Commentary

DOUBLE CLUTCH:AS THE 2005 SUPERCROSS SEASON STARTS, TWO BIKE LEGENDS WILL FINALLY MEET ON THE SAME TRACK

Updated: July 10, 2012, 2:47 PM ET
By Chris Palmer

James Stewart has been avoiding people lately. He checks the caller ID when his cell phone rings, and if your last name isn't Stewart, good luck in getting him to pick up.

Forget the call back, too. For the past eight weeks, the 19-year-old known far and wide as Bubba has been camped at his new crib in Corona, Calif., in the heart of motocross country. Stewart gets up at 6 a.m. to reel off laps and test equipment at the nearby Kawasaki practice track. Then, after seven hours of wrestling motorcycles around a dirt track, he pedals 20 miles on a bicycle, not so much to get in shape but to burn off energy that would otherwise go unused because, well, he's avoiding you. Occasionally he ventures out to grab some Mexican at Don Jose, but even then he tries to get in and out before customers hit him up for autographs.

"I've got one thing on my mind," Stewart says.

"Anaheim. I'm blocking out everything, living for that moment."

Anaheim, of course, is the first stop of the 2005 AMA 250 Supercross Series, where on Jan. 8 Stewart will make his debut against the big guns of motocross racing. It's a race that has been widely anticipated by MX insiders and fans for nearly half of Bubba's life because, at every level of competition since the kid was 10, he's been the fastest ever on a motorcycle. But now Bubba is feeling the heat, because his tag as the winningest 125 rider of all time won't mean a flat tire if he fizzles in the premier 250 class. So far in his career, Stewart has gotten by on exuberance and raw speed, but to step up in the bigs, he'll need to add endurance, smarts, patience and discipline.

And it won't be easy. The welcoming committee of veteran 250 riders would enjoy nothing more than to ease the highly publicized upstart right off the edge of the track. In the 250s, Bubba will find burlier riders and bikes, all more powerful, faster and harder to handle. Intimidation at this level is heavier; action faster. The 250s race 20 laps, versus 15 for the 125s, and the season stretches 16 weeks, January to May, which is twice the length of the 125 schedule. As if that isn't pressure enough, Bubba will be charging for the holeshot against the toughest group of riders in the 32-year history of the 250 series. Scope out the minefield of past, present and future champions who will be waiting for Stewart in Anaheim:

* Ricky Carmichael The three-time Supercross champ, who blew out his knee and missed last season, is back and as fast as ever. Maybe faster: at the summer's outdoor Motocross series, RC swept all 24 motos.

* Chad Reed The defending champ, ticked at all the attention not coming his way, is posting the fastest practice laps of his career, and beat RC at the warmup U.S. Open in October.

* Jeremy McGrath The seven-time Supercross king has emerged from a two-year retirement and could race about half the Series events in 2005.

* Travis Pastrana The four-time X Games freestyle champ has sworn off MX acrobatics in hopes of salvaging his much-maligned racing career

* Kevin Windham and Mike LaRocco They may not win many races, but these grizzled vets regularly place among the top five and boast a combined 29 years of pro racing experience.

So it's with good reason that Stewart's been a ghost these past two months, although his me-against-the-world approach leaves many blanks to fill: how quick are his lap times? Is he used to the bigger bike? What's going on behind the gates at Kawasaki? Stewart laughs at the questions, but reveals little by way of answers. "If they're talking about me," he says of his foes and their fans, "I know they're worried."

Not to mention excited. More than 800,000 people packed stadiums last year to watch the 16 Supercross 250 events, a record that's expected to be broken this year. And the sport isn't revving on all cylinders because of McGrath or Pastrana or Reed. No, it's pretty much two names that dominate Moto X chat rooms and magazines: Stewart and Carmichael.

Most great athletes have a foil, someone with equal talent but a different style who pushes them and makes them even greater. Chamberlain had Russell, Magic had Bird, Seabiscuit had War Admiral. And now RC has Bubba. "This is going to be Ali-Frazier," says Carmichael, a 25-year-old who has collected championships like no other rider in history. But Stewart has made a career of rubbing RC's name out of the record books. As an amateur from 1985 to 1996, Carmichael won a record nine national championships. Stewart ended his amateur career in 2001 with 11. During his four years on a 125, Ricky won a record 26 pro races. Stewart later won 28, in three years. Carmichael has won an astonishing 61.9% of the races he's entered (120 of 194) in eight years as a pro. So far, Stewart is winning at a torrid 82% clip (46 of 56).

