How Jeremy McGrath rescued a BMX trick from obscurity and brought it to Supercross.
Skip Norfolk started running. Watching from the ground level, he saw Jeremy McGrath go into the air with his right leg getting pulled off the back of the motorcycle but McGrath fell out of view before landing.
Jack McGrath clutched his chest. Sitting in the press box above the triples, he thought his son lost control of the bike.
Journalist Chris Jonnum looked around and wondered if anyone else witnessed what he thought he saw. He had a scoop and made a note to ask McGrath about it later.
Davey Coombs, watched from a metal end zone bleacher in Orlando’s Citrus Bowl. “I sat there in silent disbelief, my camera at my side,” he wrote in a Cycle News column published February 2, 1994.
In the afternoon practice session at round one of what was then called the AMA Camel Supercross Series, riders used their time to learn the course. Mike LaRocco and Mike Kiedrowski, Jeff Stanton and Jeff Emig probably made setup changes and calmed the butterflies associated with a new racing season. McGrath, the defending champion, tried out the new victory lap trick he planned to unveil that evening: the nac nac.
On the last lap of practice at the 1994 Orlando Supercross, McGrath jumped the press box triples. He briefly dismounted his Honda CR250, glanced over at a bank of empty seats, and quickly brought his right leg back to the foot peg. Nobody on McGrath’s team—not his father, his mechanic or his manager—got a heads up from the free-spirited 22-year-old. They all met him back at the Honda box van with looks of disgust.
“He comes back in all grins and I had zero emotion,” said Norfolk, McGrath’s mechanic. “If I was a cat, I lost three lives just then.” Jack McGrath had fury in his eyes but admonished his son in a fatherly manner: focus on winning races instead of trickery. Dave Arnold, Honda’s team manager pulled Norfolk aside and said, “The next time your rider wants to do some crazy trick, make sure he tells us! He came off his motorcycle in the air!”
When Norfolk calmed down he said to McGrath, “That was cool, what did you do?”
After months of backyard sessions with his old BMX racing pal Eric Carter, jump contests at European supercross races in late 1993 and a week in Oklahoma with Guy Cooper, McGrath publicly performed the nac nac for the first time in America, albeit in front of a mostly empty 65,000 seat stadium. Although the trick became the identity and avatar of the rider already called Showtime, it took weeks before the media properly identified it. At round two in Houston, Cycle Newsstill called it the “patented” leg-over-seat maneuver and ESPN’s Art Eckman called it the can can for several weeks. Don’t fault the motorcycle industry for being confused; in 1994 the whip still impressed beyond belief and nobody had seen motorcycle riders acrobatically dangling from their machines.
The Enchanted Ramp
What most people forget—or never knew—is the nac nac’s highly convoluted origins in the world of BMX. It traces back to the summer of 1987 on a nine and a half foot tall halfpipe in the shadow of an avocado tree in Leucadia, CA. Or, depending on who is asked, a group of rippers in Belfast, Northern Ireland first hucked it in the late 1980s. Either way, the trick popped up in the pages of BMX Action, which, along with BMX Plus, Freestylin’, Go and others, was the bible of the BMX freestyle movement. The young sport, created by Bob Haro, grew so fast in the mid-80s they couldn’t keep track of the tricks they invented. Riding sessions didn’t always have cameras present and those that did were called photo shoots. Today sessions don’t happen at all without several cameras rolling or snapping. Any new trick landed in the 1980s showed up in a magazine three months later and during that gap a dozen other riders may have already learned it.
In the summer of 1987 Andy McSorley was a 14-year-old grom happy to not be kicking stones in his backyard. Standing on the top of the Enchanted Ramp, the fabled private Leucadia, CA halfpipe that belonged to Ron Wilkerson, McSorley made a suggestion to Brian Blyther. One of the top BMX freestyle pros of the time, Blyther let McSorley tag along to the session. Then 19, Blyther could blast big airs and can cans that peaked well above the fence line.
“Have you ever tried to put your can can foot behind instead of in front?” McSorley asked Blyther. “He took two airs before he had it dialed and it was stylish.”
