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The Fabulous Four of Supercross

By Brett Smith

A breakdown of the exclusive club of Supercross greats to own the all-time wins record.

When LeBron James took over the NBA scoring record on February 7, 2023, after 39 years of ownership by Kareem Abdul Jabar, I wondered: how many different riders have owned the top spot on the all-time Supercross wins list?

Four. Five depending on how much you want to fight for Marty Tripes’ legacy.

Eli Tomac was three years old on June 3, 1995, the day Jeremy McGrath passed Ricky Johnson as the winningest rider in Supercross history. He didn’t yet have his first motorcycle. Ken Roczen was 13 months old. Cooper Webb, Chase Sexton and Jett Lawrence weren’t even alive.  

McGrath has been the wins leader for so long it’s hard to remember who came before him. The list is thin but within its details is a bit of lost history.

It might seem a waste of time to discuss a record that has little chance of being topped for many years. Eli Tomac, however, is making the list’s biggest shakeup since James Stewart started the 2014 season with 45 wins and ended it with 50. Ricky Carmichael had owned second on the list since February 1, 2003, when he won his 29th main event. He extended that total until 2007 when he retired with 48 wins.

All-Time Wins Leaders: Wins vs. Career Main Events Raced.

All-Time Supercross Wins Leaders
All-time SX wins leaders (wins vs. career main events started). Charts built and provided by Fowlers Facts

When Stewart won the Toronto Supercross in March 2014, he took over second on the list. Suggesting that Jeremy McGrath’s record of 72 wins came into focus that night in Toronto might just be some convenient hindsight but saying that Stewart’s 50th career win would also be his last would have gotten you a slap across the face. That’s the cruel reality of racing. It can take years to realize the winning ended long before.  

For Tomac, 50 wins and beyond is sharply in focus. Tomac’s march toward Stewart’s spot on the list, however, coincides with what he said before the season started, that this would be his final year of chasing championships. But when he got off to the best 450SX season start of his career – four wins in the first six races – he just laughed when asked if he is really going to retire. To pass McGrath’s record of 72, however, Tomac would likely have to compete through the year 2027 (based on a modeling of Eli’s career 31% win rate).

The names in the titles below are the all-time Supercross wins leaders followed by the span of their reign.

Jimmy Ellis’ AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Induction Video

Jimmy Ellis: March 1975 – April 1978 (8 wins)

Who was the first two-time winner in Supercross history? Was it Marty Tripes, who won the 1972 and 1973 Super Bowls of Motocross? Or was it Captain Cobalt, Connecticut’s Jimmy Ellis who won all three rounds of what was called the 1975 ‘Yamaha Super Series’, a three race, late winter sprint held on consecutive weekends in Dallas, Daytona and Houston? That July, he even won the Super Bowl of Motocross in Los Angeles, a non-series, non-points paying event that does count as a Supercross main event win, but makes this part of the sport’s history messy, awkward and unpleasant, especially for die-hard Marty Tripes fans.

Jimmy Ellis, 1975
Jimmy Ellis won all four events of the 1975 Yamaha Super Series, what we now know as Monster Energy Supercross. Photo: Dick Miller

Nobody said being a pioneer was easy and 16-year-old Tripes certainly did something special by going 2-2-2 to win the overall of what is considered to be the Genesis of Supercross racing in America, the 1972 Super Bowl of Motocross in the Los Angeles Coliseum. He repeated in 1973. 

It’s no coincidence that the sport will hold the first finale of the SuperMotocross World Championships in that same venue 51 years later. The roots of Supercross are in the Coliseum but the earliest races held there were not part of a championship. State your case in the comments but what can’t be argued is that the championship era of Supercross racing began in 1974. That year, three different riders won the three races: Pierre Karsmakers, Jim Pomeroy and Jaroslav Falta. And Falta’s win was 1974’s version of the Super Bowl of MX.

By the end of 1975, Ellis was a four-time winner and the all-time Supercross wins leader. In 1975, however, this accolade went unnoticed or unrecognized. Maybe the sport was too young to think in these terms. It wasn’t even called Supercross then. So, if Marty Tripes is rankled that he’s not being properly recognized as the original all-time Supercross wins leader, he can take solace in the fact that Jimmy Ellis never got recognition for it either. Until now.

Bob Hannah, 1978
Bob Hannah gathers his thoughts before a 1978 Supercross main event. That’s Marty Tripes behind him.

Bob Hannah: Apr. 1978 – Feb. 1989 (27 wins)

Bob Hannah won the 1977 SX championship and took over as the all-time Supercross wins leader in the middle of 1978, just his second full season in the sport.

