Riding his own wonderful life

Updated: February 26, 2007, 4:34 PM ET
By Mary Buckheit | ESPN.com

The name James Stewart triggers a certain recognition in some people's minds. It should, anyway. After all, the celebrated Oscar winner is third on the American Film Institute's list of all-time greatest movie stars and he is considered one of the finest actors of Hollywood's Golden Age.

But this is not designed to praise Jimmy Stewart or his outwardly wonderful life. In fact, it has been well-documented that the endearing star wasn't the most open-minded guy off the silver screen. Truth be told, some biographers paint him just short of a racist.

Knowing this, it's interesting to see how another James Stewart stars on a stage all his own, and widening cultural constrictors in the meantime.

This generation's James Stewart is similar to the classic cinema celebrity in name and self-effacing sincerity, but it's not box office blockbusters he's riding to recognition.

It's motorcycles.

James Stewart
Craig Durling/WireImage.com"I hope that in some way I am letting people know that you don't win in a sport because of your race," says Stewart (center). "Anybody can do it. I happen to be influencing people, and that's really great."
Today's legendary James Stewart is a 21-year-old Floridian, the youngest champion AMA motocross has ever seen and the first and only African-American to win a major motorsports championship.

Stewart turned pro in January 2002 and has rewritten the record book since. As the AMA rookie of the year, he set a record for most overall motocross wins in a season and thus nabbed the AMA national title. In 2003 he won the AMA West Supercross championship, and in 2004 he won the AMA East Supercross championship. In doing so, he broke his record for wins in a season (this time nabbing 11 of 12), and became the only rider to win all three AMA titles of the 125cc class.

Upon moving up to the 250cc class in 2005, Stewart won three main events in his first Supercross (indoor) before homing in on the AMA National Motocross (outdoor) title.

After missing out on the Supercross series title by one point last year, he broke out of the gates this year and is sculpting his most definitive season.

Stewart opened this season with three straight victories -- making him the first rider in 10 years to win the opening three rounds of the AMA Supercross Series (legend Jeremy McGrath did it in 1996). Halfway through the season, Stewart is the points leader for world and domestic Supercross championships.

Between the travel and training, Stewart spoke by phone with ESPN.com about his accomplishments and aspirations.

First, I have to ask you about your crash in the San Diego race two weeks ago. Your bike was almost un-rideable, but you still finished the race and mustered fifth place?

Yeah, when I first looked down at my bike I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm through. That's it.' But I was able to get back on and finish the race. Man, that was just a mistake on my part. A brain miscue. I definitely had the strength to win in San Diego, and I showed that I had the endurance get through a tough situation, but I just gave the race away. The bike was really bent up after that crash. Chad [Reed] and I were right with each other then [on the eighth lap of a 20-lap race] I just went a little too close to him and I hit him and went flying over my handlebars. The bike was really bent. I was only able to go about 60 percent the rest of the way but we still salvaged some points and I was happy with the recovery.

It just goes to show what a stud you are, riding a broken bike to a solid finish.

I'm just happy it wasn't a total loss. I did a little damage control as I like to say. Some guys would be happy to get fifth place on a good night. That whole weekend I had some difficulties trying to get the bike set up for the track. I had two bad practices and then the fall, but it definitely could have been worse.

Yeah, that wasn't your only fall of the weekend.

[Laughs] I know! I fell in the opening ceremonies! When I first came out I was doing a little bit of showboating -- a little bit too much, I guess. I flipped over the handle bars on a nose wheelie in front of 60,000 people. That was not a good way to start off.

But that's what fans love about you. You just go for it.

I just want to have fun and impress them. People love that showboating, it's true. It's funny, after I fell and got up and finally made it to the podium, I stood up and got more cheers right then than ever. I think that's why I have the support I do. I really appreciate fans showing up and I think they appreciate me trying to show them a good time. My thing is that image. I want fans to know who I am.

How would you describe the image you portray?

In my sport I'm more of the flashier guy -- the guy that loves speed, and flash and fun. I think I'm more outgoing than a lot of riders. Talking with people one-on-one, you'd think I'm super shy but that situation is just harder for me than being in front of a stadium full of 60,000 people. I don't know why it's like that, but that's where I feel most comfortable. That's when I'm able to let my personality out. I love that interaction with the fans. I want that to be my image. You can ask anybody around me and I think they'll tell you that I'm a really caring person. I really care about what people think -- probably maybe a little too much. I really care about how people feel and what they want from me. I especially have a hard time saying no to fans. Even if I'm sitting down and the gate's getting ready to drop, if a kid comes up I have a hard time sending them away without an autograph. I really care about pleasing the fans. I don't want to disappoint anybody. I want people to know that I'm doing what I love and that I'm having fun out there. I just turned 21 two months ago so I still feel very much like a kid who is just doing what they love. I want people to know that about me.

Because of your age, talent and race, you are seen as someone who is different than the rest of the field. Do you feel different than everyone else?

Not really, no. I see myself just like everybody else as far as going out and doing my best and trying to win races and having fun in the meantime. Under the helmet, other things don't matter. We all have an equal shot at winning and that's why we're out there. But I'd say the biggest difference between me and the rest of the field is probably just that image of what I try to give back to the fans and how hard I try to please them … even if it means falling on my face [laughs]. My personality is probably the biggest difference, more so than any of the other factors that describe me.

James Stewart
Diane Moore/Icon SMIStewart is pleased more African-American kids and fans are following motocross. It's a sign, he says, the whole sport of amateur racing is growing.
But you are the youngest champion and the only African-American in the field.

