He hits a jump, dirt goes flying, he goes 40 feet high. He’s been called the Michael Jordan of motocross, but His Airness never flew quite like this.
He lands clean, rolls into another turn, throttles, roars -- not so cleanly -- over a series of small mounds, called “whoops.” When all is at its best, he’ll pass over them so smoothly it looks like levitation, but today his back tire keeps bouncing and jolting, anything but smooth.
It’s mid-day in November. Warm. Thick clouds threaten rain. About an hour west of Orlando on the outskirts of small central Florida town Haines City, Stewart is riding one of the two tracks that take up about 15 of his private estate’s 100 acres, on which two work garages, one sprawling car garage, and two modest homes also rest. Acres of orange trees -- not his -- border the tracks’ western edge. On a hill overlooking it all in a big cart with mud tires, sits his father, Big James.
Stewart circles around to a group of men, two mechanics and Coy Gibbs, his team owner.
“How’d it feel that time?” a mechanic asks. “It’s better,” says Stewart. “But it’s still not really recovering on the whoops.”
The words are critical but the tone is kind. The mechanic says they’ll make some tweaks to the rear suspension, and to the garage they go.
Stewart dismounts, removes his goggles and helmet, sets them on the floor, wipes sweat from his face. Flexes his right hand, curls and uncurls the wrist. His younger brother, Malcolm, 19, in an orange racing suit and with dreadlocks, asks him if the wrist is bothering him, if he’s OK, if he’s done. Big James -- in work boots, jeans, T-shirt, and blue trucker hat -- is standing nearby peeling an orange, and looks up, curious.
Malcolm’s question is something a lot of people have been asking. Is the fastest man in the world on a dirt bike finished? Nagging injuries crippled Stewart’s 2011 season, half of which he totally missed. His personal life took a turn for the weird, when in March 2011 he was arrested for impersonating a police officer. He pled no contest, paid a fine, is performing community service and considers the event “stupid and embarrassing to me and my family.”
Moving forward, he signed with the motocross division of NASCAR outfit Joe Gibbs Racing in the fall, setting up what appears to be a retirement from motocross to try stock car racing.
“Nah, man,” Stewart says, smiling with bright white teeth. He smiles a lot. “I’m good. I’ll be back out there in a little bit.”
He sits in a chair and leans back and opens a bottle of water and drinks. Sighs. Says to the mechanic, “Let me know when it’s ready to go again.”
As recently as 2009 Stewart was king of the motocross world. Fresh off a 24-0 season -- only the second in motocross history to go undefeated -- he was one of sport’s most dynamic characters, comparable in impact to Jackie Robinson and in performance to Tiger Woods.
But now at 26, he’s old for his sport, and the weird, hard truth is that he’s scared. Not of doubters or concussions or broken bones or even losing races or endorsements or his millions.
“I’m scared now mostly of not living up to what I know I can do,” he says. “I know I’m good enough to get it done. You know what I mean? Something’s got to happen in order for me not to win. And that scares me. What’s going to happen?”
At the start of the season that began on January 7 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, Stewart had 43 career wins in supercross, a variation of motocross that, unlike its older brother, takes place in stadiums in the winter and on shorter tracks. He wants to beat Jeremy McGrath’s all-time record of 72. He’ll go after it for little other reason than he believes he can, and so he believes he should. Where he’s from, what others have done for him, taught him -- if he can keep going, he must keep going.
Stewart has spent a great chunk of the fall and winter on a dirt bike getting in shape, testing his new bike and new equipment, getting acquainted with a new team. “He’s still hunting something,” says Big James. “He’s still seeking. The way he’s riding out there, he’s not done.”
Stewart agrees. “I want to find that old me again,” he says. “To show everyone -- to show myself -- that he’s still here.”
Long before James Stewart became a multimillionaire motocross legend, his father was working 70-hour weeks to do everything he could to give his son a shot at racing. Big James worked in a factory; his mother in a fast food restaurant. They were so broke they’d pick what bill to pay each month by pulling it out of a hat. They almost lost the house.
Himself raised fatherless, Big James swore to do everything possible for his offspring. Growing up, he fell in love with motorcycles while riding dirt bikes with friends. After his son was born, before Big James even brought him into their central Florida home, he took the 3-day-old infant out on a motorcycle. James got his first dirt bike when he turned 4 on December 21, for both his birthday and Christmas.
He started racing that January, under his father’s one condition: Give 100 percent every time or don’t race at all.
Stewart couldn’t always get the extras in life, but he got to race. Big James paid for the helmets, gear, fuel, and parts by stopping by the side of the highway on his way home from the graveyard shift to fill bags with bottles, cans, and scrap metal to sell to the scrap yard. They’d load up an old pickup, and Stewart would sleep in the passenger seat while Big James drove half the night. If the bike broke down, they didn’t borrow parts. They packed up, went home, and saved up for repairs.
“If you don’t have something,” Big James told his son, “you work to get it.”
Living in the Deep South doing something never before broached by a black man, the reception at times was downright spiteful. Sometimes, bleary-eyed and hungry, Big James would pull up to the racetrack gates to pay the entrance fee and be told, “Turn around, boy. We don’t race n****s here.”
He’d glare at the guy and say, “Well that’s good -- we came to race motorcycles.” He’d hand over the money and drive through the gate, leaving the guy bug-eyed and a little frightened. Then his son would go kick the other kids’ butts, and do it with a smile.
