Last Saturday night at Texas Stadium, James (Bubba) Stewart, the 19-year-old supercross wunderkind, blew out of the gate in round 12 of the 16-race American Motorcyclist Association's 250-cc series, took an early lead and then discovered something was terribly wrong with his motorcycle. "I didn't have a front brake," he said afterward of the malfunctioning system.
Turns out Stewart hardly needed brakes, working or not. Dusting the field in Dallas in only his third start in the 250-cc division, Stewart led all 20 laps of the final, won by five seconds over three-time supercross champion Ricky Carmichael and sealed his status as the rising star in his sport. What's more, he became the first African-American rider to finish first in the 32-year history of the 250 series. Dropping to his knees and raising his arms after crossing the finish line, Stewart welcomed a crowd of 43,276 to a new era in supercross. "I'm so happy," said Stewart. "I have one under my belt, and now I know how it feels."
Stewart, a native of Bartow, Fla., started racing at the age of four on 50-cc bikes and soon began dominating at every level in which he competed. After winning a record 11 AMA amateur national championships, he turned pro in 2002, and at 16 he became the youngest rider to win a supercross race. Building insurmountable leads with shocking speed, Stewart dominated the 125-cc division, the minor league of pro supercross, winning a record 47 races over the past three years. (In 2003 and '04 he lost only when he crashed.) It was time to take on the biggest names in the sport.
The 5'7", 155-pound Stewart stepped up to the premier class at the 2005 season opener in Anaheim on Jan. 8. The widely anticipated showdown between Stewart and Carmichael, who won every motocross event on the AMA 250-cc schedule in '02 and again in '04, sold out a month in advance. A crowd of 45,050 braved heavy rain, but the deep mud turned the race into a crapshoot. Stewart finished fifth and Carmichael third. The new rivalry stalled when Stewart fractured his left forearm during a practice run before the second 250 series event. He missed the next nine races before returning to the track last month in Orlando, where he placed third.
Stewart's aggressive style makes him perhaps the most compelling rider to watch on tour. By maintaining his speed through a turn better than his competitors, he can gain .2 of a second on the opposition; depending on the layout of the course, that can mean 10 to 20 seconds saved in a 20-lap race. It leaves the rest of the field staring at the BUBBALICIOUS embroidered on the back of his pants as he pulls ahead on his lime-green number 259 Kawasaki KX250.
Stewart also shaves off crucial time by flying lower off the jumps than other riders. His technique, dubbed the Bubba Scrub, entails tilting the motorcycle sideways in midair. "It's mind-boggling to see it," says Davey Coombs, editor of Racer X Illustrated. "Somehow he pushes the bike harder. He gets on the throttle earlier. He's doing things on a motorcycle that other people haven't considered."
Stewart is also doing things off the track that most riders haven't seen. For starters, he brings in about $4 million a year from sponsorship deals. When he got his driver's license at 16, Stewart began collecting sports and vintage cars as a hobby; his collection has already grown to 17 cars, including a yellow Lamborghini, a Porsche 911 and three Z28 Camaros. He keeps them in a garage in Haines City, Fla., where he lives with his father, James Sr., a former rider and now his coach; his mother, Sonya; and his 12-year-old brother, Malcolm, who races in the amateur ranks.
Stewart's fans include Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Ken Griffey Jr.--all of whom he has met--and last week he was being tailed by an ESPN crew taping a profile. "I don't get too hyped about all the stuff [surrounding me]," says Stewart, who carries his pet miniature bulldog around in a $1,340 Louis Vuitton bag. "I take this as my job, and it's cool. People like being around me because I have a positive attitude," he says. "I'm having fun with this." ?