COMFORTABLE ON MANY DIFFERENT LEVELS, JAMES STEWART IS READY FOR 2013
BY DONN MAEDA
FOR James Stewart, the past three seasons have been filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. There have been race wins. There have been crashes. There have been injuries. There’s been a television show. Hell, there’s even been an arrest. Above all, though, there has been controversy.
More so than any other rider in our sport, James Stewart has been scrutinized, criticized, and judged. Is it because he is the first and only successful African-American in motocross? Is it because he’s been dubbed with the audacious title, “The Fastest Man On The Planet”? Or is it because he is arguably the most popular, most interesting rider in our sport? Stewart often wonders the same. “For whatever the reason, I don’t get treated the same as the guy next to me. People can say that I waste money driving fancy cars, but Ryan Dungey has an Audi R8 and you don’t hear about that,” he said. “Ryan Villopoto said he didn’t want to race the Motocross of Nations because it didn’t mean much to him and that he was focusing on 2013. I said that I was passing on the Monster Energy Cup for the same reason, and that it was just for money, but I got ruined for it! I am judged by a different set of standards and I don’t know why. I think people like to target me.
“At the end of the day, I am still the most popular guy racing a motorcycle right now, and that’s why the fans, the hate, and the love is there. I think it is unfair, but it is part of the job.”
For now, Stewart’s job is to win races and earn his first Supercross Championship since 2009. Entering his first official season with the Yoshimura Suzuki race team, Stewart is obviously happier and more comfortable on the bike than he has been in years. His struggles with the current Yamaha YZ450F design were well documented, and it was easy to see how uncomfortable he was on the blue machine. Conversely, it is easy to see how comfortable he is aboard Suzuki RM-Z450, as the yellow bike seems purposely built for Stewart’s over-the-front riding style.
THE BIGGEST CHANGE FOR STEWART, THOUGH, ISN’T IN MACHINERY. LOOKING TOWARD HIS FUTURE AFTER RACING, STEWART WALKED AWAY FROM A NEAR SEVEN-FIGURE RIDING-APPAREL CONTRACT IN ORDER TO LAUNCH HIS OWN LINE OF RIDING GEAR AND SPORTS APPAREL, SEVEN. TEAMED WITH THE ICONIC TROY LEE, STEWART WILL DEBUT HIS ALL-NEW LOOK AT ANAHEIM I AND INTENDS TO BUILD THE BRAND WITH UNIQUE STYLING, TECHNICAL DESIGNS, AND OF COURSE RACE WINS AND CHAMPIONSHIPS.
WE CAUGHT UP WITH JAMES JUST BEFORE THE HOLIDAYS, AS HIS BOOT CAMP WAS JUST GETTING UNDERWAY...
Although you only got a handful of races in on the Suzuki RM-Z450 this summer, you did manage to serve notice that the new pairing of you and the yellow bike is a good one...
I thought the summer was pretty useful for getting comfortable on the bike and with how the team goes. I only had a few weeks on the motorcycle before I raced Hangtown and won. I don’t want to say that it was easy, but it was not stressful. Ryan Dungey was there behind me, but it was not a stressful four motos that I had at Hangtown and Freestone; I knew where I was and how much more I had in reserve. Obviously, it all fell apart at Thunder Valley. I felt like I put in my best four laps of the season and I felt really comfortable in that first moto. We made a couple of changes to the bike and things were really starting to click. I think people misunderstood what happened, though. Yeah, the photographer ran out like Sasquatch in front of me, but that isn’t what made me crash. When I saw it, it startled me a little bit, but I ended up losing my front end going down that straightaway. Unfortunately, I reinjured the same bone in my hand that took me out of Supercross, but it was a little worse the second time.
After spending several weeks on the disabled list, you made a brief comeback before injury struck again.
