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Celebrity Drive: Sugar Ray Lead Singer Mark McGrath

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 4/14/2015 K.S. Wang

Quick Stats: Mark McGrath lead singer Sugar Ray
Daily Driver:2015 Cadillac XTS (Mark’s rating: 10 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Favorite road trip: Newport Beach to Vegas
Car he learned to drive in: 1981 Mazda 626
First car bought: 1998 Chevy Tahoe

Sugar Ray lead singer Mark McGrath has always been a fan of the Cadillac brand and considers it a piece of Americana. In fact, his second tattoo was the Cadillac logo. These days the rocker is driving a 2015 Cadillac XTS, which he rates a perfect 10.

“It’s the greatest car,” he says. “I love Cadillacs, especially this one. It drives like a dream.”

McGrath says he’s also more used to Escalades, which he’d driven for the past dozen years. “It was something I wouldn’t even think of 10 to 15 years ago, but now I’m like, ‘My back hurts; it sits too low,’ ” he says. “I’ve driven Escalades since they’ve come out. I’m a Cadillac guy. I’m not a performance-car guy. Never have been.”

Despite his years of driving Escalades, McGrath decided he was ready for something different when the most recent Escalade came out. “There was a premium on the new Escalade, so everybody freaks out, wants the new model,” he says. “I’m getting in line behind Master P and everybody else, so I’m like, ‘Maybe it’s time to move to a sedan. Let’s have something a little zestier and a little more of a fun driver.’ That’s why I went with the STS. It’s the smoothest car you’ll ever drive.”

That hallmark Cadillac smoothness is a trait McGrath appreciates. “This is seriously like putting a steering wheel on a cloud and driving down the street,” he says.

2014 Toyota Sienna
Rating:
10

The XTS is the date night car, but McGrath also has a family car, which he gives equally high marks (a 2014 Toyota Sienna is shown here). It might be a bit surprising to see a rocker singing the praises of a minivan, and McGrath and his wife held on to driving SUVs for as long as they could. “We said, ‘We’re not going to be the minivan couple — forget it!’ ” he says. “Then we had twins and we dealt with getting them in and out of car seats in SUVs with our ass cracks hanging out. We’re like, ‘Alright, we’re done.’

He appreciates the minivan’s family-oriented utility. “They are so functional; they make my day easier as a parent,” he says. “They’re a lot better drivers than they used to be, and there’s a lot of amenities in these minivans. They’re the greatest purchase I’ve ever done. Ironically, it’s probably the best car I’ve ever driven for the situation I’m in.”

McGrath likes the conveniences the Sienna offers and gives a description befitting a TV commercial. “When I’m 10 feet away, I hit a button, both side doors open, my kids jump in, and they’re sitting in their seats and buckling themselves in before I can even hit my driver’s door,” McGrath says. “ Toyota went to a bunch of parents and said, ‘What is your problem as a parent driving your kids around?’ And some engineers who are parents sat in this van, and from the cupholders to the defrost buttons to how the seat buckles goes on and off to how the doors open to how it drives, are all parent-approved and child-friendly.”

The Sienna gets a perfect rating from this rocker dad. “For the 23-year-old Mark McGrath driving down Sunset Boulevard, it’s a zero,” he says. “For 46-year-old Mark McGrath living with two kids in Studio City, it’s a 10. It’s all relative. Though it drives very well and it’s very smooth, it ain’t going to get you a lot of chicks cruising down Sunset. This is for the guy who’s already got the chick. As far as cars, they’ve got to be functional for me and my lifestyle. I’ve never been one to go, ‘Look at me! I’m driving this!’ ”

Despite his newfound respect for minivans, McGrath’s love for Cadillac goes deep. “I’m kind of a cruiser — I like the classics,” he says. “I had a 1968 Coupe DeVille before, which I loved dearly, and we even wrote a song about it called ‘Mean Machine’ on our first record. They’re a piece of Americana.”, I wish I had that thing, AM radio. It was beautiful.”

He got rid of the classic car when he moved to the Hollywood Hills, where there wasn’t a lot of parking. “It’s one of those cars that really needed to be preserved,” he says. “I had no garage, and I didn’t want to leave it on the street. I actually sold it to a friend of mine for a rock-bottom price, and I wish I had it now because obviously they don’t make those things anymore. You don’t see a lot of them on the road anymore.”

McGrath recalls how much attention the classic Cadillac got. People would stop him to talk about it and share stories about their grandparents’ old Cadillacs. “That car turned more heads than a Ferrari GTO — it really did — because it was just such a classic,” he says. “And this ugly pea soup-colored car, it was all original, and the interior was beautiful.”

McGrath says the Cadillac brand is iconic. “Most people have a story about a Cadillac,” he says. “And it’s fun to hear them, especially when you’re driving those old drivers. People know what I’m talking about. If they’ve ever had a classic Cadillac, they are conversation pieces to say the least.”

