After a rough start, Stewart was able to fight from the back of the pack to take the 2009 AMA Supercross championship.
James Stewart is the biggest name in Supercross and motocross racing, but the guy didn’t even take the outdoor stage this year. After claiming a hard-fought championship in the see-saw SX war last season, Stewart enjoyed the fruits of his Supercross-only deal with San Manuel L&M Yamaha team. During the off-season he kept himself busy, but ran into problems with his health as he globe-trotted the international SX scene. Now we’re only two days away from the AMA season opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, CA and Stewart has some serious work ahead of him. Motorcycle USA correspondent, Shan Moore, caught up with the returning champ to find out about his summer, the new bike and his feelings for nemesis Chad Reed and the 2010 SX series.
How is your health? You got sick at Bercy and then you dropped out of a couple of other races this fall.
Basically, over the off-season I was pretty busy doing a lot of stuff. I raced the US Open and I actually went to California five times in one month – just going out for one day and then flying back home. So it’s been hectic, and when I went to Bercy for some reason the time difference affected me a lot more this year. Last year I adapted really well, but this year was different. I got over there on Wednesday evening and I ended up only sleeping about seven hours the whole five days I was over there. Everything went fine on the first two days but on Sunday I ate some food and didn’t feel real good during the qualifiers and then right before the final I started throwing up. So I came back home and did some blood tests and found out that there were a lot of things that were low, so basically after Bercy I’ve been kind of low-key and not really riding a lot. I’m just going to try to rest up for the season.
Let’s talk about the new bike. You’re entering the year with a new bike, you’ve got two races on it, the U.S. Open and Bercy. Was it difficult transitioning to the all-new model?
No, not really. Basically, last year I switched from Kawasaki to Yamaha, and then this year is like switching to a completely new bike, so I’m getting used to adapting. One thing I did notice about riding the Yamaha, switching from Kawasaki, I think it was a better change than I expected. The team is working really good and we haven’t been able to do a lot of testing but I think this bike is good enough to go win races, by far.
You now have fuel-injection, has that been a big factor?
For sure, the fuel-injection is a lot better and until you ride one you don’t know that. I mean, last year my bike was good. But now, I know how good fuel-injection is and just having more trust in the bike, it’s big. For me, a couple of things happened this year that I don’t think would have happened if I had fuel-injection. I think for me, I ride on the front end a lot and I slam into jump faces a lot, and obviously we know I’m not afraid to jump stuff, but now I can just be a little more confident when I do that stuff.
Do you feel maybe you were at a disadvantage to the Suzuki last year, not having fuel-injection?
I wouldn’t say the Suzuki had an advantage because of the fuel-injection. I think Suzuki having Chad [Reed] was my biggest competition. I think they had things that were better and we had things that were better. I just think this year having fuel-injection and having the way the bike handles is huge. And I think with Chad moving over to my old team, obviously, I know how that works over there, so he will be tough. It’s going to be another long year for me.
Stewart walks off the track at Anaheim 1 in 2009. A crash and failure to restart his bike left him far behind in points.
Let’s talk about the Supercross championship. You didn’t get off to the best of starts, did you? You crashed at Anaheim I and basically spotted everyone an entire race.
Yeah, and you know, it’s funny, I won two out of the three races to start the season and I was still down 13 or 14 points. So it didn’t start off well. It was tough, this year was very exhausting. Especially coming over to a new team, San Manuel, and getting along with the team so well and then having that happen at the first race. And even in the second and third race, even though I won them, I went home thinking, ‘man, I dodged another bullet this weekend.’ It was a lot of pressure for me, because I was thinking Chad just left the team and having San Manuel bring me on I felt like I just had to live up to winning the championship. No matter what, it was always on my mind and then when that happened at Anaheim I just had to sit back and try to focus.
Talk about how you fought your way back into the championship.
Well, I climbed back into it and then I slid out in the first turn at Daytona, and got seventh place. I climbed back into it again and I had everyone telling me I saved the season and I was exhausted again and then I had one of the worst races of my life at St. Louis. Although I got second, it was just a bad night. Then what happened at Salt Lake and at Vegas, it was pretty taxing for me. Especially when you’re on the top, just the pressure I put on myself trying to win for my team. And having to win when not everything is going perfect, but I was able to do it and I’m really happy about it.
Crossing the finish at Vegas and taking the championship title after a rough head-to-head race with Chad Reed.
It has to feel satisfying to win after all of those setbacks.
Yeah, it was definitely satisfying. And for me, I was so happy that I felt like crying, which I did. But I was so tired; I couldn’t even enjoy it because I was so tired. And now, I have to go do all the obligations that I couldn’t do when I was racing, like for Nike and San Manuel, and Alpinestars, and all these guys, now I have to go visit them and I start running off and doing all that stuff and everything just catches up with you. But it was definitely gratifying and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I at least want to win one championship like that. So maybe the rest will be easier.
