Commentary

In the Crosshairs

Updated: July 10, 2012, 3:24 PM ET
By Alyssa Roenigk

THE STEWART FILE

BORN Dec. 21, 1985

HOMETOWN Haines City, Fla.

STATS 5'8", 150 pounds

CLAIM TO FAME:In 2002, at age 16, Stewart became the youngest AMA motocross champion ever when he won the 125cc title.

As a teen, he was unbeatable on the 125cc circuit while also owning an outsize personality and a mug the cameras adored. With Red Bull and Boost Mobile sponsorships in tow, he was expected to take Supercross to the masses. But when James "Bubba" Stewart moved up to the 250cc circuit in 2005, his illness-filled season didn't live up to the hype. Even his friends wrote him off: "I was 19, and they said I was done." So Stewart reinvented himself in 2006, dropping the Bubba handle, adopting a different number (7) and stitching "New Beginning" across the seat of his pants. The new 'tude worked. He rode his best season yet (10 wins and a World GP title), finishing just two points behind Ricky Carmichael for the Supercross championship-the closest finish in series history. When the 2007 season kick-starts in Anaheim on Jan. 7 (and with Carmichael transitioning to NASCAR), Stewart has a chance to leverage his newfound maturity to win the big one.

1 NAME AND NUMBER

For years he was Bubba Stewart, No. 259. Although top riders typically wear low numbers, Stewart sported three digits in honor of friend Tony Haynes, who was paralyzed in a riding accident. But after fulfilling his promise to Haynes and taking 259 to the top, Stewart was ready to downsize. "As a champion," he says, "I deserved a single digit." Grabbing No. 7 was easy. The tricky part: Stewart also asked folks to start using his given name instead of his childhood nickname. Why? "I would sign my name for a kid, and he'd say, 'Who's James?' It bummed me out. Look, you can call me Bubba. Just know my name is James."

2 SICK SEASON

Most riders try to protect against broken bones. Stewart arms himself against food. For much of 2005, he was plagued by crippling stomachaches; he even had to withdraw from the U.S. Open. Turns out it was a bacterial infection. Antibiotics kicked the bug, but now he takes no chances, eating only organic food prepared at home. "No restaurants," he says. Stewart also opens doorknobs with his sleeves and wears gloves in the autograph line: "Kids come up and wipe their noses, then they want to high-five. I can't be touching that."

3 BRING THE BLING

Stewart isn't called the Michael Jordan of Supercross for his talent alone. "I like to rock it NBA-style," he says of the $150,000 diamond No. 7 chain he wears during races, a gift from Red Bull. (He also owns 18 cars.) But fellow riders don't always appreciate his style. "Our sport is conservative," he says. "They call me Bling-Bling." Stewart's habit of dancing to celebrate big wins doesn't go over too well either: "One rider told the press, 'If he wants to dance, tell him to come dance all over me.' I haven't taken him up on it yet. But next year, I'll be happy to dance him into the ground."

4 MEDIA DARLING

Not since Supercross king Jeremy McGrath retired in 2002 has there been a racer with such a heady mix of talent and PR potential. In May, Stewart became the first African-American to win a major motorsports title, the World GP championship. "James brings a new fan base to Supercross," says AMA series rep

Denny Hartwig. Stewart knows he's breaking barriers every time he sits on his bike, but he wants to keep the focus where it belongs. "I'm honored when kids tell me I'm their hero," he says. "But I don't want to be the 'black racer.' I'm a champion no matter what."

5 MAN WITH A PLAN

"I've won a lot of races," Stewart says. "Now I want a big-class championship." That would be the AMA Supercross title. Carmichael owns five; McGrath, a record seven. Stewart hopes to top them both. But the Supercross season is long (16 races), and while his all-out approach has led to a lot of big wins, he's also endured some even bigger crashes. So this year, with a title on his mind, Stewart will take a page from Carmichael's book and play the points game. "If I have to take the safe route in a couple of races, that's fine," he says."I don't have to win them all. I know where I want to be at the end of the year."

Alyssa Roenigk

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com whose assignments covering action sports, Olympics and football have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. In 2012, she joined the X Games TV broadcast team and ordered additional pages for her passport. Follow her on Twitter at @espn_alyssa.