McGrath got his Cadillac tattoo when he had his DeVille. “I love Cadillacs, I love America, and it’s a strong symbol of Americana,” he says. “I got it on my hip, a pretty big tattoo. When you see the Cadillac logo, to me it feels like home, and it always has. Even before I drove. Growing up in Newport Beach, I saw a lot of those and Mercedes, and I was always just more inclined to be impressed by the Cadillac logo. And luckily the car has delivered as I became a consumer.”

Car he learned to drive in

McGrath learned to drive in a 1981 Mazda 626 that he and his older sister shared. “Her deal was she’d take me to school every morning, and then we would share it when I became of age,” he says. “I got to drive it for a little bit, and I think I got in trouble, which I was wont to do back then. I maybe didn’t deliver grades-wise, and my sister got to take it to college, and then we never saw the car again. It blew up.” The cause? “She took it to college and forgot that you had to put oil in it. Those were the days. If you didn’t take care of your car, they didn’t have the same resistance and tolerance. They really needed to be babied a little bit.”

McGrath says it was easy learning to drive because it was an automatic, likening it to motorcycles. “I tell people, ‘If you ever need a motorcycle license, don’t do it on a motorcycle; do it on a Vespa,’ ” he says. “There’s no gear shifts. You take the same test, whether you’re taking a 1968 Harley chopper or a Vespa automatic. You’d think they would differentiate between the two, but you get a Vespa that’s automatic. People should probably be qualified to ride motorcycles on the street, but if you want to add a little something to your license, take a Vespa to your motorcycle license test.”

Growing up in Southern California, McGrath was surrounded by car culture. “When I was 16, I was fearless,” he says. “Nothing scared me. I couldn’t wait to get on the freeway. Driving came pretty natural to me, and I’m not a speed demon. I don’t push it. I don’t break laws, so I was able to stay within the framework of legalities. I’ve never had a speeding ticket in my life.”

First car bought

“The first car I bought with my own money was a 1998 Chevy Tahoe; two-door black Tahoe I still wish I had,” he says. “I loved that car. I bought that outright because my credit was terrible. I came into a little money with Sugar Ray. Leasing wasn’t an option, and this was my way to build back my credit. So I bought this. I financed this beautiful black Chevy Tahoe. I loved that car. It was in the family for a long time, and my wife ended up driving it.” He sold it about seven years ago.

The first thing McGrath bought when Sugar Ray got big was a Rolex watch. The Tahoe was the second big purchase. “I think I got a check for five grand; the watch cost $4,800,” he says. “I mean, come on. You’ve got to do dumb things when you first get some money. The brand new Chevy — this was like, ‘OK, I’m going to have some money coming in for a little while now. Alright, I can afford some payments. I can finance something. I’ve actually got an income statement.’ ”

Driving the new Chevy gave McGrath a sense of ownership and accomplishment. “It came through the band that a lot of people doubted,” he says. “Driving around, smelling a new car — I worked for this. I remember making my last payment, and I got the pink slip. I really do regret selling it. We didn’t have a place for those Chevy two doors. They’re workhorses.”

McGrath was sad the day he sold it. “It’s funny — I get emotional thinking about it,” he says. “One of the best times in my life — it was defining who I was as a person. My wife and I solidified our relationship in that car. It was like getting rid of a family member.”

Favorite road trip

McGrath says he’s been around the country about 30 times in a tour bus, but his favorite road trip memories are from when he was around 18 to 20 years old.

“This is going to sound crazy now, but for some reason at 11:30 or 12 at night, we’d think it’s a good idea to drive out to Las Vegas from Newport Beach, California,” he says. “We’d get the guy who was most sober, or sober, and we’d all be out there like, ‘Vegas, Vegas, Vegas!’ and halfway out there we’d be like, ‘Vegas Vegas Vegas, Vegas!’ ”

He says by the time they got there his friends would always have to wake him up. “So the road trips were just mellow because they were a product of my ignorance and stupidity, but the nostalgia for being young, that really manifests those memories,” he says. “Those late-night drives to Las Vegas, being stupid, rolling the windows down at 3 in the morning and blasting rap and Metallica. Those were fun times. Road trip to Vegas!”

Sometimes they’d get there and fall asleep and then regroup. They never had money for a hotel for the night. “We were young,” he says. “We just drove out there. So we’d sleep in a parking lot for an hour, go in the casinos, use our fake IDs, gamble, lose all our money, and be on our way home eight hours later, hung over and depressed. That’s just the stupidity and the naiveté and the joy of youth — ‘Let’s go to Vegas!’ We had no plans. ‘Let’s just get in the car and go.’ ”

There were so many adventures to Vegas, and each one was different. “Sometimes we got lucky and met some girls who had a suite,” he says. “We never had a plan. The car was our way to get out to Vegas.”

