Monday Conversation:  James Stewart

Monday Conversation: James Stewart

December 23, 2013 9:55am
These days James Stewart’s a different guy. Perhaps the most polarizing motocrosser who has ever raced, Stewart is going into (or possibly already in, depending on your opinion) his golden years as a racer and more than ever before, he’s taking a look around to smell the roses. Still one of the most talented and fastest riders on the track, the #7 has now gone four years without a title and had his worst season as a pro in 2013. But he’s more at peace with these facts than a younger James Stewart would have ever been.

Always a great interview every time we speak, I called James on the eve of another season opener to get his thoughts on all of the above, his new business venture and much more.

Racer X: Your Seven gear has finally launched. In talking to some of your guys, you’re not just slapping your name on something; this is kind of your baby.
James Stewart: Yeah, it is. I talked to Roger [Larsen, Seven Gear Brand Manager] a couple years ago about possibly doing this and just finally the opportunity kind of came. It’s my gear company, but technically my name’s not even on it, it’s my number, Seven. I think I’ve learned it’s a process of developing and samples and all this stuff, [and] production. Just different things that I never knew about.

But I’m hands-on with everything that you see in stores in the next year and beyond. I’ve directly helped design it, put it out, take different colors for here and there, basic design seeing how it fits, everything. It’s definitely a lot more than just slapping the name on it and to be able to see it in the stores… I hear it’s pretty much always sold out. The only way you can get it now is if you go to a dealer and try to get it. It’s sold out on the website. It’s special. Like I’ve always said, I’ve always kind of had an eye for fashion and that stuff. To me it’s kind of just taking a different level to not only leaving my name in the sport as far as racing and the things I’ve done on a motorcycle but to things off the motorcycle as well.

From what I’ve seen and heard the gear is high-end, it’s high quality. So it’s a little different from a lot of stuff out there.
I went back and forth on the price myself. It’s expensive, but we’ve got to make some cheaper stuff so everybody can get it. And we will. But there’s a lot of difference in the stuff, like if you know about fashion, embossing, the different leather, all these different things. We didn’t just go okay, theses pants cost 20 bucks, let’s charge $200. It really costs a lot of money to do it. So we’ll see. I know a lot of people are kind of skeptical about it. I think a lot of people say, “They’re charging 200 bucks for it?” But I think once you feel it and see how light it is… the pant that you buy I think weighs either a pound or less than a pound. The stuff is super light. Everything’s really light. We’ll see. It’s been pretty good.

James Stewart's gear line, Seven, has offically launched.
Simon Cudby photo

One thing I wanted to talk to you about was the Red Bull Straight Rhythm. Red Bull announced that they want to make it a competition. That looks like something you could drop into New York City or something and it would be pretty sweet.
I think that’s what the whole concept was about. They wanted to take something, and I think the cool part, [is you could] just drop it in the middle of a city and have all these normal people hanging out at a hotel, watching dudes going down the street on a motorcycle. Originally when I thought about it I thought it would be cool to go out there and jump some jumps, but at the same time I’m like, “It’s going to be boring. It’s going to be down a lane and then you’re going to be done with it.”

When I went down there I was really surprised. I think the cool part was, when we rode, they were like, “Hey if you like it we’ll do it and if you don’t like it, we won’t do it.” So it wasn’t, “Hey we are doing this.” It was fun. When I knew it was fun was when I see [Ryan] Dungey out there doing heel-clickers and whips and stuff. So he was enjoying it. Me and Malcolm [Stewart, his brother] enjoyed it. It was a lot cooler than what I thought. It was exciting when I was just on the side watching Marvin [Musquin] and Ryan race each other. I think it’s going to be cool and build another aspect of motorcycle racing.

In my eyes, because he doesn’t do a lot of this stuff, the most amazing thing was getting Ryan Dungey to go there. He seemed to enjoy himself!
He was out there until almost 5:00, whipping it and doing that stuff. I was in the helicopter flying out with Marvin and he’s still down there throwing whips. I’m like, dude, he must be really enjoying it. So that was cool. I’ve got to give Red Bull credit for trying something different. I think it would really be cool once they figure out which city they’re going to put it in or wherever they want to put it, that’s going to make it cool also.

