Catching Up With James Stewart
By Donn Maeda
In six days, San Manuel Yamaha’s James Stewart will return to the starting gate for the first time in over six months, and when he takes to the track at the Unadilla round of the Lucas Oils Motocross National Championship Series, it will mark the first time since 2008 that Stewart has raced motocross. It will also be the first time he has competed outdoors aboard a Yamaha.
TransWorld Motocross has caught up with James several times during the past few weeks as he prepared to make his return to racing, and each time his videos have drawn a plenty of comments and inspired a ton of bench racing. Can James Stewart come off the bench and beat 450 National Championship favorite Ryan Dungey; his former training partner who has dominated this year’s series? According to James, beating RD isn’t really one of his plans this coming weekend, as he claims to be nowhere near 100% race ready.
We filmed James testing at Pala Raceway, back in July.
Stewart phoned TransWorld Motocross this afternoon shortly after pulling into his driveway in Orlando, Florida. With a few days of extensive testing under his belt out in California, Bubba sounded excited and anxious about next Saturday. Here’s what he had to say…
So James, we’re about to see you race your first National Motocross race in two years…
Yeah, the last time I trained to race an outdoors was at the Motocross of Nations in England in 2008. So yeah, it’s been about two years. I’ll be honest, though, it’s definitely coming along a lot slower than I’d like it to, but I told my fans and sponsors that I would be out there, so that’s where I will be this Saturday: Unadilla.
Come on, guy. We’ve seen you testing at the tracks here in So Cal… How can you use the word, “slow” to describe anything about your program?
(Laughs) No, I mean, like riding, and speed…that all came back pretty quickly. Once I got clearance from the doctors to start riding again, I got comfortable on the bike pretty quickly. So I mean, as far as going fast for a few laps: that is no problem. But what I am lacking right now is the physical aspect of my program. I have only been training for a little while now, and I am no where near being in the shape I’d like to be, as far as for racing for the win goes. There’s a big difference between riding at race pace for a few laps and actually racing for 30 minutes plus two laps.
So we’ve seen you testing difference set-ups on your bikes, and you will go out, throw down a lap or two at speed, then pull in to try a different setting. That’s what you have to do when you have so much testing to get done. But, have you gone out and hammered out some race-length motos, at full-speed yet?
Oh, yeah, I have. But there is a big difference between doing some hard, fast and long motos at my house in Florida, and actually racing at a National track. Last week, I pretty much just wanted to go out and ride and enjoy being on the bike, and get some testing in at the same time. To be honest, Donn, the reason I am going to Unadilla to race this weekend is for the fans. I feel like I owe it to them, and my sponsors, to get out there and get to work out on the track.
For a guy who hasn’t raced for six months, isn’t it odd to think that you might have more fans now, than you did the last time you lined up behind a starting gate?
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s funny, and I guess it’s probably true. Even though I haven’t been racing, I know that I have gained a lot of new fans because of my TV show. Bubba’s World has attracted a lot of new fans to the sport, and has made me known to a whole new crowd of people. But I know that my real, core fans are the people who will be at Unadilla, watching me make my return to outdoor motocross. Those are the fans who will go out and appreciate my sponsors and buy my replica gear at the dealerships. I know that, and that is why I am sticking to my word and coming back for the last four Nationals. It’s kind of like when McGrath would come back and race the Anaheim Supercross; he did it for the fans. And that’s what I am trying to do now.
Compare the way you feel now, a few days before Unadilla, to the way you felt right before Glen Helen in 2008. Back then, you said you had no idea where you stood in comparison to your competition, but you went out and waxed everyone, then went on to have a perfect season…
Not even close, actually. Then, it was different because I was only off for three months after my knee surgery, so the time off wasn’t as long. Even before that, I had done the outdoors in 2007 and the bike set-up wasn’t really that different. So I was coming in a lot more prepared in 2008. Plus, when you come into a series in the championship frame of mind, your whole approach is different. I came in, feeling unprepared, but I knew that I had to suck it up and get the job done. This weekend, I am coming in unprepared, but I am on a whole new bike and haven’t raced outdoors in two years. Plus, my whole life right now is basically focused on Anaheim 1 in 2011, not so much these next four races, if that makes sense. It’s like comparing apples to grapefruits (laughs), I am hoping that everything goes smoothly, but this is honestly the first time in my career that I am coming into a race with expectations this low.
