Somewhere along the way, the mantra becomes this: you’re going to have to do this stuff anyway, so you might as well enjoy it.
The relative youth of a professional motocrosser is often taken for granted. Before we make judgments on a rider, remember that a supercross star in his prime is around the same age as a college athlete or rookie pro in other sports. The level of scrutiny, attention, pressure and obligations are monumental at the superstar level, and most sports reserve that stuff for athletes nearly 30 years old. At that point, they’re able to understand life a little better than they would at age 22.
That’s the case here, too. Chad Reed and James Stewart will walk into San Diego as totally different people than they were a decade ago. It was the same for 30-something Kevin Windham or any rider that was once a prodigy but later became a veteran. It seems like somewhere after the age of 25 riders begin to manage their situation better, which leads to more support and more cheers from fans, which makes them enjoy the situation more, which creates better vibes, which creates even more cheers and support, and on. The situation just keeps building until even the things a rider didn’t like to do before become fun.
The performance part comes more quickly. At age 22, Windham, Stewart, Reed and Ricky Carmichael were blazing fast, perhaps as fast as they would ever get. They could win races, no problem. However, each became much better at the PR game five years later. Twenty-two-year-old Carmichael couldn’t lose races but also couldn’t win with the public. Twenty-seven year old Carmichael left winning, still, but the sea of humanity that rushed the podium at his last National at Millville was something extraordinary. He could have made it back to the Rochester airport on their shoulders if he wanted.
Today, Reed and Stewart have become the latest to transform during the golden years. They seem to enjoy the racer life more now than ever, even though the two things you would think would lead to happiness more than any other—accomplishments (wins) and money—measure up less than before. It’s kind of like when a company thinks that employees only want more money and more personal accomplishment, only to find out an extra vacation day and a pat on the back actually makes a bigger difference. Oh sure, Reed is rolling now with two wins in three races, but there was no guarantee this would happen five months ago, after he decided to keep bankrolling his TwoTwo Motorsports team anyway. For 2014, there was a chance he would not win at all, which is what happened in 2013. He could have gotten hurt like he did in 2012. The risk/reward model really didn’t add up, but that’s not the equation Chad uses to make career decisions anymore. Chad came back, with his own team, in his own way, because he wants to keep racing. That is all.
I asked Stewart about this same thing last week. “When I made the decision to leave Gibbs [the JGR team mid-way through 2012], it was hard for me to do it,” he said. “In my head, it was like do you either take the money and pad the rest of your life for after racing, or do you try to just take the racing and be happy? So when I made the decision I knew that whatever happens, this is the decision I’m making. That kind of sealed my fate for the rest of my career. Because it wasn’t about money, I choose being happy and enjoying racing, even if I wasn’t winning. So my whole attitude is different because I put myself in that situation.”
While James is always quick to remind us that he still does indeed want to win badly, it’s true that he’s found there’s more to life than just standing in the middle of the box every week.
“Even though the results haven’t shown it, as a person I’ve been better, and I’ve been a better racer,” says Stewart. “I have kind of resurrected my career as far as how much I love racing.”
Unfortunately, some of these riders only figure out the enjoyment thing after they’ve stopped winning so much. Some will theorize that this is the very reason life is more enjoyable—wins at this stage are just a bonus on top of a career already filled with great accomplishments. But on occasion, these guys do take the checkers first, and those are victories unlike any other.
“For sure, Atlanta I appreciated like no other, Millville, for sure,” says Stewart of his 2013 wins. “Winning Atlanta was like a weight off of my shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, I do expect to win [this year], but when I do win I’ll feel great about it. I’ll feel better about it than my undefeated season outdoors. In 2009, the only win I felt good about was winning the supercross championship. That’s all I felt good about. I DNFed the first race, to have Chad be so consistent and to come back and win the title by four points, that was great. But I wasn’t enjoying the individual race wins.”
For Stewart, it wasn’t just win or bust in those days—it was championship or bust. And while that’s the ultimate act for an athlete, it’s also a very difficult balancing act—the pressure of pulling off something you want so badly makes it hard to enjoy the lifestyle it takes to make it happen.
Today, Reed wouldn’t be racing at all if he didn’t want to be. He is, after all, his own boss. That was also the same for Windham, who at one point chose to walk away from the sport voluntarily because he was just over it. Over the pressure and travel and all that. Walked away from the money, even, at age 24. But 10 years later, you couldn’t pry him off the bike. In 2012, Kevin stacked it up in a Houston heat race with James, but still tried to line up a few weeks later while hurt in New Orleans because he wanted to experience that whole vibe of racing in front of the home fans. He finally called it quits after a few more hits.
But did you know Kevin was seriously considering coming back and racing in Vegas last May?
And now, the guy who once voluntarily left the sport in his prime racing years has found ways to stick around and keep going to the races even though he’s retired.
You know what Windham really talked up in his latter racing years? Stuff like opening ceremonies, interviews and autograph sessions. For real, Kevin looked forward to signing autographs at the races because fans would bring up old stories and bench race and that became fun and cool. This is not the stuff any young racer so much enjoys as much as he merely just does. But somewhere along the way, these guys all realize—you’re gonna have to do this stuff anyway, so you might as well enjoy it.