What are your thoughts coming into yet another supercross season?
There’s just a lot different for me. Obviously I ended it well with the [Monster] Cup and all that stuff. But it’s been pretty mellow. Nothing besides getting sick, which everybody does. I think we’re all training so hard you get to a little low point now and then. But I think we’ll see where we’re at, all that stuff. I feel good. I’ve had a solid few months of just riding and training and all that. No nagging injuries. Actually it’s pretty different for me. You always go there and say you’re ready, but I’m in a pretty good place right now.

Looking back on last year, you won a ton of heat races, you were the fastest guy in qualifiers and you won a race. But you stalled it a couple times, your bike broke before the main one time, which was super weird. It was a very bizarre year for you and also it wasn’t one of your better years. How do you think about it?
Yeah, I think it’s weird for you to say that I won one race and I still had a smile every week. I was still out there signing autographs for fans and doing that stuff. Like I said before, it got to the point where I was like I can either sob and hate life or I can ignore it and go on. At that point the way things were happening from the stalls, to the clutch issues, all the different things, it was kind of like I don’t know what’s going to happen so I might as well just enjoy things. It was probably the most fun I’ve had last year, probably since I was on 125s and maybe my undefeated season. I actually had a good time last year and I think it kind of shows. That’s why I was able to keep moving. But it was definitely awkward.

The cool part about that, what happened last year, is this off-season we found out why things were happening. So I’m not completely an idiot in just stalling the motorcycle. There were things that we didn’t know until we had off-season tests and oh, okay, this explains why this happened. So we got answers for everything. We’re trying to make everything better. This year I definitely plan on winning a lot more and I just hope that good things will happen, but either way I’m just going to enjoy it and make the best of it.

"I think it’s going to be cool and build another aspect of motorcycle racing," Stewart on the Red Bull Straight Rhythm race.
Garth Milan photo

I’ve known you for a long time and we’ve spoken quite a bit through the years. I don’t think the James Stewart of 2008 would have handled what happened to you as well as the James Stewart of today did. You seem like you’re in a much better place mentally. I don’t know if the pressure’s off you or what, but you do seem to take this way better than you used to.
I do. I think that’s just life and age and realizing where your at. You’ve got a choice to enjoy it or you’ve got a choice not to. The outcome is going to be the same. Some of things that happened there’s nothing I could have done. That’s how I look at it. I think people look at that and they take it two ways: usually they take it as I’m growing up, or they’re taking it as I don’t care about racing anymore and it doesn’t bother me. For sure the latter’s not true. It’s still alive, it stills burns my ass when I’m sitting there.

But instead of taking me a few days to realize that okay, I can’t do anything about this, it takes me only ten minutes to realize that. And so I move on instead of being pissed off at the fans and not coming out to sign autographs. It ain’t their fault. They came to see me. They want to see me. I need to at least go out there and say hi and stuff. The guys on the team, they didn’t try to do it on purpose. It’s kind of like if you go to the airport, you’re traveling, they lose your bag, it’s not like they did it on purpose but everybody takes it so damn personal. You’ve just got to enjoy it and move on and learn to deal with the situation.

Having said that, do you regret some of the reactions from earlier in your career? Do you wish you would have stopped to smell the roses earlier?
The only thing that I probably, and I wouldn’t say I regret, but I would say I wish I’d enjoyed winning more instead of taking it for granted. That’s it. But to be honest, all the things like getting upset and stuff and maybe not taking things in the best way, I pretty much had a good reason to be that way. It’s like anything, you have your girl or whatnot and if you don’t fully trust her everything that she does is wrong, whether she’s wrong or right, she’s wrong. And I felt like in some situations I never felt like I was always being true. It was always something, whether it was true or not, I felt like it was always dishonesty behind my back, like nobody was completely honest. One thing I believe in: as a team we win together and we fail together. So I think that’s one of the reasons why this year I realized that when our bike broke at Dallas they straight up told me what happened and it was their fault. Same thing when we were High Point, the thing that broke, they admitted that it was their fault.

