The Weight of Perfection
Words by Brett Smith | Photos by Aaron Brimhall
“At one level he’s a simple study in proportions, but at another he’s the expression of an ideal: a human figure whose body is the world, whose mind is its spirit, and whose being represents the power and order of the heavens brought down to Earth. His spread-eagled figure haunts the circular layout of Roman temples and cities, the full span of the globe, even the cosmos itself.”
—Toby Lester on Vitruvian Man from his book Da Vinci’s Ghost
Even the Vitruvian Man wasn’t perfect. Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic drawing is accepted today as a credible image of the ideal proportions of the human body. Based on the work of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, Vitruvian Man—a 13.5 x 10-inch pen-and-ink drawing circa 1490—represents the measure of all things. Da Vinci showed that a well-built man with arms and legs fully extended fits perfectly into a circle and a square. But da Vinci had to manipulate the shapes to make him fit. The center of the circle is positioned at his navel, while the center of the square is lower.
One spring day in 1996, the ideal man of supercross fell short of perfection, and the rest of the world won’t let him forget it.
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.
Gary Emig was excited. He thought his son’s bike looked faster coming out of the turns. Jeremy Albrecht didn’t understand how the elder Emig could eyeball something like that, but he didn’t question it because the mood at the Kawasaki truck was spirited. Despite being trounced by McGrath for 13 consecutive weekends, Jeff Emig still believed that he could win. Albrecht liked that about Jeff, and, being only 24 years old and in his first year as a factory mechanic, he did everything he could to please his rider and team. That week it was installing a power jet on Emig’s KX250, an electronic piece that shot fuel into the carburetor exactly when the engine needed it, typically when its fuel mixture was too rich. Albrecht said electronics were still very new in motocross and they had been testing the part for only two weeks. In practice, Emig had a minor get-off, but he was still upbeat; the track was rutted, the whoops—admittedly a huge weakness for him—were smaller and wouldn’t be much of a factor, and the support of family gave him good vibes. Emig remembers lining up in St. Louis with a tremendous amount of confidence.
“I was always emotionally motivated,” he says. “Having [family there] inspired me to feel like I was on a date with destiny. I’m funny that way.”
In Heat 1, Emig took a tight line around the left-hand first turn and led all eight laps, but had constant pressure from Yamaha’s Doug Henry. It was Emig’s fifth heat-race win of 1996. McGrath won Heat 2, but spent the entire race chasing privateer Phil Lawrence while both Mike Craig and Larry Ward took turns poking at the champ. With 150 feet to go, McGrath shot by Lawrence for the win, but since his total for the heat was 7:39.830, he was 1.6 seconds shy of Emig’s victory time and would be lining up second in the main event. Emig set the fastest heat of the night only one other time that season.
Two weeks prior to the St. Louis round, the AMA’s Duke Finch warned all the teams that parking at the new dome would be limited due to ongoing construction. Promoter Pace Motor Sports rented 14 loading-dock slots where the teams with 18-wheelers could park and work. Everyone else was advised to pack light because they would be pitted together inside an open area and had to carry in all their supplies. Team Honda was in their final season of operating out of box vans, and in St. Louis, Norfolk and McGrath set up their camp—a bike, toolbox, lawn chair, and gear bag—in the dank concrete underbelly of the stadium. McGrath was used to this type of setting from all the European races he’d attended, but in the States, with so much pressure building to earn a perfect season, Norfolk was uneasy because he didn’t feel like he was in control of his surroundings.
“We were standing there naked in a sense,”
Norfolk says. In addition to maintaining McGrath’s bike every week, he typically ran interference and tried to make sure his rider had the space and time to mentally prepare each night. As the win streak lengthened, the interview and appearance requests ballooned, as did the number of fans and friends stopping by for face time with McGrath. Coming into 1996, McGrath was already by far the most popular rider in the sport. By the end of the season, his dominance had earned him—and the sport—coverage in USA Today, appearances on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and “RPM Tonight,” exposure via local news stations and dailies along each stop, and even a moment on “Hard Copy.” The promoters were also reaching out to “The Tonight Show.” Showtime was in high demand and Norfolk was working overtime to make sure his rider had space throughout race day.
“It wasn’t up to McGrath to say no,” he says. “He was Superman. Saying no was my job. I just tied Superman’s shoes. That’s all I did. Jeremy had an unbelievable ability to focus and turn things off and on. He could mentally talk himself out of arm pump. That’s how strong he was.” The bike ran flawlessly in St. Louis, but Norfolk’s biggest regret from that night was not being able to create an environment where McGrath could mentally prepare. After the heat races, while Emig was sitting in the private warm lounge at the front of the Kawasaki trailer, studying film, McGrath was a sitting duck in the open-air paddock and was asked by Pace officials to meet with executives from Anheuser-Busch. They were trying to close the beverage giant as a series sponsor, and McGrath obliged. He left the paddock to walk, in full gear, to a room that he thought was nearby.