Again, nobody noticed. Nobody wrote about it, nobody documented it, nobody mentioned it. And it only took Hannah 19 races to do it. Riding for American Honda, Ellis won the 1978 Toyota Supercross Series opener in Seattle, the eighth and, ultimately, final win of his career. Hannah, who looked sluggish in the first three rounds of ’78 took third behind Honda’s Tripes. He went 3-12-4 in the first three rounds and frustratingly watched Honda riders run away with the series.

All-Time Wins Leaders: Wins vs. Years.

All-Time Supercross Wins Leaders
All-time SX wins leaders (wins vs. career span). Chart built and provided by @fowlersfacts

At rounds four and five, a double-header in Houston Hannah woke up and swept the weekend. “I was just doing too many other things in the off season – stuff like hunting and fishing – and I wasn’t riding,” he told reporter Jim Gianatsis in response to his slow start. “With the three month layoff, I just got lazy and it was really hard to get going again.”

Hannah was 19 points down to Tripes after Houston and did something that went completely undocumented that night: he tied Ellis for most all-time AMA Supercross main event wins. The benchmark was just eight victories.

The chances of a back and forth tussle over the all-time wins leader title ended in Houston, unfortunately. Ellis dislocated a shoulder on night two when he locked bars with another rider and got tossed over a concrete barrier. Tripes took second both nights, giving him 2-1-1-2-2 finishes to start the 11-round series. But Honda left Houston with their heads bowed. In addition to the loss of Ellis, Marty Smith dislocated a hip.

Two weeks later, in Pontiac, Hurricane Hannah landed again. On Saturday evening, he won his ninth career main event and his 10th on Sunday. With Ellis out of the action, the record was securely Hannah’s but, again, in a sport that had no history outside of that decade, it wasn’t something anyone tracked.

By the mid-1980s, Hannah was definitely known as the winningest rider in motocross history, but nobody separated out his Supercross wins specifically, which topped out at 27 when he won the 1985 Daytona Supercross. The next closest active rider at that point was Mark Barnett, who won the Atlanta Supercross just two weeks earlier. That became the Bomber’s 17th and final win.

Even when Hannah pulled himself out of a two-year-long drought and won the 1981 Pontiac Supercross, the number ‘19’ wasn’t in the news. When Hannah won the 1984 Pontiac Supercross, Tom Konowlski made space to say it was the ninth time Hannah won inside the Silverdome, but not that he’d extended his career win total to 26.

Rick Johnson: Feb. 1989 – June 1995 (28 wins)

When Ricky Johnson won the Seattle Supercross – his first – on February 12, 1984, Bob Hannah was still adding to a collection of main event victories that seemed impossibly far off. Almost five years to the day later, Johnson won the 1989 San Diego Supercross and pulled even with Hannah’s final Supercross total of 27 wins.

The record finally had some recognition but Johnson seemed nonchalant about it when he spoke to Cycle News. “It’s just another record for someone else to break; it doesn’t stand, but the moment does.”

1986 Anaheim Supercross. Rick Johnson only had three SX wins at this point in his career. Three years after this photo was taken, he was just a couple of wins away from the all-time wins record.

As Johnson collected his fourth consecutive win of the season and tied the record, a 17-year-old privateer evaluated his own performance that night. He finished 10th in the 125cc Western Regional class, a disappointing result, considering he stood on the podium a week earlier in Seattle. His share of the purse in Seattle was only $400.

After four supercross races in 1989 – the first four of his career – he still wasn’t sure if his life could center around racing dirt bikes. After San Diego, Jeremy McGrath drove his little pickup truck back to his parent’s home in Sun City, California and waited for the supercross series to come west again.

A week later in Miami, on a track so sandy and nasty, it looked like a hurricane off the Atlantic created it, Johnson came back from a mid-pack start to lead a Honda sweep of the podium (Jean-Michel Bayle and Jeff Stanton). He’d won five straight races and seemed unstoppable. And he now stood alone as the all-time Supercross wins leader. This time he seemed more upbeat about the record.

The 1989 Miami Supercross

“It makes me feel unreal,” Johnson told ESPN’s Gary Bailey. “My only goal now is to make the number as high as possible so the young guys coming up can’t catch it.” It did not get extended at the next round in Atlanta when Johnson fell while battling his teammate Jeff Stanton. That night, Stanton won his first of 17 career main events.

And then, disaster. Danny Storbeck landed on Johnson’s wrist during practice at Gatorback MX Park, the opening round of the Pro Motocross season in early March. The Miami Supercross was the last main event win of Johnson’s career.

Jeremy McGrath, King of Supercross
Jeremy McGrath and Skip Norfolk (left) on May 20, 1995, the night McGrath tied Rick Johnson for most wins all-time (28) and Bob Hannah for most championships all-time (3).