And when I sucked at Daytona, I’m like, ‘That’s my fault.’ When you’re with a team and everybody’s just like, “Look, dude, we’re sorry. We’ll have to make it better” it burns, it still hurts, but it makes it easier. You feel like you’re getting the honest truth about things. There’s a lot of crookedness and shady people in this industry. I grew up having a hard time trying to trust people. I always grew up as a loner. So if you do it to me once I have a hard time trusting you. So I think a lot of that was back then I didn’t trust all the people I was around. Not everyone, I trusted a lot people on the team, there were a lot of good guys. I had a lot of great relationships on the team that I was on, but my whole Mike Fisher experience, and then unfortunately how the that situation ended up happening… it was just the wrong people that had so much power with people I didn’t trust the most. It kind of sucked but you live and learn.

Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s probably something to do with growing up being black in a white sport. I imagine you got treated pretty shitty at times, and sometimes you still are. I can’t relate to that but I think maybe that’s part of it, why you sometimes think that no one is on your side.
I’m not going to blame it on me being black because I’ve learned that’s ignorance. Those are people that don’t really know me. The people that have burnt me are the people that I would call family. Not my family, but when you have some of your closest friends and people that tell you, “Dude, I love you, man” are the same people that will turn your back on you and do harm. So if I can’t trust the people that I stay in the same house with or have been in the same house with and we work together, how can I trust the people that I don’t know? It’s one of those situations that one day I will sit down and write a book and I guarantee people will have their eyes opened. There are a lot of people who will read it and really understand who I am, but I felt like at this point I’m still racing. I feel like if I let that book out right now there’s going to be some fans that are going to love it and a lot of people who don’t even know who I really am, but they’d be putting a lot of people on blast that I’m not ready to do.

In 2008 I was hanging out a lot at the Kawasaki truck with Timmy [Ferry] and you were crushing everybody outdoors—a perfect season. You were going out there and just winning by a minute or over a minute and it still seems like you were feeling the pressure and not always happy.
Well yeah, everybody’s expecting me to win. The only time I felt pressure in 2008 was the last race, Old Dirty Dog, I call him (Timmy Ferry). He was trying to break my perfect season. What people didn’t realize, and unfortunately it happens with a lot of teams, the team was split down the middle. You had your guys and Timmy had his guys. And it wasn’t me and Timmy. It wasn’t like we disliked each other, it was just maybe Timmy did this or maybe Fisher liked Timmy more or whatnot. I remember having a conversation with Tim and him saying, “This ain’t me. I’m not trying to make it like this.” And I’m like, “I know, but a lot of people don’t know we have one team but it’s split down the middle.”

Unfortunately the fans don’t see that. Most people on the outside, if you’re not in the truck you don’t see that, either. You see me sitting there winning a race by a minute and coming back to the truck and not overjoyed but that’s because I’m sitting there looking at a guy thinking, “I know this guy hates me right now.” And it sucks to be under the same roof and it’s tough to be under the same tent as those guys saying that, “Yeah, this is my team.” But it’s not my team.

I heard from the guys at Suzuki, when Ricky [Carmichael] was out there and you’re talking to him and he’s helping you, and you’re telling him stuff about the bike… look at the GOAT and James Stewart working together!
We’re having conversations. Things are definitely a lot different. He’s definitely helping the RCH guys and I’m sitting there listening in. And the cool part is we all had the same issue. Whether it was me or him or Josh [Hill[ or Broc [Tickle]. We’re all kind of talking about the same things, so we’re all on the same page. It was easier for Ricky to go through a lot of stuff as a test guy than me trying to do it. Ricky was helping with that. But I would say us completely working together, sharing parts and all that stuff, I don’t think it’s like that, but we definitely have conversations like, “Hey, is your bike doing this?” I’m like, yeah. And he’ll go out and try to keep on working on their stuff. So it’ll work out. It’s been good.

Stewart ended 2013 on a high note by winning the Monster Energy Cup.
Simon Cudby photo

But that’s something that maybe wouldn’t have happened a year ago. From what I understand it was still a little bit more of a wall between the two teams. But now it seems like it’s a little bit better.
I think that’s more like Yoshimura and Suzuki getting into the RCH program. Those guys, it’s not like they’re going to come in and give out all the secrets and all that stuff. Everybody has to get to know each other. I think a year of those guys being there and being solid helped, and that’s what made it easier.