We can’t talk about the championship without talking about the friction between you and Chad. There was also the USA Today story. Are those kinds of things big distractions when you are fighting for a championship?
To me, not really. I get over it, and personally, I don’t like that stuff. I know how I feel, and maybe there are things I can’t control, but it was like that whole championship season everyone forgot about how far I came back and they were just concentrating on the negative. It was tough, after Anaheim I had to win the next eight races just to get back to even. So I just kind of got bummed out because of the negative. Chad and I had a good battle and it was good, the series had one of the best ratings ever, and it was great for the fans.
Are you pleased with the team and working with Larry Brooks?
Honestly, I am. Obviously, before I got on the team I really didn’t know how it was going to work out. I was switching to Yamaha, and I had never ridden any other bike but Kawasaki. And then with Larry, even the things I didn’t like about him before, I always seen him with his riders and I wanted that. And it’s been good and the guy tries harder than I do on some things, so it’s good. San Manuel is great, too. I’ve never had a sponsor like that. They do a lot of stuff for the community and I think it’s like a big family and it’s pretty neat.
You had a Supercross-only deal with San Manuel, so you took the summer off for the most part. Talk a little bit about what you did.
Stewart made his X-Games debut in 2009 and put on quite a show but comes up a littls short of gold in the MotoX Best Whip. Will 2010 hold X-Games gold for Stewart?
Well, over the summer, I went up to Nike and did a bunch of sponsor obligations and then I went to the Bahamas for five days – just a little vacation. I got back just before X-Games and I ended up hurting my shoulder in the Supermoto race. That was kind of a set back; luckily, I didn’t have to race anywhere right away. After that we did a lot of testing on the new bike, and then things started happening real fast. Right after that, that’s when I shot my reality TV show. And then I did a few ride days, and then it was the US Open and then Bercy and here we are now. It’s really been a pretty hectic off-season for me. I left out a lot of stuff, so I was pretty busy.
Tell us about the reality show.
It’s weird. I don’t even like talking about it because people get the wrong impression about it. It’s about my life, my family, and about life away from racing. Pretty much what happened over the season. Obviously there are things in there that I don’t normally do, but it makes for a good show. I think it’s good, though. I think it’s a way for people to see another side of me and, like it or not, it’s another avenue to show people how gnarly motocross is. People don’t really understand how gnarly we are and I think what we do is harder than football and anything else. There will be a lot of different people watching it and that’s why I always thought X-Games was so good because it’s on national TV. Fuel TV is putting it together, and it will air in March.
Do you regret not riding outdoors this season after such an incredible run to the 2008 title?
I think yes and no. I enjoy riding outdoors, especially last year. But I don’t know if I would have been able to. I would have been fine I’m sure, and I would have loved to have raced it, but I was exhausted after the Supercross series and it was nice having a break. When you have to dedicate stuff to one season, I basically did a lot more riding for Supercross, and if I had been riding outdoors too I would have had to start transitioning my program a lot sooner. I rode every day up to Vegas, always riding motos, motos, motos – all Supercross. And when everyone else starts tapering off, I was staying steady riding.
You also missed the Motocross of Nations. Did you miss racing that race?
I did, but it’s weird because it was hard for me to miss the outdoors, too. I’ve never been healthy and not raced. But I watched every moto online of the outdoor series, and although I missed the outdoors, I was there every Saturday, watching it. My whole Saturday was dedicated to watching motocross. But when it came to Motocross of Nations, I kind of got over it. By Mount Morris, I was kind of realizing, ‘okay, I’m not racing so I need to sit back and relax and enjoy it.’ So when Motocross of Nations came around, yeah, I took a lot of crap for it, but I was thinking if I go, there are a lot of good candidates that should go and I haven’t raced so that’s not fair. And my name never really popped up anyway. They had Alessi and Villopoto was there and they had Dungey, but then those two guys got hurt.
As big as the sport is getting is there starting to be too many demands on the top athletes?
I don’t know. It’s hard and it’s a lot of work. But the sport is growing and the fans want to know more about the riders and see the riders and talk to them, so it’s hard to get it all done, and the fans don’t see all the work that really goes into it.
What are you plans for the 2010 season and what are your goals?
My deal is Supercross-only again for 2010, and I don’t know, we’ve actually been talking about the outdoors a little, trying to get some stuff together. But right now, it’s Supercross-only. I know for a fact that all we’re focused on right now is Supercross. It’s going to be a very competitive season and I’m looking forward to it.