Stewart is the most exciting rider on two wheels, routinely stringing together jumps not intended by track designers. He's been known to wheelie through an entire set of whoops (15 to 20 three-foot jumps) or throw whips over the gnarliest triples (three 15-foot jumps spread over 60 feet).

But his style also has the potential to put him on his butt. At the 2003 125 final in Las Vegas, Stewart approached a pair of doubles-jumps meant to be cleared two at a time-and cleared all four with one crack of the throttle. With his confidence rising, he sailed over subsequent jumps with more speed than needed. But on the second lap, he hit a single jump with too much throttle and overshot the landing. Result: Stewart flew from his bike and broke his collarbone, which knocked him out of the first four rounds of the ensuing outdoor Motocross series and cost him the championship.

It's this kind of chance-taking (or recklessness) that makes Stewart a favorite of Moto X fans, but less than the favorite to win the championship in his first season on the 250 series. And he couldn't care less. "That's just the way I like to ride," Stewart says. "I know people think I'm going to blow up and not make it through an entire season, but I don't care what they think."

In fact, with Stewart aboard a much more powerful 250, his daring has only intensified. He's already dreaming of ways to bend courses to suit his flair and contort his ride in ways others can't. "I sometimes worry about how close to the edge he rides," says Davey Coombs, editor of Racer X Illustrated magazine. "You only walk away from so many of those." Adds Carmichael: "He'll have his time, but it's not now. He has to learn to respect the power of the bike first."

Carmichael is far less likely to leave his fate to chancy moves. He lacks Stewart's fluidity and flair, relying instead on power to bulldoze jumps and blast across whoops. At 5'6" and 160 pounds, RC has little regard for form or technique, but he's tasted enough dirt to know when to exercise throttle restraint. "Knowing when to say when could be the difference in the series," Coombs says. "I think James is still learning that."

Off the bike, RC's and Bubba's personalities mirror their riding styles. Carmichael is a quiet introvert who opens up only around his closest friends. He relishes the anonymity he has at home in Tallahassee, where he lives with his wife, Ursula. Stewart, the first African- American to win a pro Supercross race and only the third to hit the 250 circuit, has a playful personality and a smile that could light Times Square. For R&R he polishes the 24s on his Escalade and races go-karts. He's popular with the ladies and has Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr. and Tiger Woods in his cellie. He owned seven cars by age 16, most blinged out and loaded with stereo systems that could be heard on the moon. Carmichael, on the other hand, bought a new car, a Mercedes 600, only after winning the '02 Motocross title-his eighth pro championship. He bought a bigger house, too, in Tallahassee, but quickly moved back to his old digs because the new place was too large.

When Carmichael crosses the finish line first, he often punches the air in celebration, as if to punctuate a week's worth of meticulous preparation. When Bubba wins, he drops his bike, gets down in the dirt and break-dances, all while wearing tigerstriped or hot-pink motocross gear. His dance du jour is The Sprinkler, in which he pretends to water the comp. "I love to give the fans a show," says Stewart, who is sure to do just that.

But if Stewart vs. Carmichael has the MX world buzzing in anticipation, it's also driven all 250 riders deep into hiding. Pretty much no one is talking, at least not about anything substantive. So not a word about who's fast, who's hurt, whose bike is dialed or who's fighting with his mechanic. Says Coombs: "I've never seen the level of secrecy from camps that I've seen this year."

Not surprisingly, the cone of silence makes any information that manages to escape that much more seductive. Early in November, a nugget of ammo leaked out of Stewart's camp, in the form of a 12-second video clip. It was shot while Stewart was practicing on his new Kawasaki KX 250 at the practice track at his old house in Haines City, Fla. The clip showed Stewart clearing 78 feet of an 80-foot jump. He landed hard, dropped the bike and, in obvious pain, gingerly walked away. Shot by a motocross clothing company, the video made its way to the Internet, and within minutes MX message boards were pelted with hits about Stewart's big get-off. He wasn't injured, but failing to make the jump hinted at weakness, and wrecking suggested injury. "I was real bummed," Stewart says, "because I didn't want anyone to think that there was something wrong with me or the bike."

Every rider takes an occasional bop in practice. But this year the stakes are different. The 2005 series is a promoter's dream, thanks to the mix of personalities, the pedigrees of the racers and a low dose of friction. Few sports have ever enjoyed such a mix: darling rookie vs. cagey vet ("I still think I'm the man to beat," Carmichael says), an icon charging out of retirement (McGrath) and a defending champ jonesing for respect: "I know I can run with anybody," Reed says. "Including Ricky." The season-opener at Angel Stadium (capacity: 45,050) sold out in early December, earliest in history, and tickets at every stop are selling at twice the normal pace.