Jeremy McGrath: June 1995 – Present (72 wins)

Ricky Johnson was almost two years removed from the sport when Jeremy McGrath won the 1993 Anaheim Supercross, the first premier class win of his career. McGrath knew what he wanted in life now but he didn’t expect to set a new single season wins record in his first year in the class. McGrath’s 10 wins in 1993 topped Damon Bradshaw’s nine wins in 1992, which had eclipsed Jean-Michel Bayle’s eight wins in 1991.

That domination continued for three straight seasons. And then some. On May 20, 1995, McGrath won the Cleveland Supercross and his third consecutive championship. “It really wasn’t a high pressure situation for me tonight. I knew that I would get the title tonight, so I just went out there and rode my own race,” said the three-time king of supercross.

Cycle News reporter Davey Coombs grabbed that quote above and he also attributed it to the ‘king of supercross,’ in what must be the first time that title had ever been used. “I’m going to come back next year even stronger than ever and win my championship again,” McGrath continued. “I figure I got three good years left in me and I’d like to set a record for wins and titles in a career.

On June 3, 1995, McGrath truly became the “King of Supercross” when he won the San Jose round, the 29th victory of his career. Skip Norfolk, McGrath’s longtime mechanic, wanted a piece of that history and he walked over to the finish line and asked if he could keep the checkered flag, which McGrath signed.

Jeremy McGrath, King of Supercross
Portrait of a King – Jeremy McGrath poses for the camera of Frank Hoppen

McGrath told Donn Maeda, that evening’s Cycle News reporter, that he wanted to hold on to the record “for a while”. When asked how high he thought he could go, McGrath said, “I don’t know, if I’m still having fun for three more years, maybe around 50? That would be pretty cool.”

McGrath raced full-time for another seven seasons, won four more championships and 43 more main events. When pressed to discuss what he did and what it means to him and to the sport, McGrath spoke with reverence but also a hint of the confidence that helped him win seven championships.

“When I sit here and focus on this, it’s unimaginable to think I that ever got to 72 wins,” he said in a phone call. “But when I got to 28 and 29 wins, I felt like I was just getting started. I find it hard to believe someone’s going to catch my record, but if they do, that’s pretty cool.”

When LeBron James and the new NBA scoring record comes up, McGrath responded with one of modern sport’s favorite comparisons: LeBron James or Michael Jordan? And he answered his own question in a way only a champion could:

“I wonder if LeBron would trade that scoring record for Jordan’s championships (Jordan won six NBA titles. James had four when this interviewed was conducted.

And that’s when McGrath mentioned how ‘sneaky’ Tomac’s rise up the all-time main event win list has been. After the 2019 Supercross season, Tomac hit eighth on the list, tied with Bob Hannah at 27 wins. Hannah’s career, however, ended with three championships. At that point, Tomac had zero titles. Tomac passed Bob Hannah, Ricky Johnson and Ryan Dungey on the all-time Monster Energy Supercross wins list without stirring up much attention. But that’s also dirt bike racing; nobody gets too excited for sixth, seventh or eighth place. It could also have been because Tomac pulled even with four-time champion Dungey (34 wins) during the 2020 season, while he was still fighting for that first title. The sum of the wins raised eyebrows but without championships, they held less meaning. When asked to analyze the list, McGrath is blunt: championships hold far more weight than wins.

Jeremy McGrath and Ricky Carmichael - 2001
Jeremy McGrath crosses the finish line just ahead of Ricky Carmichael at Round 3 of 2001. This was McGrath’s 72nd and final win. Frank Hoppen photo.

“If you have lots of wins but fewer-to-no titles than the guys behind you on the list, that might keep you awake at night,” he said. “I’m sure [Damon] Bradshaw gives it some thought. And I’m sure James [Stewart] does too.”

Where Tomac lands in the end is as much a mystery as why he finished fifth at the 2023 Tampa Supercross, one week after a steely victory in Houston, a night where his competition looked much stronger. The next rider with a plausible chance to stack a lot of wins is 23-year-old Chase Sexton.

Now in his third season, Sexton is far off McGrath’s pace at the same point in his own career. McGrath won 19 races in his first two seasons in the class. Sexton won one main in that same span. Statistics can be brutal.

“You have to dominate,” McGrath said of the formula to break his record. “That’s the entire playbook.” But he also mentions how unpredictable Supercross can be. “A week ago, I was sitting here thinking Eli could win 10 races this year! I’d never seen him be that fast of a starter.”

McGrath never expected Anaheim II in 2001 to be the 72nd and final race win of his career. He still seemed fast enough to win another 10, 15, 20 mains. Triples digits didn’t look out of reach. But the racing gods had other plans, just like they did for Ellis, Hannah and Johnson. Seventy two looks safe for a long time. But the possibility of it someday being eclipsed will always be fun to discuss.  

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