Blyther didn’t like the trick at first. Without forward momentum, the “back can” as BMX Actioncalled it when it published the first photos, was more of a step through, with the leg in motion passing behind the stationary leg. It lacked the swing out over the seat and rear wheel of the bike, which allowed the body to twist and play to a crowd of spectators. “It didn’t feel like it looked good,” said Blyther, who is now a Montclair, CA police officer. Blyther remembers the afternoon with McSorley well but the trick became just another part of his routine and not something that earned him any extra notoriety.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland…
In Belfast, a young rider named Will Smyth devoured magazines and hit ramps with his friends. They saw a photo of Blyther’s back can and started incorporating it into their dirt jump routines. With forward momentum on the dirt doubles, they learned to swing their legs out wide and whip the bike out in front. When Smyth saw a Spike Jonze photo of Cory Unger doing the trick in a Sept. 1988 issue of BMX Action– captioned as the ‘don’t don’t – he wrote to Editor, Craig “Gork” Barrette, and told him what he and his friends had been up to in Northern Ireland and that they called it a nac nac (can can backwards). “We were obsessive at the time,” said Smyth, who co-founded Dig magazine in 1993. More photos ran and finally, in the March 1989 issue, Smyth, by then a test rider for BMX Action, got a photo published of him pulling the contentiously named trick with the caption, “Nac nac. Who’s there? Will Smyth.” The name stuck.
Smyth feels major differences exist in the vert version of the trick compared to the dirt version he and his friends did but credits Blyther’s back can as his inspiration. The story could get more complicated, like trying to figure out who did the first one-hander over a motocross finish line, but the brightest signs point to Blyther as the nac nac originator, even if his vert ramp version is different than the dirt version. Blyther, who won the King of Vert title in 1987 and 1988, doesn’t care if he gets credit or not.
“I don’t go out trying to lay claims,” Blyther said. “It’s strange to me. Thinking back, it is a huge trick now. It’s McGrath’s staple trick but it wasn’t something that was an awesome trick for me to do in every run.”
What does all this BMX history have to do with Jeremy McGrath? When Blyther rode the walls in Upland, CA at a place called Pipeline, a young McGrath hung out at the fence after his BMX races ended. The nac nac came shortly after McGrath quit racing bicycles but he has vivid memories of watching Blyther, Eddie Fiola and Mike Dominguez blasting airs out of the pool and hucking huge can cans. McGrath said he loved to jump and built rhythm sections at home. For reasons he still can’t explain, he didn’t ride Pipeline on his bicycle as a youth. He loved watching but wasn’t interest in the scene; instead, he skateboarded at Pipeline because that’s what all of his friends did. He also had a quarterpipe in his garage, built by his dad and he skated in the drainage ditches near his home.
In the fall of 1993 McGrath finished up his first true full season as a professional motorcycle racer: 16 rounds of supercross, 12 rounds of motocross and the Motocross of Nations in Austria. During the downtime leading up to the ’93 FIM World Supercross races in November and December, he spent time riding with BMX racer and friend Eric Carter in the backyard of his parents’ Sun City house. McGrath loved play riding and working on his style and Carter remembers suggesting that he try a can can over the triples. “I have alligator arms,” McGrath told him. “I could never get my legs over the tank.” Then Carter suggested a superman but Jeremy didn’t like the idea of having both feet off the pegs.
Finally, try a nac nac. “How is that going to work?” McGrath asked. He had never tried that trick on a bicycle and, to this day, still hasn’t. The first one was very awkward because the spinning of the wheels, coupled with all the body weight coming to the left side of the bike, went against physics. Even after he brought the trick to AMA Supercross races he still felt like he fought the bike. Should he lean with or against the bike? If he tried to whip out the rear end (like he can now) would he be able to get it back? Comfort came over time.
