The Fastest Man On The Planet – A James Stewart Retrospective Part 2by Jack Gaffney March 7, 2021 1 comment
Where we last left off on James Stewart, he had just completed what is widely regarded as the greatest 125cc/250cc career of all time. Moving to the 250cc/450c class would bring a whole new cast of riders to compete with. In part two of this retrospective cover from the beginning of Stewart’s Premier Class career in 2005 to his split from Kawasaki at the end of 2008.
There was no shortage of stories leading into the opening round of the 2005 Supercross season in Anaheim. Ricky Carmichael would be making his first AMA race start with Suzuki after coming off a perfect 24-0 Motocross Season about five months prior, on top of missing the entire 2004 Supercross season with a torn ACL. Stewart’s former rival Chad Reed was set to defend his first 250cc Supercross Championship in just his third year in the class (on a quick note since it is relevant, The World Supercross GP concept was horrible, and at no point do I take Heath Voss’ 2004 championship seriously). But Stewart’s premier class debut was arguably even bigger than both of those stories entering 2005.
No one had put up the stats he did in the 125cc class, and now he was getting the chance to take on the best riders in the world. Carmichael and Reed were for sure his top competition but riders like Kevin Windham, Mike LaRocco, Tim Ferry (shoutout Steve Matthes), and France’s number one export David Vuillimen would also prove to be tough outs.
In brutal track conditions for the season opener, Stewart would go to win his first-ever premier class heat race. He would not find the same luck in that night’s main event as he only managed a fifth in his 250cc debut in the deep mud at Angel Stadium. However, things would dramatically take a turn for the worst all of one week later, as James would suffer a fractured forearm in practice at the second round of the season in Phoenix. This injury would cost him a little over two months and effectively took him out of title contention only after completing one race. Stewart would return to Supercross in Orlando and would show no signs of rust as he finished on the podium.
Just a week later in Dallas, Stewart would get his first-ever premier class Supercross Main Event win, becoming the first-ever African American to do so. He would later pick up two more wins before seasons end in Houston and Seattle, finishing 10th in the points, mainly due to only competing in six races.
Stewart’s maiden voyage in premier class Motocross would not bear much better than Supercross did. Most riders had made the switch to 450cc four-stroke bikes at this point and this would-be Stewarts final season riding a 250cc two-stroke bike. The 250s weren’t as powerful as the 450s, which put Stewart at somewhat of a disadvantage entering the 2005 motocross season. He also had to go against Ricky Carmichael outdoors. In 10 professional seasons, Carmichael never lost a motocross championship and only lost an overall once in his final 36 AMA Nationals.
Stewart would only manage three overall podiums the entire season and would get into a significant wreck with Carmichael late in the season at Unadilla. Amid trying to charge through the field from an earlier incident, Carmichael would get landed on by Stewart in the middle of a high-speed downhill section. Despite this, Stewart would take the worst of this and would be knocked out from hitting the ground. Luckily, he would be able to come too and get carted off, but this effectively ended his season, only doing one more round of Motocross afterward.
Entering 2006, Stewart would make two major changes. Firstly, he made the switch to a 450cc Kawasaki as the 250s became more or less outlawed. Secondly would be a number change to Seven. Seven would go on to define his career, and would easily surpass the fame that #259 had when he used it. Later, he would use it as the name for his gear brand, but we will get to that when it becomes relevant. Stewart would win eight main events in his first year on a four-stroke bike.
Unfortunately, he would fall short of Ricky Carmichael by just two points for the championship. James earlier in the season had a crash coming to a triple jump in St Louis and then took a considerable amount of time trying to get the bike restarted, finishing 17th due to this. What makes this even more excruciating was that in that race, Carmichael crashed off the start and then laps later pulled off track due to a shock issue, and finished dead last that evening was a missed opportunity for Stwart. If Stewart had finished two spots better that night, he would have won the Supercross championship via tiebreaker of most wins that season.
2006 Motocross Season
The second verse, same as the first, applies to Stewart’s second premier class motocross season. Despite picking up three overall wins at Hangtown, Washougal, and Glen Helen, Stewart would once again fall to Ricky Carmichael, ending up a respectable fourth in the points at season’s end. Despite a motocross season that left some to be desired in 2006, Stewart would receive one of the highest honors that the sport has to offer. He was announced as the 450 Rider for The United States at the 2006 Motocross Des Nations in England. Think of Des Nations as The World Cup of motocross. While it is seemingly not as important now as in years past, at this point, this was the single biggest event in the industry.
