30 Greatest   AMA Motocrossers:  #5 James Stewart

30 Greatest
AMA Motocrossers: #5 James Stewart

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James Stewart. Writing the name alone just sent someone to the comments section to start a bonfire. Doesn't matter to them that he's won more outdoor nationals than anyone in the history of AMA Motocross except for Ricky Carmichael. Nor does it matter that he once had a perfect season, going 24-0 in the 450 Class. Nor does it matter that he won 28 times in the 31 125cc Nationals he raced, which was better than Carmichael, Mark Barnett, Steve Lamson or anyone else. Nor does it matter that he was the innovator of a game-changing jumping technique that is now mandatory, both indoors and outdoors. Nor does it matter that a group of journalists and motocross enthusiasts have listed him at #5 on their Monster Energy 30 Greatest AMA Motocrossers list...

What matters to many is the fact that they are finally seeing that name—James Stewart—and he's the most polarizing professional racer in the history of our sport. He's also been dubbed “the fastest man on the planet,” and more often than not for good reason. He's been dominant, but he's also been inconsistent, fragile and even just absent—his three years of riding SX-only added depth to the dislike some have had for him, a special criticism that mostly missed other SX-only riders like Jeremy McGrath, Mike LaRocco and Kevin Windham.

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James Stewart ranks second on the all-time wins list.
Simon Cudby photo

Everyone seems to look at Stewart through a different prism, including himself. He learned early on how to deflect questions about his color, smiling and saying, “We all look the same with our helmets on.” But it wasn't the same for him, helmet on or off, and the unique scrutiny he has come under over the years is unrivaled in motocross. Even when he's complimented by a journalist or labeled one of the greatest riders of all time, which we are doing right now, sooner or later someone will say “you're just being politically correct” or “he's the media darling.” No one as ridiculously fast as James Stewart has ever been ridiculed so quickly in this sport. It's okay to root against anyone, but so many who root against James Stewart do it with unique vigor.

Of course there were things that Stewart did along the way that did not help ease the waters. He starred in his own reality show, a polarizing move whether you're a rising sports star, or a celebrity that thinks he or she can dance, you're the bachelor or bachelorette, or just some tanning-bed bimbos in New Jersey. While he was showing off his exotic cars and beautiful ranch, moto enthusiasts just wanted him back at the races.

He made it look so easy and fun, at least early on. Stewart started winning almost immediately when he turned pro, and his charisma and enthusiasm was palpable. His huge smile and funny dances that were part of the “Bubbalicious” years made him seem like the heir-apparent in showmanship to Jeremy McGrath, but to become that, he first had to move up and beat the man between him and McGrath, Ricky Carmichael—something not so easily done, as the world would find out.

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Stewart has won three titles during his career.
Simon Cudby photo

In hindsight, Stewart's early dominance on a 125 proved in some ways to be his achilles heel when he moved up. In his three years in the tiddler class he raced 31 outdoor nationals and won 28 of them—he DNF'd twice in '02 (twisted his knee in one race and an engine blew at another) and a crash off the start at RedBud in '04 cost him a perfect season. Yet when he moved up to challenge Carmichael in 2005, he didn't seem to have the ability to settle for anything less than winning. That in turn led to a highlight reel worth of spectacular crashes, especially outdoors, as he pushed his KX250 to the limit in trying to stay with Carmichael's RM-Z450. He didn't win a race in a summer that ended early.

The crashing problem stayed with Stewart even on the 450 through 2006, though he did take three wins of the 12 nationals that season—something no one else did against Carmichael on big bikes.

Stewart's last outdoor races against Carmichael were frustrating for him. In the five times they raced together in 2007, they seemed almost evenly matched in speed and fitness, often splitting moto wins, but Ricky took the overall every time. And when the GOAT took his leave, and Stewart inherited what appeared to be a straight shot at the title, he crashed himself out of Unadilla in practice, and then wrenched his knee at Washougal and his season was over.

The summer of 2008 was Stewart's masterpiece on the 450 outdoors, but by that point the damage done by the losses to Carmichael seemed to not only harden Stewart's resolve, it seemed to make him a bigger target. There were some ugly moments along the way to the top, where haters threw out curses and middle fingers at the man, especially at outdoor races. He got through it all, but I personally believe that it was some of that experience that led him to take a different career route.

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Stewart went 24-0 during the 2008 season.
Simon Cudby photo

Stewart left Kawasaki and his 450 Motocross Championship, he rode for an SX-only team for awhile, just like McGrath and Chad Reed did, and the one time he showed up for an outdoor race during that period—Unadilla 2010—he didn't look the same as the guy who ran the table just two summers earlier. He pulled out, stepped into his motorhome and started looking ahead to supercross. Fans hoping for more were bummed.

When James left the San Manuel Yamaha team for JGR Yamaha at the start of 2012, he planned on racing outdoors again, only to never seem to get comfortable with their bike. He showed flashes of his old brilliance in supercross, but also of his fragility. After a few more epic crashes, he decided it was time for another change. He was released from his contract and signed on with Yoshimura Suzuki, making his debut on a yellow bike last May. He won the first four motos of the 450 Class, with Ryan Dungey breathing down his neck the whole time. Then while leading the third round at Thunder Valley, a photographer crossed the track in front of him at the landing of a downhill jump, and the surprise seemed to get Stewart out of rhythm and off his line. He crashed, injuring his wrist and ending his day, not to mention his points lead. Somehow, in some corners, it was all his fault.

So here we are, more than a decade into James Stewart's professional motocross career. He hasn’t won as many races as many expected of him, though he's won more than anyone else except for one man. His winning percentage is not as great as some might have guessed it would be, but it's still far greater than anyone but Carmichael's. (RC won 102 outdoor nationals in 127 starts, which is a winning clip of 80%, while Stewart has won 46 nationals in 72 starts, which is a 64% average. No one else is even at 40%.) And he doesn't get the “fastest man on the planet” label like he used to, but he's still expected to win often.

Stewart will always be measured against uniquely high standards. He was judged almost immediately not against those he had to race, but against the records set by the two of the greatest champions the sport has produced—McGrath and Carmichael. The expectations and the pressures must be epic. Figuring out where to place him on this list wasn't easy either. But that name—James Stewart—belongs here among the greatest of all time, based on his records, his sheer speed and his obvious innovations. We rank James Stewart #5 on our Monster Energy 30 Greatest AMA Motocrossers list, based on what he did, not what he could have done.

You can see all of James Stewart's results, both in motocross and supercross, in the Racer X Vault.

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Stewart returned to the Nationals last season with Suzuki, and won the first four motos before suffering an injury at Thunder Valley.
Simon Cudby photo

Tracker:

#6 - Broc Glover

#7 - Jeff Stanton

#8 - Mike Kiedrowski

#9 - Ryan VIllopoto

#10 - Ryan Dungey

#11 - Jeff Emig

#12 - Kent Howerton

#13 - David Bailey

#14 - Mark Barnett

#15 - Doug Henry

#16 - Marty Smith

#17 - Mike LaRocco

#18 - Jeremy McGrath

#19 - Ron Lechien

#20 - Jean-Michel Bayle

#21 - Tony DiStefano

#22 - Steve Lamson

#23 - Jimmy Weinert

#24 - Chad Reed

#25 - Brad Lackey

#26 - Gary Jones

#27 - Pierre Karsmakers

#28 - Kevin Windham

#29 - Grant Langston

#30 - Johnny O'Mara

(Racer X Contributors to this list: Davey Coombs, Jason Weigandt, Eric Johnson, Steve Matthes, Jason Thomas, Andrew Fredrickson, Chase Stallo and David Pingree)

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