That's why Stewart continues to train with his head down in Corona, stopping to check with his mechanic, who's clocking practice laps. Safe at home, wagons circled, he pops in a video of himself at the practice track, then switches to an old McGrath tape. "I'm not worried about any other rider," Bubba says. "I'm not scared of anyone."

Maybe not. But when the gate drops at Anaheim, he won't be able to avoid anyone, either.

ONE TRACK MIND

Give Chad Reed some respect. He's only the 2004 AMA 250 Supercross champion. James Stewart may have the talent- and Ricky Carmichael the will-but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who can negotiate an SX course better than Reed. So we asked the Aussie rider to break down the track at Anaheim, and he obliged. Pay attention, Bubba.

1. The rider with the best qualifying time gets his choice of starting position. I'd choose the far-left spot every time, and start in second gear. Then, halfway down the 70-yard straight, I'd shift up to fourth and run wide open until the corner.

2. You've got 22 riders vying for space where only 10 can fit across. Momentum carries the pack outside, so there's more chance of a pileup the farther out you get. I try to hug the inside line and sneak through.

3. After the second turn, there's a series of 11 jumps called a rhythm section. Here I'll double-take two jumps at once-then triple, triple, triple. I want to skip the big jump, which sends you sailing. That's something you want to avoid. The more time you spend in the air, the slower your lap times. After I clear the first two jumps, I'll hit the third, which sends me over the big jump to a smaller one. I'll repeat for the next two sets of three until I'm out of this section.

4. This lefthander comes up quickly. I enter in the middle and shoot out hard on the gas. But this track, which is made from 70,000 dumptrucks-worth of SoCal dirt, tends to be harder packed than East Coast tracks. That can reduce traction, so I run tires with softer rubber than usual.

5. A big crowd pleaser. With the first jump about 12 feet high and very steep, one throttle twist and you're sailing. So a good rider will scrub speed here as he climbs the face of the jump. When you scrub, the bike leans almost horizontally once you're airborne, but you still have the momentum to clear all three jumps.

6. After a quick downshift to third over the triple, I'm in a low enough gear to get through the hairpin. Right after the turn are six single jumps. I double them.

7. For this 90* righthander I hug the inside, blip the throttle, hit the first jump and land on top of the second. As soon as I touch down I hit the gas and pull up hard on the bars and land on the backside of the third jump. From there I'll triple out of this section.

8. Momentum will carry me high into the berm, so I'm on the brakes hard here. As I approach the whoops, I position my body over the middle of the bike and stand on the foot pegs with my butt six inches off the seat. The whoops are three feet high and three feet apart and it's the hardest section. It's all balance and momentum. I'll keep the bike in fourth to get as much torque as I can and skim across the tops of the jumps.

9. I hug the inside and approach the finish-line jump. It's as high and as steep as the big triple, so I try to scrub here and land on the backside of the following jump.

10. I'll leap the first four jumps at once, then hit the fifth one to send me over the big jump behind it. Do this 20 times and do it faster than anyone else, and you can be an SX champion too.

TEN TO ONE

ESPN Mag Supercross scribe Chris Palmer makes his final call on the 2005 250 season.

1. Ricky Carmichael No. 4 will win title number four.

2. James Stewart Will blow 'em away-or blow up trying.

3. Chad Reed Young MC will take the fewest risks, make the fewest mistakes.

4. Nick Wey Suzuki decided it wanted Carmichael instead of him. Now Nick the Quick wants revenge.

5. Kevin Windham Sat out '03, second last season; will take backseat to the big boys this year.

6. Travis Pastrana As fast as anybody if he can keep the rubber in the dirt. But that's a big if.

7. Sebastien Tortelli The most dangerous rider with one career SX win. Any time he suits up, he's a threat for win No. 2.

8. Michael Byrne "Byrner" is the perfect heavy for Kawasaki teammate Stewart.

9. David Vuillemin Surgeons sliced and diced his forearm in October. Just lining up at Anaheim is a victory.

10. Jeremy McGrath Says he'll race only a few events. He'll run more than he's saying, but not enough to climb any higher in the rankings.

TRAVIS SEES ALL

Everyone in SX land is crystal-balling the 2005 season. But who better than Travis Pastrana, Mr. Unpredictable, to roll predictions on the series.

