I am a fan of James Stewart. My path to fandom was familiar to me. I saw him for the first time racing in the supercross lites class on a green Kawasaki. The gate dropped and he entered turn one in fifth or sixth place. Through the arc of the turn he took the lead and on exit seemed to be going twice as fast as anyone else on the track. He rode the remaining laps by himself literally amd figuratively. His mastery of momentum, balance and physics was absurdly unfair to the rest of the field, but wildly intoxicating to behold. He would claim titles at every level of racing including a perfect season in outdoor motocross (he won all twenty motos), and the lofty title of “fastest man on the planet.”
He learned his craft like Tiger Woods endless hours of training from tender years under the watchful eye of a stern father. Big James, himself an aspiring motocross racer, spared no expense or minute developing his son’s talent. As wins and sponsorship increased, he built a family compound with three tracks in Polk County, Florida. On the hard dirt and hot sun between the orange groves, Bubba as he was then known, cracked the talent code.
He didn’t just race he attacked a course with a toxic balance of ragged-edged relentlessness and artistry. Stewart could save himself from crashes no one else could while finding racing lines that no one else saw. The unadulterated brilliance of Stewart in attack mode meant two things: he was the fastest man on the track whenever he raced and if he didn’t fall, he would win. This is definitive and hedge-free. A tough standard to uphold.
I was at Daytona a few years ago. There was a two level jump just passed the finish line. Every rider in every class hit the jump and tire-tapped the second level to clear it, until the second to last lap of Stewart’s heat when he went all in and clear both tiers of the jump. He gained an immediate competitive advantage as no one dared to clear the both levels in a single jump. Stewart dominated the final until he went head over heels on a different jump. Crashing at this speed has consequences. Visibly shaken, Stewart fell down while trying to start his bike, but eventually remounted his bike and came through the field to seventh. His dash from the back was more compelling than anything the gifted leaders did that night.
Stewart, and by extension I, occupy a strange place. He has in the last few seasons spent more time injured than on the podium. He has aged and favors James to Bubba. Winning that seemed inevitable absent the irregularity of a fall, now seems improbable without a divine alignment of the planets. There are moments of those times, but a growing sense that we have seen the best he has to offer and must hold those times in the steel trap of our minds so we don’t forget what we saw and how it made us feel.
It is not easy to accept. The eternal flood of hope springs with every race, and is slowly gnawed on with each disappointing result. We excuse and rationalize what we see and spin the positives to the front of our minds, but the true greatness of Stewart’s early brilliance required none of this. It leapt from the track demanding our undivided attention and showed us what was possible when two wheels dance on uneven dirt.