“That never happened,” McGrath says of the mid-program request. “It was a rare situation, but I’m a pleaser. I want to help everyone and then some.” The meeting was in a suite on the other side of the stadium. “It felt like 2 miles,” McGrath recalls. Moving around the most popular person at a gathering of nearly 40,000 is a painfully slow process, and by the time he came back to the bike, he had just enough time to change his gear before walking to the staging area for the main event. Norfolk didn’t get time to talk to McGrath about the bike or go over the heat-race film, and he was irked at himself for not trying harder to keep McGrath nearby. The promoters ultimately didn’t close the sponsorship deal, but six years later, Bud Light, an Anheuser-Busch brand, became the title sponsor of McGrath’s race team.
In the main, Emig had first gate pick, and McGrath, in a move that still baffles him, lined up to the inside of his rival. “I must have felt like I needed to be on the inside of Emig,” he says. “That wasn’t normal for me.” Since McGrath typically had the faster heat race, he was accustomed to seeing Emig line up to his left; he couldn’t control that. But when the roles were reversed, McGrath said he usually avoided being anywhere near Emig, who started well and had a tendency to drift out of the gate. Albrecht says that was often part of Emig’s strategy, and he was also puzzled when McGrath pulled into the inside.
“I remember races where Jeff would cut a guy off on the start on purpose because that was the only way he was going to beat him,” Albrecht says.
Because of moves like this, McGrath strongly disliked Emig. Although their relationship is cordial today, McGrath doesn’t edit himself when discussing his feelings toward the mid-’90s version of Fro: “His track etiquette was terrible. None of the riders like racing against him. He chopped everyone off.”
Norfolk believed that McGrath usually had 17 of the other 19 riders beaten before the gate fell. Mike LaRocco and Emig were the exceptions, and Emig remained hopeful even though he still hadn’t won a race over McGrath in his five years in the premier class. “I had it in my mind that he was beatable,” he says. “It was not easy to be rivals. I appreciate now, at age 44, the struggles and having an adversary and challenger that was such a great champion. As painful as it was sometimes, without that intense rivalry with McGrath, I might not have ever reached the success that I did have.” Before the 30-second card went up, Emig sat stone-still on his bike while McGrath clapped his hands, rolled his head in circles, and rubbed his forearms. ESPN hooked up a microphone to Norfolk’s team headset so the TV audience could listen in to anything he said to McGrath. After the bikes had fired up, Norfolk reminded his rider that he needed only a holeshot and four hard laps and then he could coast:
“You know who is on your right. You know where you need to be when the gate drops. Forget about your heat race.”
When the gate fell, Emig jumped out well and immediately shot to his left. Exactly as he did in the heat race, he hugged the inside of Turn 1 and rounded the bend in the lead. McGrath was about 10th around the first corner, but was fifth coming into Turn 3. He spent nearly the entire first lap trying to pass Ezra Lusk for fourth, and that was the last outright pass he made for the rest of the race. McGrath sat in fourth place until Lap 9, when Phil Lawrence, who was nipping at Emig for the lead, bounced awkwardly into a hay bale when he cross-rutted on a roller. On Lap 10, McGrath was third and trailing behind two of the most difficult riders to pass: Emig and Suzuki’s LaRocco, a rider who rarely started near the front.
By the halfway point, Norfolk was in the mechanics’ area with a knot in his stomach. The fact that McGrath had sat in the same position for almost half the race—a position that wasn’t the lead—was foreign to him. He could see that his rider wasn’t on the balls of his feet, was making double foot dabs in the corners, casing small double jumps, losing traction coming out of the turns, and not riding like a four-time champion. Norfolk recalls,
“That was not Jeremy out there. You could see it in how he rode. That’s what hurt the most.”
On Lap 12, the lead trio tightened up and McGrath blasted by LaRocco on the start straight when he picked up momentum in the corner after the finish line. LaRocco stayed close, pulled even over the triples, and McGrath glanced over from the inside. In the next corner, McGrath went for the middle of the 180-degree turn while LaRocco darted toward his front wheel. McGrath was slammed so hard by “The Rock” that both feet flailed off the pegs and he weaved to the other side of the track. LaRocco doesn’t remember the specific pass, but says, “Sounds like something I would have done.”