Sometimes when things go south on a rider you can see him, he’s just not doing the same things as he used to do. But with you, it’s weird because you had your worst season as far as wins but you still looked good, jumped things other didn’t, set fast times and all that. Do you think your skills are slipping with age or do you feel as good as ever?
Yeah, I do. Obviously I think things changed. I just think bikes and teams have gotten better. I think when you have that obviously it raises the level of the riders and all that stuff. So it really comes down to when they left two-strokes I think it took a lot of talent out, and I think the more these bikes get better and better… obviously everybody that races has talent. The guys that are winning, both Ryans, all of these guys, but I think you really have to rely on teams and the bike setup. If you don’t have 100 percent faith in your bike or you’re not feeling good or if it’s personal, you’re not going to win no matter if you’ve got talent or not. I think that’s the thing. So for me, can I do all the same things I did in 2007, 2008? Yeah. I would say as a racer I’m probably a lot smarter and know more things, know when to go and do whatever I feel like whenever I need to.

But I would say the way the bikes have caught up and all that technology it’s like talent alone can’t win now. It has to be a full team compared to back in the day it was like, “You know what, the bikes are good but they’re not that great. I’m still talented enough to jump this. I’m still talented enough to override it,” where now everybody’s going so fast it makes it tough. I think that’s what happened with Chad [Reed]. And Chad’s always been that way. Even back when him and me raced, with Ricky, when we all three raced. He would be like winning one weekend, battling with us, and the next weekend he would come out and be 30 seconds back and be barely making podiums. He’s always been that guy like if the bike setup’s not there he’s not going to push it. I think with him this year what happened is he’s still probably the same guy that he was back in 2007 when things weren’t going right. He’s probably that same guy, but then everybody else’s bikes got better and they got better. So instead of finishing third riding around at 50 percent, you go around at 50 percent and you only finish about 20th. So I believe that’s what happened. We’ll see the difference this year.

You told me one time you like to do the podcast interviews because that’s your words right there. How is your relationship with the media? Do you feel like sometimes what you’re saying isn’t represented correctly with the words on the paper?
Yeah, I definitely like to have people interview me on camera but podcasting is good also because it’s straight off my tongue. It’s hard to put words on that. I remember an interview last year when I said I would never ride Yamahas or whenever that interview was, that came out completely wrong and it was a bad situation. The Yamaha guys were going to hate me for it. I’m like, if you guys understood what I really said he would know. And like you said, I feel like there’s some media that’s good and some media that’s bad. Hey, I read where you said I wouldn’t have a chance at the supercross title. But we’re on the phone talking right now. The reason I can talk to you is I respect you. You say that truth. A lot of people take that and say, “You said that about me?” I appreciate somebody being honest about it. So I have more respect for you. I do think the media likes talking to me but I definitely prefer podcasts over written interviews.

Stewart is hoping to capture another supercross title in 2014.
Simon Cudby photo

You seem like you’re more into those post-race interviews on your site. Another way where you can directly talk to the fans about what happened that night, another way of you controlling the message.
Either way I get a chance to talk about the race. It’s cool. If you really want to know what happened, go there. At the Cup, the first race, people thought I got a bad start and finished eighth. Nobody knew I crashed back and all that stuff. There are things that the media misses and TV misses that I have a chance to be able to talk about. When I’m on TV and doing those interviews on the podium, those interviews are kind of strict. On my little deals I can talk as long as I want, so it works out.

You were in ESPN Magazine as the “next” one. Who’s next now? Who do you watch? Who do you look at? I mean 250 guys or (Ken) Roczen or somebody like that?
Obviously you got Ken and you got [Eli] Tomac, but even going back to the amateur guys, it seems like every time I turn it on there’s some new kid that I’ve never heard of all of a sudden just winning. There’s no dominant guy it seems. So I don’t know. I think everybody knows who’s doing good. But I think the biggest difference between the 250F class or amateurs is the pressure once you do it to do it over and over again. I think that’s what’s going to happen. But it’s funny when you think about it. You would think both Ryans are a lot younger than me. They’re like two years younger than me. I’m 27. I think Villopoto is either 25 or 26. They’re close.

How much longer you got?
This year I’m definitely in. I’d like to stay with Suzuki again for 2015. I would say after ’15 then it becomes if I’m still having fun. So I would say the next two years for sure I’m here and after that then it’d be a question mark.