Stewart: Ain't no mountain high enough
Saturday night at the Georgia Dome was another ho-hum winning performance for James Stewart. Bolt from the starting gate, assume first place at the all-important first turn, never look back and, 20 laps later, claim the trophy.
It has happened so often, one might wonder where the breaking point comes for fans, for a series, even for the athlete. How many wins are enough? How much dominance does one need before moving on to the next challenge?
Then you look at the thousand-watt smile, the capacity crowds, the pure artistry on two wheels and hope that James "Bubba" Stewart isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Fortunately for dirt-motorcycle racing, he's not. Safely perched atop the mountain, Stewart is now chasing perfection and all-time records. As long as he stays on a bike, he appears a sure bet.
Stewart has won 31 of his past 32 events dating to the start of last summer's motocross season. He won all 24 events to claim a championship and one of three perfect seasons in the sport's history (Ricky Carmichael owning the other two, 2002 and 2004), and in the current supercross season, playing out to capacity crowds in stadiums from coast to coast, Stewart has won seven of eight.
In the season opener at Anaheim, Calif., he fell off his Yamaha. Since then he has not lost, and with his seventh consecutive win Saturday in Atlanta, the 2007 supercross champion reclaimed the points lead.
"This season started out a bit of a struggle for me, going down in [the opener], but I climbed my way back into it," Stewart said. "I wouldn't say I'm in a zone yet. Maybe after a couple more wins. Maybe."
At 23, Stewart has checked off the complete to-do list of an off-road career, winning all four AMA class titles: motocross, supercross, motocross lites and supercross lites (two each in lites). Yet in a way he is doing it all over again after missing the bulk of last year's supercross season in the wake of ACL surgery. He finished second in the 2008 season opener, won the next race on a knee he could barely walk on, then climbed off the bike for surgery.
Chad Reed, a 26-year-old Australian, won the title in Stewart's absence and set up a juicy rivalry for this season. Reed and Stewart held the last two supercross titles, and there was an equipment side story as well, with Stewart switching from his longtime Kawasaki to Reed's Yamaha team after Reed left for Suzuki.
The rivalry lives in the standings, with Stewart holding a scant three-point advantage. But on the track, Reed has seven consecutive runner-up finishes, all to Stewart.
"I think he respects that I'm his closest competitor," said Reed, who also won the 2004 supercross title. "He's always had the upper hand on me, so it's easy to smile and wave when you've always been like that. I've kind of been the one that's been on the flip side and have had my ass kicked. I want to beat him bad. The rivalry has grown strong, he loves to beat me and I want to get out there and beat him."
It just hasn't happened yet, and the sport is not suffering in the least while waiting for Stewart to get a regular foil.
Supercross has evolved over the years through its champions, from "Showtime" Jeremy McGrath taking the sport out of the niche category to Ricky Carmichael's working-class excellence helping maintain interest. In the African-American Stewart, the sport has a champion with crossover appeal, not to mention arguably the most talent ever seen on two wheels.
"Stewart's a whole different thing. Nobody's seen a more talented, incredible athlete in the sport ever that's as dominant when he stays up on the motorcycle as he is, and that's a great story to tell for us," said Ken Hudgens, vice president of television and marketing for Feld Motor Sports, the promoting body for supercross. "On one hand you'd like to have more parity, but that dominant athlete that you can hang the sport's identity on is really good. It gives you that identifiable force that you want to hear more about.
"I've said it to some people this way: He may be better in his sport than anybody is in their sport, including Tiger Woods. But he's that wrapped up into a young man who is extraordinarily well-spoken, an extraordinarily outgoing personality who handles everything that a superstar athlete needs to do pretty well."
I've said it to some people this way: He may be better in his sport than anybody is in their sport, including Tiger Woods.” -- Supercross promoter Ken Hudgens
The Tiger Woods comparison always follows Bubba Stewart (both are widely known by early childhood nicknames), as both have achieved singular fame in nearly all-white sports. And both have achieved so much that the racial aspect of their success is almost a footnote.
"I think that people call me the fastest man in the world -- to me that's an honor," Stewart said. "That's as a racer -- they don't say the fastest black racer, they say the fastest dirt-track racer."
Stewart doesn't rule out that he could someday try to be the fastest racer, period. He said there have been offers to run NASCAR, including an intriguing one last year from "one of the top teams," and he's closely following Carmichael's journey through the low levels of four-wheel pavement racing to a current seat in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series.
Ask him what he'll be doing in 10 years, at age 33, and Stewart says with a smile, "Maybe getting spun out at the Daytona 500."
But in the immediate future there are more titles on two wheels to win and more records to conquer. This summer he'll try to turn in back-to-back perfect Motocross seasons, and right now there are more races to dominate in the second half of supercross. McGrath's record of 72 supercross main-event wins is a long-term goal, and Stewart has 32 with the potential to get to 41 if he wins out this season.
That's more than enough motivation to stay right where he is.
"In racing, you're always trying to get to a goal, trying to win something. I'm always looking to get better," Stewart said. "I'm 23, I'm still young, I feel like I've got a lot left, and my job is to make sure that Stewart name stays on the top."John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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