea his mechanic blamed himself for the 1996 St. Louis supercross loss, the only blemish in a season where McGrath won 14 out of 15 races, including a fourth consecutive championship. McGrath bristles at being asked to discuss the race. Although he’s most famous for his record seven championships and 72 main-event wins, when the 1996 season comes up, nobody asks him about how he dominated, or how he won Daytona for the first time, or led every lap in the wind and rain at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s always about the night that he took (sigh) second place. The philosophical argument about 1996 is this: What was more unusual, the fact that Jeremy McGrath had won the first 13 races or that there could be a night where he simply wasn’t the best rider?
“I made a career doing the things that people thought I couldn’t,” McGrath said. “I was fortunate to be good enough to where that type of race—where I got second—was a miserable race. That’s a weird thing to say.”
McGrath dominated the ’96 season, but, as with any sports streak, he caught some breaks. In Seattle, he rebounded from a poor start and was passed by Damon Huffman three times for the lead. Attempting a fourth pass, Huffman stalled his bike and couldn’t catch McGrath again. In Indianapolis, Jeff Emig led comfortably at the halfway point, but, in an unforced error, washed out in a corner. What-if talk won’t change history, but it can be fun for discussion. What’s certain is McGrath was not the best supercross racer that one specific night in St. Louis.
“So many things lined up wrong to go racing that day,”
Norfolk says today. None of the parties involved can offer a detail that specifically caused the outcome of this race, but in a season where nothing could go wrong for McGrath’s team, suddenly there was a series of minute details that collectively didn’t seem right.
Norfolk believes two types of spectators showed up that cool night at the end of April to what was then known as the Trans World Dome: those who wanted to see Superman triumph once more and those who wanted proof that Superman really was Clark Kent. St. Louis was the closest event Emig had to a hometown race in his professional career; raised 250 miles away in Kansas City, he bought a dozen tickets for family and friends, and the 36,717 spectators in attendance were clearly split in allegiance between the champ and the challenger. The 1996 race was the first-ever supercross in St. Louis, and the crowd was impressive considering that two other major sporting events were scheduled on the same day. Six-tenths of a mile to the south, an early-afternoon baseball game at Busch Memorial Stadium was played between the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals. At the same time as the gate drop for supercross Heat No. 1, the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and the Toronto Maple Leafs squared off 1 mile to the west in conference quarterfinal game six. With 20,777 fans, the Kiel Center was at 108 percent capacity.
Back in the Trans World Dome, as the first heat race of the night was lining up, 1983 AMA Supercross Champion David Bailey was banging on the walls of the press-box elevator while Art Eckman sat waiting for him in the television booth overlooking the stadium floor. Bailey, ESPN’s supercross analyst at the time, was stuck and alone, and the emergency phone was either out of order or yet to be installed; Bailey can’t recall. What he does remember is that he was involuntarily quarantined for 71 minutes and may have missed the start of the race had it not been for Eckman, who figured it out. After being evacuated from the broken lift by the fire department, Bailey was brought into the TV booth, where Eckman sat with a friend, a gentleman in his mid-50s wearing a blue button-down and gray slacks and who also happened to be wearing a studio headset.
“David, this is Bobby Cox,” Eckman said.
“Cool,” Bailey said as he tried to get into place, straighten his tie, and don his headset. Then he thought to himself, “Who in the hell is Bobby Cox?”
After the ESPN “Speedworld” opening sequence, the supercross telecast opened with Eckman introducing Bailey and special guest Cox, a casual supercross fan and the general manager of the 1995 World Series–winning Atlanta Braves. On air, Cox talked about how the 1982 Braves had also started their season with 13 consecutive victories, a record that has been matched since, but not broken.
“This streak here,” Cox said of McGrath’s own run of a baker’s dozen, “it almost seems impossible to me.” Cox, now a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, had accurate analysis, because three hours later his foreshadowing proved to be correct.