How McGrath’s night didn’t end right there is impressive. LaRocco then passed Emig in the same corner with a similar block, but led for only 150 feet. Two laps later, LaRocco hit Emig from the inside again, this time in a 90-degree corner, but came in at such a severe angle that his left leg popped off the right side of the bike. He remounted without falling, but McGrath swept by. McGrath had about six laps to pass Emig for the lead, but every time he came close enough to make a move, he’d case a jump or cross-rut and miss a double. The track was deteriorating and was heavily rutted and choppy. McGrath’s analysis is that Emig won a fair fight, but he feels that nobody rode very well that night. “It was a survival deal,” he says.
While being interviewed, Emig pulls up the race on YouTube and offers a different take. “I didn’t make any mistakes from what I can see,” he says. “I didn’t let the emotions of the race affect me in a negative way.” Today, Emig feels loss aversion—the economic theory that people prefer avoiding loss rather than acquiring gain—can sum up his entire supercross career: “I was riding good but conservative out front because I had something to lose…again. I had been in that spot so many times.”
For the final six laps, while McGrath yo-yoed in second place, Emig appeared not to notice what was going on behind him, but he says he’d be lying if he didn’t admit to keeping an eye on McGrath: “Why would you not? The guy has just won every race. Of course you’re looking out for him.”
After losing his first AMA race since July 30, 1995, McGrath remembers feeling relief, but he was pissed that it was Emig who beat him. He wanted it to be anyone but Emig. Even though he tried to downplay the pressure of the perfect season, in his 2004 book, Wide Open, he said, “It was starting to get to me.” One of McGrath’s greatest qualities as an athlete was that he was confident enough to expect to win every single race, but when he didn’t, he wasn’t upset. Expectations, he says, can sour a career, and he made sure that winning didn’t become a burden.
“At a certain point you get so tired of the expectations that you wish they would go away,”
he says of his observations of great champions in motorcycling and other sports. “You like winning, but you get tired of the expectations and retire. That’s about the only way that you can push the reset button.”
Emig didn’t win another AMA race until May 26, the High Point National. In 1996, the supercross and motocross seasons still overlapped, and Rounds 2 and 3 of the MX series fell between St. Louis and the final round of supercross in Denver. McGrath won all three of those races, and Emig still remembers being on such a high in Denver that he didn’t care where he finished. “That one victory in St. Louis meant the world to me. It’s just one race out of hundreds, but it’s a race that I am very proud of.”
The perfect season was over; Cycle News was finally off the hook from conjuring clever headlines and Fox didn’t have the pressure to keep designing creative butt patches about the streak (“Str8,” “9 Lives,” “Hang 10”). But for Norfolk and former team manager Dave Arnold—being employees of Honda—the pressure to win was always prevalent.
“If we didn’t win everything every day, even if it was a good excuse, I remember hearing about it,” Arnold says. “I’m not exaggerating. [Honda was] tough. They wanted to bitch slap the other manufacturers back in time.”
McGrath doesn’t remember feeling that pressure to be perfect, but the team personnel were careful to shield him, and he also won more races than he didn’t. Norfolk, however, was devastated after St. Louis and he remembers nothing in the seven days between the checkered flag and the morning of the Hangtown National outside of Sacramento, California. The week was a complete fog, and at Hangtown he was directed to park on a camber that required him to do some digging for his truck to be level. It was Sunday morning—race day—and he completely lost it. Standing in the sun with a shovel in his hand, he fumed at the fact that he was being asked to park on a hill in the first place. Why wasn’t there more-level ground?
“I felt like I needed to be perfect,”
he remembers, “and if I have to be perfect, everyone needs to be perfect. I remember losing it on a guy that was just trying to help me level my box van.”
By examination of the record books, the residual effects of the win in St. Louis were huge for Emig. The day before the final race in Denver, he did a video shoot with “MTV Sports,” an irreverent sports program that was interested in featuring the guy who finally beat McGrath. Emig went on to win 16 major AMA races through the end of 1997. He also won all three championships: the ’96 and ’97 250cc (now 450) Pro Motocross titles and the 1997 Supercross Championship. The next-highest win total was McGrath: nine wins, zero titles.
McGrath chuckles about how the race Jeff Emig is most famous for winning is the same race he’s most famous for losing. He doesn’t blame anyone but himself for what happened in St. Louis, and he doesn’t believe there’s a hole in his résumé. The man already called Showtime later became the King of Supercross, probably the most honorable title anyone anywhere could have bestowed upon him. But kings are still human, and for one night, even this symbolic monarch of sport couldn’t force the cosmos back into order.