Come on, now. It’s not in your character to come into a race and cruise around and settle for second. It’s win, or go down trying for James Stewart. Always has been…
(Laughs) Yeah, I know! It’s gonna be weird, but honestly I would be pumped with second at Unadilla. I am really going to the race to just have fun. I am human. This isn’t Anaheim 1, and the way I am gonna ride at Anaheim 1 will be completely different. To be honest, if I had not gotten hurt and did get to race the whole Supercross series, I probably wouldn’t be doing any Nationals. But since I was injured and have been away from the racetrack for so long, I feel like I owe it to lots of people to get back out there. I told everyone that I would be there, so I will be there.
Most recently, we filmed James in action at Milestone MX Ranch last week.
Let’s talk about the wrist, then. Is it completely healed and out of your mind, or is it tender and does it require you to baby it a little bit?
The wrist is healed. It’s ok. But I don’t want to fall on it and find out if it is okay that way. It’s 100% healed, but it still gets sore once in a while like the rest of my body does. My wrist is ready, but physically, I am just not 100% yet as far as being in shape and ready to race. My speed isn’t quite where I should be yet, either. I’ve always been expected to win, and I always put pressure on myself to win, but I am approaching this weekend more relaxed than I ever have any other race.
Do you think that because you are coming in just to compete in the final four races, you will have an advantage over those who are in the middle of a championship race?
No, I don’t think so. It would be different if I had been riding the whole time, and I was just coming in to do some races. I have not been riding all this time, so I’m actually at a disadvantage, I’d say. The guys in the series have it all figured out and know where they stand. They know how hard the can push for 20 minutes and they have an idea of where they should be in the pack. For me, I am coming in totally clueless. There is not really a championship run going; Dungey has it pretty much locked up.
On Twitter, David Vuillemin said something like; “Bubba would not chase Kevin Windham for over half the race,” while trying to argue against those who think Ryan Dungey has become the fastest man on two wheels. Did you catch that Tweet, and what did you think of it?
(Laughs) That was real cool, what Vuillemin said. The last time Kevin Windham and I raced against each other outdoors was back in like 2006. But in 2008, I don’t think there was anyone in the world who could have led me for half the race. Ricky could have come of the couch for a race or two in 2008, but I felt strong enough then to be able to say no one would have beaten me back then. But Kevin Windham wasn’t there in 2009, so I can’t really say. I know he is an awesome motocross rider, but I would still like to think that what Vuillemin said is true. (Laughs)
In the Washougal press conference, after his 1-1 romp, Ryan Dungey was asked how he would approach your return to racing. He surprised many by saying that he wouldn’t lay down for anyone, championship at stake, or not. James, is it “on” this Saturday?
(Laughs) No, no…it’s not “on” this Saturday. I would honestly expect him to say that. I know I would. But dude, it’s not like I’ve been out there training for months and months and months. I mean, when I go out there, I am gonna give it all I’ve got. But what I’ve got now, compared to what I will have in January when I’m healthy, isn’t even the same thing. At the end of the day, Ryan Dungey is not someone I am worrying about right now. I am not in the championship hunt and I have nothing to prove. I don’t even give a crap how I do, actually. (Laughs) I am just going out to have fun.
You Tweeted when you got back on a bike for the first time, but how long have you actually been working out and training for your return to the track? I mean, when’s the last time you had a brownie and washed it down with a glass of Kool Aid?
(Laughs) That would be tonight, actually. (Laughs) I’ve been doing cardio for a while now, actually, but the thing that sucks is that my wrist injury kept me from lifting weights and maintaining my upper body strength. I was riding my bicycle and running, but I wasn’t strength training at all. The first day I got back on a bike was also the first day I even picked up a weight of any kind. I hate even talking the way I am, but I have to be realistic, too. You know, I guess I am just trying to take a little bit of the pressure off myself coming into Unadilla. (Laughs) At least with my new Answer gear, I know I will be looking good, even if I am not riding that good. (Laughs)
Okay, since you bring riding gear up… I’ve seen the entire 2011 Answer Racing lineup, and I’d like to think that I am pretty familiar with it. That said, were you wearing girls riding gear last week when you were riding at Milestone?
(Laughs) Oh yeah! (Laughs) I was riding in a size 10 and it was too big. I was in chick’s gear, and I’m not scared. It looked good, and you know that I have never been scared to wear pink. But I have to say that I am pretty damn stoked about the stuff I am gonna race in this weekend. I have the boots to match and everything. I am fully committed to looking good this weekend. I haven’t been this stoked about wearing some riding gear in a long time.