McGrath’s Vegas wasn’t the city we know now. “Vegas then was this wonderland,” he says. “It was a land of enchantment, of mystery and intrigue. It was still a little bit of the Wild West, and the drive was gnarly because you were doing a lot of desert back then. Back then none of us had cars that were reliable, and none of them had insurance, and registrations were out. You felt a little bit like thieves in the night. It was just exciting. It was exhilarating.”

2015 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity Race

McGrath is competing for the first time in this famous annual Long Beach celebrity race on April 18. He’s on the grid against the Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzeznik, actors Joshua Morrow, Mekhi Phifer, Robert Patrick, and Nathan Kress, and returning ones such as Dara Torres, Alfonso Ribeiro, Rutledge Wood, and Brett Davern.

When he was first asked, McGrath didn’t want to do it. He wasn’t into racing. “Immediately when I was asked to do this, I was like, ‘Absolutely not, are you crazy? There’s no way I’m doing that!’ ” he says. “Then I went, ‘Of course I have to do that.’ How do you not try this experience that you couldn’t pay for, and it benefits such great children’s charities. I’m like, ‘I’m in.’ So doing things that terrify you? Scratch that off my bucket list.”

Just being part of this has been a unique experience. “There couldn’t be a person less qualified to race in this Grand Prix than me,” he says. “I can maybe name two NASCAR drivers, zero Grand Prix drivers. But that’s what I want to do at this part of my life, expose myself to things I’ve never done. Things that were counterintuitive to me, I want to start trying.”

McGrath is passionate and delivers each sentence with energy, and it’s easy to picture him the same way behind the wheel on race day even though he knows he probably won’t make the podium. “These celebrity races, 95 percent of the people have either done it before or won the race,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of people that are going, ‘I’m a first timer! How does this work?’ I’m that guy. I’m the Wanda Sykes of this year.”

When it came time to train at Willow Springs, his ability with a manual transmission was sufficient. He’s never owned a manual, but he’s familiar enough to make it work.

“Am I really a great stick shift driver? Absolutely not,” he says, “but I can make the car go, and that’s what’s important. On these tracks you’re not shifting as much as professionals, and it’s not as much as some of the really good guys in the celebrity race, like Alfonso Ribeiro, Josh Morrow, Dara Torres. These guys and girls, they know how to shift in perfect corners and all that.”

He says what’s been giving him more difficulty at race training with Danny McKeever’s Fastlane Race School is doing things that are counterintuitive.

“You’re going into a corner, and normally if you’re going too fast, you want to lay off the gas,” he says. “Here you want to step on it to bring the car down and have more traction. So the racing part is giving me more difficulty than the stick part, but the whole thing is hard for me. I’d never been involved in a lot of things where I absolutely cannot win. This is something I absolutely cannot win.”

But McGrath feels learning these new skills at Willow Springs has helped his day-to-day driving. “Every corner I make now, every turn I make is like — am I making it on the apex?”

He’s noticed racing makes you focus on the present moment. “They all say it becomes a drug,” he says. “You become obsessed by it and you dream about it. It’s so exhilarating. And when you’re racing, you can’t think of anything else in the world. I’ve never been involved with something where you’re so in the moment.”

McGrath surmises it must be like what Buddhists or Zen monks feel. “You are so in the moment, you can’t think of anything else but the car and the road in front of you,” he says. “People take drugs to do that, to get away from your life and to be involved in something that is absolutely the most exhilarating thing in the world. I’m in a rock band. I’ve done a lot of fun things, believe me. I haven’t done anything more fun than racing a car. I am hooked. It’s so much fun.”

Even though McGrath rides motorcycles, which have a similar in-the-moment effect, he says racing is a different thing altogether. “When I’m riding a motorcycle, I’m at my own speed, I’m at my own pace,” he says. “When you’re racing, you’re out of control the whole time. I don’t care what anybody says. If you’re not out of control, you’re not trying. I’ve got the bug, but it’s an expensive sport. Am I going out there next weekend and buying a team? Absolutely not. It’s expensive.”

Like many who participate, such as Wood, who enjoys being invited back, McGrath already says he would love to return next year. “I definitely would be honored, and I definitely will be following the Grand Prix now,” he says. “They’ve made a fan out of me for sure, and everybody I’ve met who’s in the race — I was a fan of everybody anyway, but to meet the people behind the façade and the fame and all the accolades, that’s been the most rewarding.”

Even just hanging out at training sessions at Willow Springs, McGrath says he’s met some of the nicest people who are involved with this race.

“I’ve made some friends that I hopefully will have for life, and the instructors that teach this course are some of the finest human beings I’ve ever met,” he says. “Danny McKeever, Dan Jr., Steve, and Jim, all of them. Rita and the whole staff and team at Toyota that’s behind the PR and marketing are some of the sweetest, kindest, most helpful people. It’s been an honor. We’ve only done the training part, but man, that’s been one of the most pleasant surprises — meeting some people I’ll hopefully know the rest of my life.”

For more information about the race, and to buy tickets, visit www.gplb.com.

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