Of all the milestones James “Bubba” Stewart Jr. has reached, being the first African-American to dominate in motocross seems least notable—to him, anyway. He has a point, particularly when you consider everything the 23-year-old has accomplished. After racking up a record-breaking 11 American Motorcyclist Association Amateur National titles riding for Kawasaki Team Green, James was named 2002 Rookie of the Year in his debut pro season. In 2004, he won both the AMA 125 East Supercross Championship and the AMA 125 Motocross National Championship, and four years later, in 2008, he became the second rider in history after Ricky Carmichael to complete a perfect motocross season—24 wins in 24 races—after coming back from knee surgery, no less. He capped off his perfect season with the 2008 AMA Speed Athlete of the Year award.
The athlete many call “the Tiger Woods of Supercross” has made another indelible impression on the sport by breaking its glass ceiling. And while that has garnered the talented rider an even larger limelight—Teen People named him one of “20 Teens Who Will Change the World” in 2003; he’s been featured in mainstream publications like The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Maxim, ESPN The Magazine and GQ, hung out with Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey, Jr., and made a guest appearance on the TV game show Deal or No Deal—for James, it’s really no big deal. “I mean, it does feel good to be the first ever, but I honestly don’t sit here and think about it a lot,” James told the St. Petersburg Times in 2004. “With a helmet on, we all look the same anyway.”
WALK AT ONE, TALK AT TWO, MOTO AT THREE
James Stewart Sr. loved motorcycles so much that two days after James was born, he took his son on a ride. James started riding a dirt bike at three years old, entered his first race the next year, and won the first of his 11 amateur titles when he was just six. James’ father tutored his son from the beginning and the duo soon developed an innovative riding style that could shave seconds of the fastest competitors. In 1997, James Sr. bought 40 acres in Haines City, Fla., in order to create a practice track in the family’s backyard.
As the prodigy continued to amass wins, he befriended an up-and-coming African-American rider, Tony Haynes. An accident during practice in 1993 would end Tony’s career and leave him paralyzed from the waist down. Only eight years old at the time, James asked Tony if he could wear his number. “I’m going to take this to the top,” he promised. With 259 on his back, James completed his record-breaking amateur career, broke all of the 125-class records, took home four national titles—including one in 2002, when he became the youngest rider to ever win the AMA Lites National Motocross Championship—and three supercross contests. In 2006, James finally accepted the single-digit 7 he had earned from his past championship.
INJURIES AND RIVALRIES
Winning races comes easily to James, but it doesn’t come without cost—and a fat file at the doctor’s office. An aggressive young rider in a dangerous sport, James has struggled with injuries and illness throughout his pro career. A severe crash in 2003 at the 125 East/West Shootout in Las Vegas, Nev., left him with a broken collarbone that forced him to sit out the first few rounds of the AMA Motocross series. After an almost unbeatable 2004 season, in which he took every round of the AMA 125 East Region Supercross series and all but one of the AMA 125 Motocross Championship, James graduated to the premier 250cc/450cc class in 2005 but was sidelined for a short while with a broken wrist. For added measure, he competed with an undiagnosed bacterial infection for the majority of the outdoor motocross championship that year. He would go on to take the 2007 Supercross series title, but had to skip the final 15 races in 2008 to finally repair a nagging knee injury.
A true competitor, James says that rather than derailing him, his injuries have actually helped him focus. “After getting hurt, sitting back and watching Chad [Reed] win the championship, it helped me find how much I love riding.” And he doesn’t feel cursed, even when he can’t figure out exactly why they happened. “Those are the hardest ones. It’s not like you’ve gone over a jump and say, ‘Don’t do that again.’ Some of the injuries were weird. I just have to be smart,” he says.
James has an uncanny knack of coming back from injury even more formidable than he was before. He returned from his broken collarbone in 2003 to win every race he entered. He rebounded from a disappointing start to his premier Supercross career with a win in just his third contest. And he followed up knee surgery with a perfect motocross season in 2008. Perhaps it’s that tenacity mixed with the fans’ natural desire for provocation that has drawn James into public rivalries with riders such as Ricky Carmichael (once described as a classic Ali/Frasier matchup) and the 26-year-old Australian Chad Reed. “I have a lot of respect for Chad,” Stewart says. “We just don’t put a lot of effort into our relationship. But it makes it that much more fun. It’s really good for the sport to have that rivalry.”
DOWN THE DIRT TRACK
Rivalry is good for inspiration, too. The two riders continued to go head-to-head in 2009 as Reed, the 2008 Supercross champion, worked to defend his title and James, the 2007 winner, aimed to take it back. To spice things up a bit, James turned in his trademark green Kawasaki for a Yamaha YZ 450F and raced for Reed’s former team, the San Manuel Indians. (Reed moved to Suzuki.) With all the makings of great battle between worthy opponents, the 2009 season proved to be one to watch. As for James, he saw it shaping up to his advantage. “Defending your championship is harder than winning,” he says, “because you have guys that are really hungry to take it from you.” And after sitting out last season, James Stewart ate it up and took home the crown. After a big crash in the season’s first race put him at an immediate points deficit, James faced an uphill battle to win the championship. But he persevered and captured a series-leading 11 wins in 17 races (including 11 in a row), and clinched the title in the season finale in Las Vegas.
“You have no idea how tough this has to come back from what happened at Anaheim 1,” said Stewart. “This is the toughest I have ever had to fight to win a title. It’s has been a hard-fought championship for everyone. I just want to thank everyone that has been involved in everything we’ve accomplished this season.”