Spectators at the 1993 Barcelona Supercross (November) saw the first public nac nac on a motorcycle. During an intermission jump contest, Guy Cooper wowed the crowd with his flat whips. Toward the end of the jam session he saw McGrath come off his motorcycle. “When you had never seen it before you think there’s going to be a big crash at the end of it,” Cooper said. “Like the first time you saw a backflip.” Cooper remembers the nac nac only getting a mild reaction from the crowd and McGrath didn’t finish in the top three.
The crowd wasn’t sure what he’d done because they were on his left side, which meant that his right leg came toward them and it made the maneuver appear less impressive. Cooper, opposite the crowd, was so blown away that he invited McGrath to Cooperland and they spent the week between European supercross races riding. On a pair of Suzuki DR350s—Cooper’s play bikes—they found a mild uphill triple jump with a forgiving landing and practiced the nac nac. The two took the trick back to Europe and went 1-2 in the next jump contest.
At the beginning of the new supercross season in America, while most riders focused on bringing down their lap times, McGrath sent a clear message to the field: 1993 wasn’t a fluke and I’m so comfortable right now I can make time to do tricks you’ve never heard of. “As a competitor, that’s not what you want to see,” said 1997 Supercross Champion, Jeff Emig. “How are you going to beat this guy? He can do anything on a motorcycle.”
“He wasn’t beating up on the other riders, it was a salute to the crowd and his fans,” Jack McGrath said. Jack had given Jeremy the nickname, “Showtime” and two-time Supercross Champion Ricky Johnson had provided a lot of flashy influence on the young McGrath. But to say Jeremy was actively searching for a signature move, a badge of identity, isn’t accurate. He just liked having fun. When freestyle motocross joined ESPN’s X Games in 1999, McGrath showed up on the shortlist of invites, according to Paul Taublieb then the Moto X sport organizer and co-director of “Unchained: The Untold History of Freestyle Motocross”. Taublieb wasn’t concerned that McGrath didn’t have lots of tricks. The negotiations never made it past McGrath’s manager and today McGrath chuckles at finding out about being courted. “I’m a one trick pony,” he said. “I would have declined.”
He may have been doing it for the spectators but others perked up as well when Jeremy showed that the motorcycle could be used as a tool for individual expression, not just a race machine. Two young men, Jon Freeman and professional snowboarder Dana Nicholson, were working on a video at the time. “Jeremy doing that nac nac definitely got our attention,” Freeman said. “We ate it up and wanted to film with him more.” Later that year they released their little project, “Crusty Demons of Dirt” and its cast of characters became cult heroes. Freeman co-directed the “Unchained” documentary.
“The nac nac certainly separated me from the competition in being different,” McGrath said. “That’s just the kind of person I am. I want to be different, different lines, different style, different path.”
And Down Under…
In Australia, a 15-year-old named Chad Reed tried the nac nac in his own backyard in 1997. Today, the two-time Monster Energy Supercross Champion does it regularly in celebration or opening ceremony introductions. While McGrath’s style and dominance appealed to Reed, he also saw something in the champ’s attitude and the way he carried himself.
“Even when he might have been struggling, he had this way of making it seem fun and everyone envied that, I think,” Reed said.
It’s interesting that the full history of a BMX trick gets told in a dirt bike context but that’s for two reasons: 1. The nac nac was a footnote of a trick in BMX, filler in a contest run. In the 1980s, new BMX tricks happened at every contest. 2. The nac nac had way more impact on motorcycling than it ever did in BMX. The bottom line: if it were not for Jeremy McGrath the history of the nac nac might never be told.
“We had no idea that the little session that went down in that Sun City backyard would transpire to what it did,” said Eric Carter, who witnessed the very first motorcycle nac nac. “But the same could be said about McGrath, really.”
Footnote: Nobody got a photo of the nac nac in the main event that night in Orlando. Pressured late in the race by Mike LaRocco, McGrath put his head down and focused on getting to the finish line. One week later in Houston, he did two nac nacs on the final lap of the heat race. Davey Coombs had his camera ready that day.
NOTE: Racer X Founder Davey Coombs took the featured photo at the top of the page at the 1994 Anaheim Supercross.
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