Steward Baylor was once a rising star in American off-road racing. In 2012, he was battling for the GNCC XC2 Lites title and leading the AMA National Enduro Series when he broke his wrist mid-season. He fought through the pain to notch the Enduro Championship anyway, impressive since he was still a teenager, but all that riding through the injury set him way back. His 2013 season was basically a wash, and when he finally did return to the races, he no longer showed the speed and sizzle that made him so coveted as he came through the ranks.
After a few years of struggling to find the podium, Baylor, now 22, has been rejuvenated this year. He scored a win at the AMA National Enduro Series opener, and a second and a first at two rounds of the Full Gas Sprint Enduro Series. But to really prove he’s back, back, he had to do it for three hours at a Grand National Cross Country race. Over the weekend he did it, besting defending Amsoil Grand National Cross Country Champion Kailub Russell in a straight-up duel. It was the first-ever GNCC overall win for the SRT KTM rider.
What’s powered this comeback?
Racer X: I go to text you this morning and realize it’s actually been years since I’ve texted you. You know what that means, right?
Stew Baylor: It means I haven’t been worth a damn for a while!
[Laughs] Have you gotten more attention lately?
Oh, it’s nice. It’s crazy, man. I had three different teams come up to me after the race. I’ve been approached by more people in the last month than I have since my days battling for the XC2 Championship.
And it’s not just this GNCC win, you’ve been winning races in other series this year.
It’s been unbelievable. It’s the best year I’ve had, by far. I’ve had more success in the last month than I have the last four years.
Well you know the obvious question: why?
You know, I’ve done a lot. The last year I started working with a trainer named Nate Martin, and I got my fitness dialed. He understands what I’ve had to deal with—with my injuries—and what it takes for me to get stronger. He has helped me ride with those injuries and still compete at the top level—that was a huge step in the right direction. I’m also working with Matt Walker practicing my moto skills, and also Andrew Matusek, who raced GNCC also and is a moto trainer. Just trying to mix it up and learn any way I can. I know what works and doesn’t work now. Moto speed is something I needed to work on. I know Kailub [Russell] is working on that as well. My sprint speed has gotten better, too, racing the Sprint Enduro series. Just a lot of things adding up.
I feel like you’ve had trainers in the past and you’ve done work before.
Yeah, I’ve had trainers in the past, and I’m not saying what works for me now is going to work for everyone, but with my injuries and my background, everything I’ve done this off-season has paid off, and a lot of that is the training. Having a guy like Nate, who I talk to daily, he’s making sure every day I’m doing exactly what I need to do, nothing extra and nothing less. I’ve been in the pro ranks for a long time. The people that follow me and like me, it’s more for personality than for speed. Now I have people who are following me because I’m fast again! It feels great to get the pat on the back at the end of the day.
How is the wrist? That was your huge downfall as you were coming through the ranks.
Yeah it was bad. It was a career ending injury, one a lot of guys don’t come back from. I had five surgeries and the bone removed. It bothers me from time to time, but basically my training is based off of my wrist and my shoulder injury. It’s building the muscles around it to make it better. Until this point I didn’t feel like I could finish the third hour of a GNCC strong, but this weekend the third hour was my strongest point. The third hour, I’m not waiting for my wrist to give out. Now I’m worried about being fit enough everywhere else. That third hour, when in the past my legs would give out, or I’d be fatigued, I wasn’t worn out anymore. That was the biggest thing.
I heard in the morning of the race that you wanted to just put some pressure on Kailub Russell—that was your goal. You did that and it actually worked, you took the lead. But then, you were the one dealing with the pressure. So what was that like—not applying pressure, but leading?
Right off the start I positioned myself right with Kailub. I think we were seventh or eighth, and we moved through the pack together. Finally we were one and two, he made that mistake on the hill climb and I was able to take the lead. I knew I would have to put my head down. I know it’s tough to catch someone when they’re out of sight. So I tried to get out of sight, and tried like hell to hold it there. The biggest thing to me, now, is I don’t want to come out of this race like I’m the man to beat. Kailub is still the man to beat, he’s still the champion and he’s very consistent. I’ve always struggled to be consistent. On his bad days he’s still one of the best guys out there. For me, I’ll have the white background as the points leader now, and that will be pretty nerve racking. We’ll see how it plays out this weekend in Florida—I don’t want to blow the woods up by any means, I just want to be consistent, because that’s what I’ve struggled with in the past.
Well, I know you want to look at this as a 13-round series, but you have to stop and take this in for a little bit, right? You were so far down with injuries, now you’ve come back. This is a big moment, your first GNCC overall win!
Yeah definitely, the last 24 hours have been incredible with the amount of support I’ve gotten. I mean, really, I had counted myself out for GNCC wins. I didn’t see myself being able to excel in that series anymore. To be back up there with the top guys in the world, it was an incredible feeling, plus, as one of the underdogs, to be on the top of the podium, that felt even better. Still, I’m not trying to win every weekend, I just want to be more consistent than ever.
You say you counted yourself out for GNCC wins, but what about any type of off-road racing? Did you start to wonder if you could make a living at this anymore?
Yeah, definitely. That’s been an obvious thought the last few years. Right now the money just isn’t in the industry unless you’re one of the top guys, and for me, I’m 22 now, I’ve got to start thinking of my future a little more. So I started to wonder, “What comes next if my wrist doesn’t come along?” I thought about that with every drive back after an eighth place—there’s really no prize money there in off-road if you’re finishing back there. I was definitely wondering what I was going to do and how I was going to turn this around. So I looked at this as a make or break year. I had to turn it around.
Is that a big part of the motivation?
I guess it worked hand in hand. If this was going to be one of my last years, I wanted to know that I gave it all I had. I had to work on my weaknesses, and that’s what I did. If it didn’t work out, I was going to have to look for something else.
Usually, when the GNCC opener is in Florida, everyone is drained for the next race in Georgia, because it’s super tough to race three hours in the sand, and then tough to do three hour races in back-to-back weekends. This year the series started in South Carolina and now you head to Florida for the weekend. Do you feel drained?
You know, I feel just like I usually do after Florida right now. That Big Buck track, that was one of the roughest GNCCs I’ve ever ridden on. So I’ve got seven days to try to recover and be ready. I’m doing all I can to try to get hydrated and feel as good for that one as I did this weekend. The biggest thing is getting my heart rate up so I can get the soreness out. Not going to be a heavy week by any means.
You’re from South Carolina, but it’s not like GNCC tracks are practice tracks during the year—it’s not like you ride that track all the time. Did you have any advantage of that being a home state race?
Actually, Big Buck is one of my worst tracks. I don’t know why, but I usually struggle at that one, so to get the win there, it means a lot. But it was good to have so many people cheering me on, all the local people. I mean, to take the lead on the big hill climb where all the fans are, 5000 people down there all cheering for you, that was great. I have to admit that helped a bit!