In the bustling pit area outside Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, a river of fans five wide snakes around the corner of James Stewart's trailer. It's a hot, dry, May evening, just hours before the final race of the 2009 AMA Supercross season. Most of the people hold posters of the motocross star, some wear the rider's No. 7 jersey. Seated at a table under a canopy, Stewart signs autographs and chats up fans, giving each a radiant grin. "You're my favorite rider!" says one. "My son loves you," says another. The scene has been repeated at every stop of the 17-race season.
Later tonight, in front of nearly 40,000 dirt bike fanatics, Stewart will fire up his Yamaha YZ450F and rip 20 laps around the dirt track in hopes of sealing his second Supercross title in three years. Stewart leads defending champ Chad Reed by six points in the season-long standings, and he'll solidify the championship if he finishes third or better. That will not be easy. First, Stewart must avoid the harrowing crashes that have derailed him in the past, a reflection of his ride-hard-or-go-home style of racing. At Daytona in March, for example, he locked up his front wheel at the start, slammed to the ground, found himself dead last, then finished seventh. He'll also have to negotiate his ongoing beef with Reed, which dates back to 2003 and has only intensified this season. Just a week before Vegas, following a race in Salt Lake City, Reed grabbed the back of Stewart's neck and began shouting, "I'm going to kill you." Reed was irate because the two had exchanged take out moves throughout the race, which Stewart ended up winning to set up tonight's run for the title.
Though it's not his primary focus tonight, Stewart always rides with an awareness of his place in moto history. Not only is he the sport's only African-American champ, he's also one of the fastest and most exciting riders of all time. Just 23, he has already notched 36 career victories in five seasons on the January-to-May, arena-course Supercross circuit, putting him far ahead of the pace set by any rider before him. And every win brings him closer to the career record of 72, amassed by the legendary Jeremy McGrath from 1993 to 2002. Until this year, the thought of anyone's sniffing at McGrath's mark was deemed heresy (the retired Ricky Carmichael is second, with 48). But if Stewart can avoid injury and continue his pace of recent dominanceeight wins in 2006, 13 in 2007, 11 in 2009 (he missed most of 2008 with knee problems)he'll shatter it. "That record will fall," Stewart says. "I'm going to make sure of it."
He's the fastest, most talented rider to ever get on a motorcycle. He's redefined the way people ride motorcycles.
Even if Stewart never breaks the record, it's -almost certain he'll boost the sport's Q rating by racing at the X Games. ESPN has tabbed him one of its showcase athletes for this year's 15th Games, where he's entered in the Supercross-style race called moto X super X and the dirt-street hybrid supermoto. As many as two million viewers will experience his kinetic blend of talent, charisma and showmanship live on moto's brightest stage. And if he defeats the likes of McGrath (who doesn't race Supercross anymore but still competes in the X Games and several other events), Reed and last year's dirt gold medalist Josh Hansen, he will join Shaun White, Travis Pastrana and Ryan Sheckler as another Main Street ambassador of action sports. But while White & Co. relish the attention, Stewart has long shunned the spotlight. As recently as 2008, his opponents considered him aloof and arrogant, not least because he had as much trouble talking to fellow competitors and fans as he did staying upright on his bike. But over the past year, Stewart has undergone a self-inflicted makeover. He's not only racing smarter, he's also learning to enjoy, even embrace, his celebrity status. "I don't want to be just another great rider," he says. "I want to be an icon."
He's well on his way. One sponsor, Red Bull, has featured Stewart in a national ad campaign. In March he signed a deal with Nike 6.0. Following the X Games, Stewart will pull a Sheckler and begin shooting a reality show for Fuel TV that will air in 2010.
"This is the year we've seen James mature into the man he was supposed to be," says Larry Brooks, his San Manuel Yamaha team manager. Stewart's annual take, a roughly 50-50 split between salary from his team and sponsorships, hits eight figures, putting him near the top of the action-sports scale (both Tony Hawk and White earn around $10 million annually). Whatever the financial ripples, Stewart is finally revealing a glimpse of the long-shrouded personality that, secretly, is fired by nearly as much octane as his riding. And that's saying a lot.
"He's the fastest, most talented rider to ever get on a motorcycle," says Pastrana, a nine-time X gold medalist in moto X best trick, freestyle and rally car racing. "He's redefined the way people ride motorcycles by inventing a new style of riding."
On the track, Stewart is a rare combination of vision, balance, reflexes, fearlessness and split-second decisionmaking. At 5'8" and 160 pounds, his success relies on instinct and agility rather than strength. While most riders excel in a particular section of a Supercross course, Stewart makes up time on every part. He carves corners with near-perfect lines and dances through rhythm sections with subtle shifts of his body and delicate blips of the throttle. Where others brake, he accelerates. He's also armed with the Bubba Scrub, a move he's been perfecting since he was a teenager, which cuts precious ticks off the clock on every big jump (see below). The maneuver is the equivalent of a new pitch that lowers the creator's ERA by a point. "I shake my head every time he does it," says Pastrana.
For years, though, the consensus approach to beating Stewart has been to wait for him to fall. And the strategy was sound. Nine times in his career he's crashed while leading, and he missed most of the 2008 season after tearing up his knee in a 2007 mishap. Yet it's his aggressiveness and willingness to take risks that separate Stewart from the packliterally. Here's a statistic that scares even the fastest riders: Stewart wins 95% of the races in which he stays upright. "I've never been afraid of anybody, and I will ride on the edge if I have to," he says. "Honestly, I don't think people want to deal with what it takes to beat me. Nobody is willing to go to that level."