Bubba Down

James Stewart will win the most races because he's got the speed. But he'll also take the most soil samples. More important, he'll get a WWE-style beatdown from Chad Reed when he tries to breakdance on the podium.

Tough on Top

Only one of the hyped three-Reed, Carmichael, Bubba-will make it to the final round without injury. Each is so confident that he'll push beyond limits if he feels the title slipping away.

K-Dub Rules (Late)

Late in the season, after all championship hope has been lifted from his shoulders by mediocre rides, smooth-riding Kevin Windham will dominate.

Old, Old School

Jeremy McGrath has the talent to win, but it's difficult for a rider who's so old and so successful to still have the drive to beat the young guns. Make that impossible.

The Rock Returns

Mike LaRocco will get the holeshot of one race and finish third. In some other race, he'll crash in the first turn and still get third. But, sorry to say, third is as high as Mike will finish in any race in 2005.

Travis Flips Out

I am going to start the season with a cast on my left wrist. Either way, I'll finish poorly in Atlanta. But I'll win at St. Louis and Daytona, then crash out in Dallas. I'll have a cast on some other part of my body late in the season but will still be within six points of the lead with two rounds remaining. Oh yeah, I'll become the first to attempt a finish-line backflip when I win in Las Vegas. I'll also become the first to crash on a backflip. I'll be too tired to pull hard enough to complete the flip, and just tired enough not to care.

HERO WORSHIP

He's won more Supercross races (72) and more championships (seven) than any other rider in history. So why would Jeremy McGrath, 33 and two years retired, strap on his boots again? "Racing is who I am," says McGrath, who won his first 250 Supercross in January 1993. On Jan. 8, some young McGrath fans will be lining up next to him at the starting gate. From Bubba Stewart to Travis Pastrana, today's stars grew up pretending to be MC. Twelve years ago, Jeremy's dad celebrated his son's first win in a cell beneath Anaheim Stadium. ("He ran onto the field and security tackled him because they thought he was a drunken fan.") We checked in with MC's comp to see what they were doing when Jeremy took his first checkered flag-and how they learned from their hero.

BUBBA STEWART

AGE: 7 GRADE: SECOND

BACK THEN

My parents were taking me all over Florida, Texas and Tennessee to race in the 7-to-9-year-old 60cc class. A few months after Jeremy's first win, I met him and asked for his autograph. He agreed, but only if I gave him mine, so I ran and got my jersey and signed it for him. I couldn't believe Jeremy McGrath wanted my autograph.

COPY CAT

I've watched so many of McGrath's races, I know his style inside and out. I love the way he'd get the holeshot, take a huge lead and stay out in front. That's what I try to do: get a lead, then give the fans a little show over the jumps. I even pull Jeremy's nac-nac once in a while as a tribute.

RICKY CARMICHAEL

AGE: 13 GRADE: EIGHTH

BACK THEN

I was racing Nationals in the 12-13 80cc stock and modified classes. I knew Jeremy for two years before his first 250 win. He and his parents always encouraged me. To this day, I have a picture in my house of Jeremy and me back when he was on 125s.

COPY CAT

I was never as smooth as Jeremy, so my style is very different. But I identify with him because he played to his strengths. He grew up wanting to jump everything and transferred that to SX. My strength was on wide-open motocross tracks, because I could hold it open longer than anyone. But Supercross or motocross, Jeremy wanted to be perfect. So do I.

CHAD REED

AGE: 10 GRADE: FOURTH

BACK THEN I was still two years away from being able to compete in our Australian version of Supercross. So, every week I'd wait for American Supercross races to come on TV, then go practice what Jeremy did.

COPY CAT

People say my style is almost a carbon copy of Jeremy's. I used to emulate the technically sound way he rode, especially in whoops and corners. Back then, most people sat back on the bike when they hit the whoops, but Jeremy hit them centered over the bike. That's exactly what I do. It's no coincidence the whoops are my best obstacle.

TRAVIS PASTRANA

AGE: 9 GRADE: FOURTH

BACK THEN

The weekend that MC won his first SX, my parents picked me up from school in Maryland, and we drove through the night to compete in the Florida Winter Amateur Nationals in the 7-to-11-yearold 80cc class. I think I won, but I remember just being glad I didn't crash.

COPY CAT

The thing I loved about MC was how into racing he was. He loved it so much and it showed. I think I became the same way. It's not hard to tell I'm having fun when I ride. I love it the way Jeremy did, and I want to do this for the rest of my life.

Chris Palmer

ESPN the Magazine