James Stewart will line up for a race this Saturday for the first time in more than a year. What kind of comeback can we expect?
It’s been a while since JS7 has broken a barrier or set a record. A generation ago, Stewart became the first African-American race winner and champion of professional motocross and Supercross in the United States. He changed the riding style at the top level with his “Bubba scrub,” a move now emulated by riders around the world. He has always been fast and sometimes dominant, such as when he ran the table (24-0) in the 2008 450 motocross class. In 2014, he became the first rider to win at least one 450 Supercross main event in 10 consecutive seasons. That streak was involuntarily cut off in 2015.
Stewart has not raced an official AMA-sanctioned event since July 19, 2014, following a 16-month suspension handed down by the Federation of International Motorcycling. He missed the entire 2015 Monster Energy Supercross season and was ineligible for the 2015 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross series until August 11. He elected not to return for the final two rounds. Suzuki showed its support for Stewart by re-signing him in June to a multi-year deal and announced an October return.
This Saturday, he will line up for the second annual Red Bull Straight Rhythm at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif. Straight Rhythm is a fun and unique Red Bull-created race that features head-to-head knockout-style competition on a half-mile straight-line Supercross course. Stewart is the defending champion and the 2014 race was his last. It’s like Nintendo’s Excitebike video game, only real. Stewart will then compete Oct. 17 in the Monster Energy Cup, an invite-only race in Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. It's more like a traditional Supercross, but with a few twists (three 10-lap main events, a “joker” lane, and a SX/MX hybrid course).
These first two events, both one-off races created by energy drink companies, have no bearing on any championships, but will give us our first hints about whether Stewart can achieve his quest to become a champion once again. His last title came in 2009, when he took his second career Monster Energy Supercross championship. Stewart’s quest for another begins on Jan. 9, 2016, in Anaheim, Calif.
Based on history, the Floridian faces two big hurdles: the long layoff and his age. No rider has ever taken an entire 365 days (or more) away from racing and won a championship. On Dec. 21, Stewart turns 30. No rider has won a Supercross title in the premier class after turning 30.
Even winning a single Supercross main event is rare after age 30. The list is short: Mike LaRocco, Chad Reed, John Dowd and Kevin Windham.
The bigger question than age is absence. How long will it take Stewart to re-acclimate to racing against a gate full of the world’s best? Everyone looks fast in their back yard and no rider has ever found championship success after such a long layoff. The most notable names in motocross and Supercross racing to take an extended leave of absence are Bob Hannah, Kevin Windham and Damon Bradshaw.
In 1979, Hannah won his third consecutive AMA Supercross title and another 250 (now 450) Pro Motocross crown in July. While water skiing later that year, he hit a submerged rock and was thrown onto the shore. His right leg was broken in 12 places and he had a brief amputation scare. He didn’t line up for another championship run until Jan. 31, 1981. He won many more races through the first half of the 1980s, but never another title.
Damon Bradshaw was still searching for his first major championship when he disappeared from racing after the Sept. 5, 1993 Steel City Pro Motocross. Bradshaw was only 21 years old, had 28 national level MX/SX victories, and a five-year Yamaha contract worth $450,000 a year, but was burned out. He returned to racing on May 28, 1995 and competed until the end of 1997, winning the High Point Motocross that year. In 2002 he made another comeback, this time in Arenacross. He was a championship hopeful until an injury sidelined him and his career for good.
When Kevin Windham broke his femur in practice at the Atlanta Supercross on Feb. 23, 2002, a feeling of relief came over him. His best finish up to that point in the Supercross season was a sixth and his team manager, Roger DeCoster, went as far as benching him for a race and told him to get his head right. The injury forced him out and he spent the spring and summer of 2002 drinking, eating and not thinking about racing. He returned in May, 2003 and enjoyed another 10 years of professional competition. In January 2013, he unexpectedly retired at round three of the Supercross series, ending his career with 10 championship runner-up finishes, three in Supercross, seven in motocross.
Can James Stewart do two things that haven’t been done? Can he come back to win another title after a long layoff and after age 30?
His last championship was in Supercross in 2009. A title in 2016 would earn him yet another record: the longest gap between Supercross championship seasons. Defending champion Ryan Dungey currently holds that honor with five years between his first title (2010) and second (2015).
Three months remain until the start of the 2016 racing season, but the events over the next two weeks will provide crucial fodder for the autumn bench racing season.