I don't go out and race to be that pioneer, but I do take pride in that fact and I know that that is how some people look at me. I race bikes because I love to race bikes. I didn't go through a bunch of sports and then decide on motocross because I can be the first black person to do this. My dad was into this when he was growing up and he brought me into it and it all just came about pretty naturally. It's always cool to be the first person to do anything. Being the first African-American ever to win a major motocross title wasn't my original goal, but it makes me feel really good and it's something that I can now take a lot of pride in. I think if you ask anybody who has the chance to break a record -- black or white -- they will tell you that it's exciting. The first is special no matter who you are.

Being the first person to do what you're doing once landed you on Teen People's list of people who are "changing the world." How does that feel?

I don't look at it like that, but I do see more African-American people coming out to motorcycle races and I do see kids coming out and wanting to be like me, and I see more black kids wanting to get into the sport. So I feel like I'm changing something -- I wouldn't say the world, but the sport for sure. Just the way people look at motorcycle racing is changing. I hope that some day people don't look at motorcycle racing as a white sport. I want it to be like any other sport where you have a whole bunch of different races and different kinds of people out there competing. I would love to see more black kids come into motorcycle racing. I don't want to be the one. I want other people to make a name for themselves in the sport, even if it's not another African-American. I'd like to see a Hispanic guy come in and succeed. That would make me feel good. I hope that in some way I am letting people know that you don't win in a sport because of your race. Anybody can do it. I happen to be influencing people, and that's really great. I hope I'm sending a message, but I'm really just out here having fun.

So you don't feel any extra pressure and responsibility?

I definitely do feel pressure -- just of being me. I know that there are people watching me for a lot of reasons. For who I am. I'm fond of that, I'm really happy about it. It's good to have people watching you, usually that means you're actually doing something right. It doesn't bother me at all. I know that I have to make sure that I'm not seen doing bad stuff -- not that I'm a bad person, I mean I just want kids to look up to me. I want to be a role model. I want them to want to be like James Stewart. I don't want them to think, 'Hey, that guy is a good motorcycle rider but I don't like the way he acts.' That's not what I'm about. I want to have a clean image in racing and out.

What do you tell kids who ask for your advice?

First of all, I love it when kids come up to me with big dreams and they ask me what they should do. I always tell them to stay in school and keep up in class. That's the biggest thing I've learned along the way: bad grades mean no motorcycle riding. That's how it went for me so that's what I pass on to them. Beyond that I just tell them to have fun. There's no point to riding motorcycles if you're not having fun.

How does it make you feel that there are kids who would not be riding if it wasn't for you?

I am so happy that black kids know that they can do this. And I'm happy that because of me more black people are coming out to events and getting into amateur racing themselves, but really what that really means is that the whole sport is growing. That's what that really means. It's not just about expanding it to a certain race it's growing the sport and I think we're doing that. That's what I want to do. I want to help the sport get bigger. Hopefully one day it will be like NASCAR, or something. I don't think anything is really like NASCAR, but if we could capture even a fraction of that …

Is it true that you have NASCAR aspirations?

I love racing and I love cars so I think that right there would make it a good fit for me. Right now I'm really focused on winning a Supercross title and I'm sure people will read this and say, 'Well that's what he is supposed to say.' But really, I've been aiming for this title since I was a little kid. This is what I want and right now I'm chasing it. I'm right there. Hopefully I can do this and then, you know, who knows? Down the road, who knows what happens.

Once you feel you have accomplished all you set out for on a motorcycle, do you want to make the jump to NASCAR?

I would love to drive for sure. I love cars. I love racing, so if I had the opportunity down the road to get into NASCAR, for sure. I know it would be different, but if I had the chance I would definitely consider it. If I ever decide to go down that route, I would do it because I love racing. There's nothing bigger than NASCAR, so I think it would be great to do something that is as big as it gets.

Do you have any reservations about permeating the curious NASCAR culture?

It's definitely a different crowd than what I'm used to and I don't know how I would go about getting accepted into it , but I think that this day and age, everybody just wants to see a good race and have fun and enjoy the event so I don't think there would be any problem.

I've heard you own some fine automobiles already. What's in your garage?

I have a Ferrari and a Rolls Royce. I think I might be the first person in my sport to really love cars like that and be into that kind of thing.

If and when you do leave AMA racing, what do you want people to know about you and who you were?

When I leave this sport I definitely want people to remember my name. And I think that if I left this sport right now people would. But I'm not ready to go. Not yet. I want to build some credentials. When I leave I want people to say, 'Man that dude was the fastest thing I've ever seen on a motorcycle.' I want to be remembered as dominant. I want people to think of me as an entertaining image of talent with a personality that people really loved. And I guess in the end I want people to say that I was great at what I did and I was a popular rider but I want them to be able to say, 'But hey that day that I met James Stewart he was just a regular old down-to-earth guy.' I always try to keep myself grounded -- which for me isn't hard because that's just who I am.

It's not hard to stay grounded when people are calling you the Tiger Woods of motocross?

Sure I've heard some big comparisons -- people calling me the Tiger Woods of motocross. It's cool. It's not something that I would go around saying or anything, but it is definitely a huge honor. Being compared to Tiger for any reason is a good thing. There are a lot of people who would love to have their name in the same paragraph as Tiger let alone a direct comparison. I don't know, I mean some people compare me to R.C. [Ricky Carmichael]. To be associated with either of those guys is an honor, but actually, I just see myself as the James Stewart of motorcross. I don't try to act like anybody else or try to be anybody else. I am the first James Stewart of my sport. Whatever that might mean [laughs].

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist and EXPN.com contributor. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.

Mary Buckheit started as ESPN.com's college intern in 2000. She signed on full-time as an editor in 2002 and became a Page 2 Columnist in 2006. She went west to cover life in California, the UFC, AVP, X Games and anything else she can dig up under the sun.