By Brendan Lutes
The news about what really happened to Yoshimura Suzuki's James Stewart's knee when he tweaked it during the final qualifying practice at Anaheim I. And after finding out from Stewart, we decided to get team manager Mike Webb's perspective on how it all went down. As it turns out, Webb and the team are keeping a very optimistic outlook on Stewart's ACL injury.
How did pre-season go for your guys?
It started for us in October in California, and we received quite a few new items from Japan--some works pieces--so we had to evaluate those new pieces. We spent probably over three weeks in California testing and evaluating pieces that we received from Japan in order to come up with a baseline setting. We found something really, really good--something that he [James Stewart] was really comfortable with. After that, he went back to Florida to do his boot camp, which is when he just trains and rides. He put in four great weeks in Florida. He has two tracks down there and a great facility to do a boot camp. Every time I talked to him, he was just pumped and feeling good. I went back to Florida towards the end of December with my crew just to see if we could come up with something better. We had a list of things to try, but we always went back the original base spec, so everyone was comfortable with that and we knew we had something good. Then he came back to California and we had another good week before A1. His fitness was just unbelievable; he dropped--I think he told me--20 pounds since the first October test to A1. He was lean, fit, the bike was good, and we were ready.
Anaheim I went well for you guys right up until he tweaked his knee at the end of practice. Can you talk about how that day was for you guys as a team?
The day was interesting. He rode a little bit tight in the first two practices. I was a little surprised, but I think he was a little bit more nervous than I thought he would be. I was so confident in his condition, and our base spec, that I was surprised that he was riding as tight as he was. Then we went back into the truck, and he said he didn't feel good and that he couldn't get into his groove so he could ride the track like he wanted to. Then we watched it on film. I kept telling him he looked really good and he said, "Really?" But when he saw himself on film, he said, "Yeah, you're right I do look pretty good." After that, he calmed down and we made a couple clicker changes. Then he was throwing down a burner lap, and in flat corner he lost the front end, put his foot down, and caught his toe. It pulled his foot back and he felt something go in his knee. He finished the lap--because he did it right before the finish line--and went straight back to the truck. None of us could believe it. We had worked so hard, we knew our bike was good, we knew he was fit, and we just had everything lined up like it was supposed to be. It was just like, "Are you kidding me?"
Did you guys know that night that he had torn his ACL?
He did, because he had done his other knee before. He said to me, "Mike, it's exactly like the other one. It's something big." I've done knees, and I knew it was something big, so I had to go off of what he said. Plus, he could barely walk once he got off the bike. When you first do the injury, the knee is traumatized pretty heavily, so he could barely walk. We knew it was pretty severe.
It was pretty touch and go that night as to whether or not James would even race. Can you talk about the decision for him to race and also continue racing the series?
The whole night at A1 it was a pretty last second decision to the very last moment before the heat race and the main, because we didn't really know what his leg could handle. He was in a lot of pain and I was more worried if the leg would give out and cause further damage or lead to a crash. That whole night was just us making the decision at the last moment. I'm glad we did, though, because we got through it and got some great points. He didn't ride at all during the week between A1 and Phoenix. We went to Phoenix with more of the goal to see where we were at. If it's worse, then we make a decision. If it's the same or better, then we make a different decision. We realized in Phoenix that we're going to stick with it and we're going to race every round.
Why do top racers like James guard injuries so closely?
First of all, we're competing against 20 other guys and it's important that none of them get a hint that you have a weakness. At this level confidence is important, and if your competition knows that you have a wounded wing, they're confidence to beat you will go up. It's a confidence factor. The other thing is that, as far as the severity of the injury, there are a lot of other riders that have ridden with the same injury and continued their careers. Do you stop racing, get it fixed, and miss six months? Do you go ahead and soldier on through? There are a couple different options. We decided to continue racing and that's what we're going to do.
What does this say to you about James' character and determination to be able to suck it up and continue racing?
It says a lot. I think the people that truly know the kid realize that he is so far different from what the public's perception is. He couldn't be more different than that. I think it's going to allow him to be really smart about this season. We all know his speed and all that from the last 10 years. This is causing us to reinvent ourselves [as a team] a little bit; we have to be smart and we have to think a little differently. I think he have the capacity to do that, and for the first time we're going to see that. I think it's going to be a hell of a year. I really see us in this thing--differently than we all anticipated, but we're going to be in it. I'm pretty excited about it.
It's almost like a new challenge for you guys, right?
Absolutely. It's funny, because who knows what it's going to be like in May, but if we're in the hunt in May, that's going to make one hell of a story. It's a cool thing to be a part of, which is why we're all pretty excited.
To hear Stewart’s take on his injury, CLICK HERE.