Between Freestone and RedBud, I rode a motorcycle maybe three times over those six weeks. Then I came back to the hottest race of the year and struggled. Once we knew we were out of the championship, I wanted to play around with settings for the next year and see what I could do. Could we drop the ass end on the thing; could we stinkbug it? What would happen when we tried different clamps? That’s what we did at RedBud: we tested under race conditions. After RedBud, I realized that I didn’t want to be out there racing for fifth place and the team understood. We took time off and healed then spent some time in California just riding and testing. In those couple of weeks of riding before I came back to race at Unadilla, it was probably the best I have ever ridden a motorcycle. Things were clicking and we had them going well. We went to Unadilla and were fastest in practice, and in the first moto I was five seconds out front. I made a mistake, which was my fault because I was the one riding the track. We picked the wrong tires because the track looked drier than I thought it was, and I picked a super aggressive mud tire. The track was almost hardpack in some spots, and when I landed off of the tabletop I went down again. I actually ended up riding good that moto and was happy about that, but in the next moto I dislocated my finger. It was a wrap after that. I had to have surgery and sit out again.
It’s crazy how the bad luck piled up this year. Maybe you got it all out of the way.
I was never “out” like Villopoto or Reed, where it was six months on the couch. I knew the bad luck was there, but I think it was more on me because I was able to keep racing. The hard part was that people wanted me to race and I wanted to race, so I kept coming back but was never 100 percent. When you are racing at that level, people are expecting you to be 100 percent. But when you are only at 75 percent and trying to race, things are going to happen. And they happened all year long.
You’ve been back on the bike and testing for a while now, so you have to be happy with the bike. Is it true that you actually raced a 2013 bike at Unadilla?
No. We tried to get it homologated, but it was too close. What I would have raced at Unadilla would have been a standard fork on a 2013 bike. When I race it this year, it will have an air fork and all kinds of other things. We decided to stay with the 2012 at Unadilla because it was good and we knew we could win on it. That was one of the last times I rode the 2012.
How is testing with the 2013? Can they make an air fork stiff enough for you?
Actually, that’s funny because my forks are actually softer than both Broc Tickle’s and Josh Hill’s! My forks are pretty soft. An air fork is actually stiffer than a standard spring fork, but they are stiffer in different areas. The way my record is, though, I will end up messing up my fork settings by the end of the year, right [laughs]?
How do you feel coming into Anaheim I?
To be honest with you, I don’t know. I feel good. I am in the first stages of boot camp, and I feel like it is going good. Riding is going very well and I feel like there are a lot of things I can do this year that I wasn’t able to last year, for a lot of different reasons. I feel calm. Yesterday, I was thinking that the way I am feeling on the motorcycle compared to where I was a few months ago is a night-and-day difference. I think I am stronger and am finally one with the bike. I finally know what it is doing and I have insight on how the bike works. I feel really good, so we will see in a few weeks.
Is it safe to say that this is the best you have felt for Supercross since 2009?
Going into 2010 and 2011, I was actually feeling pretty good then. I felt very fast those years, but this year I feel really comfortable. I think back to last year, and I don’t know how I felt. I could tell you that last year I really never had a grasp on what was going to happen on the bike. A lot was changing. We were getting tires a week out from Anaheim, and a lot of things were uncertain. Now, the bike I show up and race with will be the bike I have been riding since October. I am comfortable and familiar with where I am compared to last year. Last year we started testing forks around my birthday or Christmas, and the race was two weeks later. This year, I am spot on.
How do you feel about Anaheim I? Everyone says they just want to “come out with points...”
To be honest, the first race I want to win is Phoenix. Going into Anaheim I, I just want my gear to look good, have my logos in the right place, and have the bike be shiny. We will see what happens, but I have no expectations going into Anaheim I, besides just being there.
Are you still racing for two more years?
I will probably race for two or three more seasons. My Suzuki deal is two years with a third-year option. I have found myself loving testing and practicing more than I ever have before. Now, I look forward to it and I have a much deeper understanding of what changes equal what results on the track. We are changing things and the bike is changing. You feel that you either made improvements or you didn’t. It is different than when you are testing a bike that doesn’t work well and we have no idea how to fix it. That is why I never liked testing before. [Laughs] I want to race at least two more years, maybe three. But then Villopoto said he has, what, two more years and then he is done? I can’t have a guy come in three years after me and quit before I do [laughs].