(Laughs) Well, “Look good, feel good, ride good,” has always been your motto, right?
(Laughs) Oh yeah, it has. And let’s hope the last part comes true at Unadilla! (Laughs) Dude, here’s what’s funny. I love my signature line and all, but my favorite gear is the $100 stuff. You know, the stuff that you can get pants, jersey and gloves for 99 bucks. It’s awesome. I feel like it’s an old beater car. You just put it on and run it and don’t worry about getting it dirty or beat on. (Laughs) And I figure I’d better at least look good and feel good this weekend; because I hate the damn track we are going to…
Yeah, speaking of Unadilla, you have certainly had your fair share of lows there…
(Laughs) Yeah, I have had some good times there, but most of them have been bad times. Even in 2008 when I won there, I mean, I had Cody Cooper all over me. It was no fun that whole race weekend. I was thinking, “man, just make it through the Unadilla weekend and we will deal with Southwick next weekend!”
And then there was that incident when you were on a two-stroke Kawasaki KX250, trying to beat Ricky Carmichael on his 450…
(Laughs) And you know what? I would do the same exact thing this weekend all over again. I was leading the race, and I was taking that same damned line the whole race. And that was the only place on the track where I was faster than him. I knew it because he was all over me, but when we would go through that section, I would pull away from him a little bit. Anyway, he had just passed me but that section was coming up and I knew that if I could get back around him, I could block him for the last three laps and win. But that lap, he went even tighter inside and slowed down more than normal. When I was in the air, I thought, “Oh shit!” But it was too late and it was already done. It is what it is, and it made for great highlight reel stuff. I’ve had some big crashes at Unadilla. That place sucks. (Laughs)
Let’ say you come back this weekend and pull a win out of your ass, then do the same at Southwick, Steel City and Pala, and the AMA asks you to be on the Motocross of Nations team. What do you say?
Yeah, if they ask me, I will accept for sure. For me, it’s a double-edged sword because I think Andrew Short deserves to go. I think that he has ridden awesome this year and stuff like that, and I think he deserves to go. But I am not gonna turn it down if it is offered to me. If they ask me I will go, and if they don’t I will still go to offer my support and be the back-up rider in case anything happens. But if you asked me today, before I get back to racing, who should go, I would say Andrew Short deserves to go. Ask me again later on if I do well at Unadilla though, and maybe my answer will be different. (Laughs)
It’s admirable that you say Shorty deserves to go, but there is no shame in saying that you want to be chosen. Remember when the Motocross of Nations was held at Unadilla? Bob Hannah was in the twilight of his career, but he led a campaign to be chosen for the team by saying, “I’ll even ride the stinkin’ 125!”
Yeah I see what you’re saying, and I’m with that. If I was a punk, I’d say, “You should have taken me last year!” and “You should choose me this year, my name is James Stewart!” But you know what? The last time I went, I got third. (Laughs) Don’t get me wrong, I want to go. I want to go real bad. But I want to earn the invitation. Out of respect, I wouldn’t feel right accepting it unless I went out and proved that I could do the job.
Switching channels a bit… We were chatting about your gear and boots a bit, but how is that new Bell Moto 9 coming along? Your latest helmet looks a lot closer to being a production version…
Oh yeah, the new Bell Moto 9 is awesome. We’ve been working on that since the beginning of last year, and the guys at Bell have been working hard to make a helmet that fits awesome and looks good. We’ve gone through a bunch of versions, and they have made every change I have asked for. I am very excited about it and I think that it is gonna be a big hit. Obviously, the only kind I can run are the Red Bull paint jobs, but I have seen some of the paint jobs and they are really good.
When you showed up wearing the Bell MX-1 mid-line helmet because you preferred the fit to the high-end Moto 8, and then paired it with the $99 Answer Ion gear, I thought to myself, “Damn, the richest man in motocross, wearing all the affordable stuff…”
(Laughs) Yeah, man! (Laughs) I mean, hey, I shop at Walmart too! It’s no big deal man. Wherever I can save a buck, ya’ know? (Laughs) The MX-1 just fit my head better and it looked good. Just because it was cheaper doesn’t mean it didn’t work good! (Laughs)
Well, thanks for calling, James. Is there anything that we missed, or that you’d like to add?
Basically, it’s been almost eight months since I have raced, and I have missed it. Basically, these next few races are especially for my fans and sponsors, because I appreciate all of you. I look forward to Unadilla, and getting the number-seven Yamaha YZ450F out there, and hopefully I can have some fun, too!