As Stewart aged and became aware of the racism and the hate, Big James taught him grace. “Never hate anybody,” he said. When fans cursed them, Big James taught him strength. “They’re talking about you,” he said. “That’s good. That can only make you better. Turn the negative into positive. Turn that into your motivation.” And so when fans leaned over fences to give him the finger, Stewart gave them a thumbs-up.
He also won a record 11 amateur championships, his first at 7. When he turned pro in 2002 at 17, he won a Lites division championship and was named American Motorcyclist Association’s Rookie of the Year. In 2005, he moved up to the highest level, 450cc. In 2007, he became the first black man ever to win a major motorsport championship.
Stewart’s perfect 2008 season at age 22 made him a legend. He would go to the starting gate laughing -- winning felt so easy. To challenge himself he tried to gain five seconds per lap on his opponents. He wasn’t just the fastest man in motocross, said ESPN, but the most dominant performer across all sports.
He is the fastest because he races with an electrifying, unparalleled aggression. Most often, he wins or wrecks. He rides so impossibly hard to make his father proud, to make all his family’s sacrifices and suffering worthwhile, to give 100 percent in the purest way he knows.
Much has been made of all he’s pioneered for his race in the sport, but for Stewart, it never became some vendetta. He just celebrates what he’s done, because it only honors his family more.
“I’ll go down in history,” he says. “I’ll be known as the first to do something. That’s pretty cool. Not many people get a chance to do that. But it’s not about being vindicated. I just know that my parents and God have given me opportunities, and I want to do right by them.”
The great struggles reaped great rewards. Stewart now earns in the tens of millions in winnings and endorsements. Grateful hardly describes him. For the money, but also for his family, which remains close. Big James takes care of the tracks. His mom Sonya helps handle the finances. Malcolm also races and practices regularly with big bro. Stewart takes care of them, but they feel entitled to nothing. He’s seen others who’ve gone from nothing to wealthy fall into toxic feuds with their families. His parents’ only demand: Be happy.
“That’s really all they’ve asked for,” he says. “Well that, and my dad asked for a water truck once, so he could work on the track better.”
If only he could be invincible. Motocross infamously takes an ungodly toll on even its most conservative racers. Even its elites get out young. All-time great Ricky Carmichael retired at 27. With his preternaturally aggressive style, Stewart has suffered more than most. Concussions, twisted knees, separated shoulders. One scar looks like it’s holding his right shoulder together. Another runs from the middle of his rear shoulder up through his neck. His perfect season came immediately after major knee surgery.
The injury that did him in last year was his right wrist. He shattered it on a crash at a 2010 race in Phoenix. After surgery, he recovered slowly. In 2011, he had fewer wins than career scars. He finished fourth overall during supercross and did not race in the motocross series during the summer.
“I can sleep better,” he says, “crashing and finishing 20th, knowing I gave everything I had, than getting second knowing I could’ve gone a little harder.”
A mechanic comes into the garage and says the bike is ready. Stewart pulls on his helmet, straps on the goggles. Time to get back on the bike.
He hits the whoops, skimming over them. This run looks better than before. Not perfect yet, but better. Then he heads towards a jump, a bigger one. Throttle, roar, flight, etc. Then, a stupid mistake, and a crash. He drifts right, overcompensates, and spills on impact, hitting the ground hard with his right shoulder. He’s up quickly, flashes a thumbs-up, and, without a word, sets out again.
When he comes in after a few more laps, he has dirt all over his right side. He rubs his shoulder, but it’s just his pride that hurts, he says. He laughs. “Nobody saw that, right?”
He also says the rear suspension feels better. The mechanic says they can get an engineer to design something just right. Stewart asks how many options they have. The mechanic lifts his head up, surprised at the question, and says, “Infinity.”
Stewart nods. “Oh, nice.”
Joe Gibbs Racing Motocross offers him perks no other team can. All 350 employees, including 40 engineers, are at his disposal. Engineers design parts just for him. The flight to JGRMX’s shop in Charlotte, N.C., is an hour instead of the cross-country excursion to the Yamaha shop in California. All that is as much why he joined them as Joe Gibbs’ success in NASCAR, if not more so.
Will he race cars? Absolutely. Motocross won’t last forever. He plans to start in NASCAR in late 2012 or early 2013. He went test-driving in South Boston, Virginia in November and immediately raised some eyebrows among the NASCAR vets on his team.
“He’s got a ways to go, yeah, but he’s got a knack for it,” said Coy Gibbs, who before starting the motocross division of Joe Gibbs Racing, had his own impressive racing career. “And the best part? He floored it from the start.”
The skies have cleared. No rain. It’s been a good day. “I feel like I still got it,” Stewart says. “I know that we won’t know until I get out there and start racing, but I feel it.”
Then he says he’s going to ride some more, and rumbles off. Then he’s flying towards a jump. He launches into the blue-and-white Florida sky, above teammates and acres upon acres of orange trees, all speed and power and grace and daring. His father sits on the hilltop, watching over his son, this -- not dollars or houses or cars -- his true reward.
The only sound is the roar, a 450cc symphony. It’s 3 p.m. He’s forgotten to eat lunch. His hands are blistered, his arms sore, his legs weary. He rides until shadows grow long, remembering 2008, remembering how it felt, feeling it again. This is his hunt, riding until and then beyond collapsing, ignoring doubts and pain, willing past to merge with future, daring to believe that the rider he was is the rider he can be again.
Check out the February 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands January 10) for more. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.
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