2006 Motocross Des Nations
Stewart would now represent his country on the world stage against riders that he has never faced before. This includes legends like Tony Cairoli, Tanel Loek, Ben Townley, Max Nagl, Kevin Strijobs, and the single greatest rider Europe has ever produced in Stefan Everts. The thought of Stewart vs. Everts became the biggest topic entering the 2006 Nations. Carmichael had multiple battles with Everts over the years, but this would be the first and only time Stewart would get to line up against the ten-time world motocross champion.
Des Nations being a team event (one 450 rider, one 250 rider, and one rider that can run either dubbed an Open rider), joining Stewart to The United Kingdom would be top Kawasaki prospect Ryan Villopoto, and then Ivan “Hot Sauce” Tedesco from Suzuki. Carmichael was slated to be on the team in 2006 but ended up having a shoulder injury to close out the motocross season and decided to bow out, so Tedesco was his substitute.
Stewart and Team USA would start the race weekend strong, as Stewart would lead the 450 Qualifying Race on Saturday from start to finish. Villopoto and Tedesco pulled their weight as well, picking up a qualifying race win and a second respectively. The United States won qualifying and it set up a heavyweight showdown with Stefan Everts and Team Belgium on Sunday. This weekend was gigantic for Everts. It was to be his final start in Des Nations and was a part of five prior wins for Belgium, a lot was on the line for him, and he was willing to dig as far as he had to, to bring home just one more Chamberlain Trophy.
Stewart vs. Evers
Luckily, we did not have to wait long to see Everts vs. Stewart when the chips were down, as both got great starts in the 450 and 250 class Moto and quickly broke away from the pack. Stewart, however, would fall in the middle of a corner and would lose multiple spots in the early going as Everts would sail away. Despite losing the race, there was a bigger picture to see for Stewart and company.
The United States was leading the points after the first moto by 6 points over Team New Zealand, thanks to James and Ryan Villopoto finishing second and third place. Villopoto and Tedesco would, once again, do their part in Moto Two, scoring results of second and sixth respectively, giving The United States an 18-point gap over Team New Zealand with one race left. That meant it was time for round two of Everts and Stewart.
Stewart and Everts would find themselves in the thick of the hunt about 10 minutes into the final moto and were in a heated battle for a good three minutes. Everts would then rail an outside corner to make a pass on Stewart, and would ultimately be the winning move, and his final race ever. Stefan Everts would go 1-1 in The Motocross Des Nations, although he won the battle, the war was a different story.
For the second year in a row and for the 16th time in the last quarter-century, The United States had won The Motocross Des Nations with a final score of 15 Points to Team Belgium’s 22. Stewart now would join American motocross icons such as Carmichael, Jeremy McGrath, Damon Bradshaw, David Bailey, Bob Hannah, Jeff Ward, and many others to win gold for The United States. Despite Everts getting the better of James in his swan song, a Des Nations win is a feather that any rider today would love to put in their cap (please Zach Osborne, for the love of God save us if we go this year).
Assumingly at some point around this time, James would sign an extension with Kawasaki that would take him to the end of 2008. We would not know until then, but this would be the beginning of the end of his incredible run with Kawasaki, but James was about to enter arguably, the best three-year stretch of his 450-career, beginning in 2007. Carmichael was set to retire from supercross midway through the season to begin his transition into NASCAR, giving James the best shot he had to this point in his career at becoming Supercross World Champion, and James would take this opportunity by the throat. Stewart would begin 2007 by winning five of the first six rounds of supercross, and in the one round he did not win at San Francisco, he ended up in second place to Carmichael.
Heading into Carmichael’s swan song in Orlando in mid-March, Stewart, along with Chad Reed, would be multiple races ahead in the points over anyone else. Reed would end up taking the main event holeshot that evening, but it would quickly turn into an all-time battle between Stewart and Carmichael for one last time.
Stewart vs. Carmichael
Carmichael would make short work of Reed to grab the lead early on, Stewart later would take second from him after Reed made a mistake on a triple jump. Stewart would then set up camp right behind the exhaust pipe of Carmichael and wait to make his move. And with eight laps to go, Stewart would make what was ultimately the winning pass coming out of a corner leading into a rhythm section. Anything Carmichael had left in the tank he emptied, but that night in Orlando would belong to James Stewart.
Some considered that night to be the official passing of the torch from Carmichael to Stewart as the fastest rider on the planet. Stewart would prove from there on out that would be the case. He would win 13 main events in 2007, which is the second-most ever in one season, and became the first African American to win a major motorsports championship, beating Chad Reed by 51 points.