Yet as fearless as he is on the track, Stewart has always been a loner off of it. He grew up in Haines City, Fla., a town of about 13,000 people 30 miles south of Orlando. Median household income: $27,000 a year. His father, James Sr., worked in a bottling plant; mother Sonya was a fast-food cashier. Stewart started riding a dirt bike at 3, and by 7 he was winning amateur championships and studying moto videos. As a teenager, he rode as much as 10 hours a day and took up homeschooling to create more time to ride. While peers worked after-school jobs and hung out in the basement, Stewart traveled the country to compete in nearly 100 races a year. "Socially it hurt me," says Stewart. "I was never asked to school dances or to do fun things by other kids. I was never cool enough to hang out with the 'in' crowd."
The loneliness spilled over into the pits. Stewart didn't know how to start conversations and feared those awkward moments when he was expected to chat with opponents. If he saw a rider approaching, he'd walk in the other direction or act busy. Once, in the stadium tunnel before a 2003 race in Anaheim, he became so overcome with prerace jitters that he vomited. The other riders laughed.
Stewart's willingness to scrap with competitors on the track didn't help him win friends either. In one 2003 race, Stewart slowed to let Reed pass, then shot back in front just to prove how easily he could retake the lead. Reed was not amused, nor were other riders when they heard about his etiquette breach. But Stewart didn't care what opponents thought, and even today he says of Reed: "If he were drowning, I wouldn't exactly throw him a rope." Stewart also tangled with Carmichael beginning in 2004, when the two started facing off, until 2007, when the five-time champ retired. Fans ate up the tussles and at times were rewarded with spectacular pileups. A crash during a 2005 race in Unadilla, N.Y., is considered one of the gnarliest in motocross history. Stewart flew off a jump and landed on RC's back, and both riders smashed heavily to the dirt (YouTube: "Bubba Stewart Ricky Carmichael"). RC jumped up, yelled at Stewart, flipped Stewart's bike off his own, then resumed the race. Stewart was knocked unconscious and could not finish.
Still, despite battles with other ridersor maybe because of themStewart won consistently from the start. In 2002 he turned pro and became the youngest rider to capture the amateur AMA 125 Motocross Championship (16 years, 247 days). Over the next three years he won 28 of 31 races before stepping up to the elite Supercross class. In 2006 he finished second to Carmichael in the overall standings, and the following year he won his first title.
Even Carmichael, despite their battles, gives props to Stewart's talent: "No one ever pushed me harder than James. I've just never seen anybody ride that fast and hard."
So why the makeover? And how has Stewart transformed himself from brooding biker to poster boy for the X Games party? The evolution has been largely a two-step process. First, Stewart proposed to girlfriend Brianna Chavarria (she said yes) late last summer. They met in 2003 when Stewart went to eat at a Mexican restaurant near Orlando. Chavarria was his server, and Stewart was smitten. They dated for two months before Stewart was outed as a moto star by Chavarria's neighbors, who were Supercross fans. Chavarria brings quiet balance to Stewart's life as a motocross celebrity.
The next step took place last fall, following Stewart's rehab from January surgery on his left knee and long after his cred as the fastest man on dirt had been established. It started with a silly idea, as these things do, and turned into a revelation. Stewart set up a video camera in his five-bedroom house in Haines City, strapped on a guitar, donned an Afro wig and danced shirtless while lip-synching to Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby." Stewart posted the footage on YouTube, uncharacteristically exposing his hidden Freak. "My first question was, 'Why?'" says Stewart's father. Junior's answer: "In my living room, with just a camera, no one can judge me. I don't have to wonder what people are thinking about me."
As raw and silly as any proper YouTube experience, the clip pinged around the motocross community. Result: Stewart's standoffish reputation thawed. Fans at races early in the 2009 season noticed he was smiling more; they responded by approaching him in the pits. "I feel like people finally started to embrace me," says Stewart. "That video was the best thing that ever happened to my career." Another video followed, this one a spot-on impression of Bon Jovi. It was shown during the opening ceremonies of a January AMA race at Reliant Stadium in Houston, and the crowd went bananas. The new James Stewart was in the house.
There's an old saying in motocross that sometimes you have to slow down to go fastersee the track, throttle back, reduce risk, keep the bike on two wheels. Stewart embraced that plan to the fullest during the race in Vegas.
On the third lap, he settled into second behind Ryan Villopoto, knowing he had the championship locked up if he held that position. Reed, holding the third position, knifed into second on the 14th lap, sending Stewart off the track. Stewart quickly recovered and finished third, just behind Reed. But the championship was his. "Three years ago I don't know if I could have done that," says Stewart.
At the podium, Stewart beameda far cry from the podium the previous week in Salt Lake City. With the 2009 Supercross season in the books, Reed has also let his cooler head prevail, sort of: "I think we brought out the best in each other. I totally respect James as a competitor. He's the champion, but I'm not finished."
Will Stewart be able to keep his focus in his X debut? McGrath says yes: "I believe he understands what a responsibility this is for him. He's the new face of the sport. That's an opportunity not everybody gets." If recent history is any indication, Stewart may just be ready to seize it.