BEHIND THE BRAND
James Stewart isn’t the first racer to launch his own line of riding apparel; Torsten Hallman, Malcolm Smith, Chuck Sun, and Bob Hannah all come to mind as racers who threw their hats into the ring. Stewart’s newest venture came as a surprise to most, as it was a well-kept secret throughout its planning stages. Like you, we wondered what would inspire Stewart to walk away from a very lucrative apparel contract with Answer Racing.
“I’ve had some great clothing sponsors in the past, and I’ve always enjoyed working with them and helping come up with special signature pieces,” Stewart said. “But there were often times that my ideas would get shot down because of budgets and other reasons. Sometimes, I felt like just an employee, rather than a part of things, and that’s what inspired me to do my own thing.”
Designing cool-looking gear is one thing, but getting it prototyped and built is a whole different ball game altogether. Knowing well the technicalities, Stewart enlisted the help of one of the most respected icons in all of motocross, Troy Lee. After contacting the helmet-painter-turned-gear-maker-turned-team-owner, the two immediately struck up a friendship and a deal was made in short order. The Seven collaboration will see TLD assist in the design, production, and distribution of Stewart’s race gear and sports apparel, much like the DC Shoe Co/TLD venture, only on a much larger scale. “I partnered with Troy for a few different reasons,” Stewart said. “One, because he is so well-respected in the industry. Two, because he is crazy! He is a total whack job, but I love it. He has an artist’s personality and isn’t afraid try new things. That is what I like most about him.
“Partnering with Troy, at least in the beginning, makes the most sense. My previous sponsors only wanted to make gear with my name on it, but I want to make gear: stuff that is technical and purpose built. When I told Troy that is what I wanted to do, and not to just have him make his stuff with my name on it, he completely understood and agreed to help me. And I need his help because how else am I going to do it? Buy a building, hire a staff, and go visit the sweatshops in China? No way! We like to think of it the way Fox and Shift are two separate brands, but under the same roof.”
Joining Stewart in his Seven venture is his good friend Roger Larsen, who worked closely with him in his role as athlete manager at the Corona Sports Group, home to Answer Racing, MSR, and Pro Taper. Enticed by the potential he saw in the startup, Larsen left behind a half decade at Answer to join his friend in the adventure. “When I first told Roger what I was thinking of doing, he said, ‘I’m in,’ before I even finished explaining it. I feel like he is a great person for the job; a lot of people like him and he is good at what he does, so it made the decision easy. Roger, I don’t even know what his title is. I guess he can call himself whatever he wants, [laughs] but he knows how to get things done and he will basically run stuff for me.”
Rounding out the small crew at Seven is designer Moe Bennett, a veteran designer who cut his teeth at Thor before working most recently at One Industries. Using simple athletic jersey designs as inspiration, the team created the first edition of gear that Stewart will debut at Anaheim One. “I wanted to build race gear. Not gear that looks cool; not gear that has cool colors. I want race gear that is performance wear like the stuff from companies like Nike and Oakley. We are testing a lot of different stuff and I can’t get too in-depth with it right now, but I feel like our company will be groundbreaking in a lot of ways. It just had to be made.”
Being a company owner — in the start-up stages, at least — involves plenty of personal sacrifice. In Stewart’s case, that means giving up a near seven-figure salary. It’s all worth it in Stewart’s eyes, though, as he has big plans for the fledgling brand.
“I don’t take a salary here,” he said. “Sometimes in order to do things right, you don’t take a salary. When I came to Troy I said, ‘This is what I want to do, and I don’t want you to pay me. Just help me grow this company.’ My salary is nothing and I am investing in it for all of the right reasons. Whether it goes well or not is yet to be seen, but I am committed to this thing 100 percent. I think that Seven can be something special, and with Troy’s help, it can be even better.”
Seven will become available to the public sometime in 2013, and immediate plans for the brand including a team of — appropriately enough — seven elite amateur racers, as well as other top-level pros when the time comes. “Troy and Roger had to talk me into the name Seven. I didn’t want it to seem like signature gear that only I could wear, and that’s why Seven works. Yeah, it’s my number, but it can have other meanings, too...like lucky number seven! When I didn’t want my name on it, Troy put it all into perspective when he said, ‘If Jordans didn’t have the jump man on them, would you buy them?’ Then, it all made sense.”