2007 Motocross Season
Stewart would have a superb start in the 2007 motocross season with a win and five-second places. On top of that, he would end missing Unadilla, due to a back injury in practice in the middle of that stint, and lead the points entering the second half of the season at Washougal. Unfortunately, Stwart injured his knee in a fluke accident. Firstly, this cost him a more than winnable motocross championship, and secondly, this injury would only worsen over time.
Stewart’s championship defending and final season with Kawasaki was derailed almost immediately. Stewart would suffer a practice crash right before the supercross season in December of 2007, re-injuring his left knee that he hurt at Washougal earlier in the year, training with now-famous trainer Aldon Baker. Despite winning the second round of the season in Phoenix, he decided to pull out of round three in Anaheim, citing that “my knee felt really unstable” during practice on the TV broadcast. On January 25th, 2008, Stewart would officially get surgery for a torn ACL in his left knee, knocking him out for the final 15 rounds of supercross, and gave Reed a path to his second supercross championship over Kevin Windham. What happens next, however, would put James on a whole other stratosphere in terms of his legacy.
2008 Motocross Season
Stewart would end up being back and ready to hit the ground running for the outdoor season. Despite a torn ACL being a major injury, it is not the death sentence that it is in other sports. From the date of his surgery to the first moto of the year at Glen Helen, he missed exactly four months, and Stewart was about to end his nearly 15-year run with a bang.
Stewart started the 2008 Outdoor campaign by obliterating the field in both motos at Glen Helen and proceeded to win both motos again at Hangtown. Then finished 1-1 at Freestone, High Point, Thunder Valley, and Red Bud. By this point, he was 12-0 and talk of a perfect season was very much alive for Stewart. This would not be the first time it was done. Carmichael ended up having two perfect seasons in 2002 and then in 2004, but to win 24-0 consecutive motos regardless of competition or who he’s racing is amazing.
Stewart even ended up evening facing an MXGP rider, Dutchman Marc De Reuver, in the sands of Southwick, Massachusetts, as he had an off week to spare. However, De Reuver would see the inevitable truth that every rider in the US paddock knew at this point. There was not a man alive that was going to beat James Stewart straight up in motocross that summer. At Steel City MX in September, Stewart would become the second man ever to complete a perfect motocross season behind former rival Ricky Carmichael. However, James still had one final race with Kawasaki before he said his goodbye.
2008 Motocross Des Nations
Stewart was selected for The United States Motocross Des Nations team and, once again, would be making a trip overseas to Great Britain, this time at the Donnington Park circuit. Joining Stewart in his second Des Nations appearance would be Ryan Villopoto and Tim Ferry. The USA would take top honors in qualifying, with Stewart and Villopoto taking home qualifying race win. Stewart would then back this up with a strong win in the opening moto of the day on Sunday over France’s Sebastian Pourcel.
However, in his second race of the day, the person who ultimately beat Stewart was himself. When he had the final moto of the day well in hand with a little over three minutes remaining, Stewart would end up crashing. Then his Kawasaki machine refused to start up after stalling, causing a finish of 23rd. The good news is, in Des Nations, a countries worst moto finish among its three riders is dropped and Villopoto and Ferry would have strong results that day. The United States would walk away as Motocross Des Nations Champions for the fourth year in a row. This would be Stewart’s final attempt in the event.
This would conclude Stewart’s run with Kawasaki. A few days later, Stewart would sign a two-year contract with San Manuel Yamaha. The contract would only be for Supercross. Stewart would go on the record and give insight into his split from Kawasaki in a 2019 sit-down interview series. “Kawasaki decided not to re-up me going into , they thought I was kinda done. Why they thought that I don’t know…I bummed. I wanted to end my career out there.” On the prospect of not having to run motocross, James had this to say. “Honestly, I think that’s what extended my career a little bit because if I was doing both, I would have retired…Doing both seasons and expecting to win every single race became exhausting.”
Stewart would also make a switch regarding his choice of riding gear. After seemingly a lifetime of being a fox rider, he would make the switch to the Answer Brand for 2009. Stewart would once again become a Red Bull athlete after having to part due to Monster Energy becoming the title sponsor for Factory Kawasaki in 2007 and would continue to sport a Red Bull helmet for the rest of his career from here on out.
Before writing this, I expected this to be the final entry in this retrospective. Then I realized I was about 2000 words deep at the end of Stewart’s 2007 season. So now, this will be either a three-or four-part retrospective. Regardless of that number, I am beyond excited to go back and reminisce on Stewart’s 2009 year, as well as 2011. Also, we will get into the seven brand and the ultimate demise of the career of James Stewart. Until then, be sure to check out Daytona Supercross on Saturday Night at 7 EST.
Follow Jack Gaffney on Twitter @JackGaffneyPTST
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