Main image by Chris Tedesco, shot at the 2003 Budds Creek National.
Note: This story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Racer X Illustrated.
Twenty years ago, James Stewart unveiled his new “Bubba Scrub” maneuver at the 2003 Budds Creek National, instantly changing the game of motocross/supercross—as well as the risks.
In the early days of motocross, a cross-up—turning your handlebars in midair—was considered an innovation. As the bikes got better, top riders started tapping their rear brakes in the air to keep their front end down. Then in the nineties, Jeremy McGrath came along with his BMX-inspired body English, as well as chopping the throttle when he got to the face of a takeoff jump, keeping his bike lower and going forward rather than just up and over obstacles. That was where we still were in the evolution of jumping 20 years ago. Then came the 2003 Budds Creek National.
James Stewart was a 17-year-old phenom from Florida. He was the defending 125 AMA Pro Motocross Champion, as well as the newly crowned 125SX West Region Champion. But then he broke his collarbone at the Las Vegas SX finale, keeping him out of the first four outdoor rounds and ending his title defense before it even started. His doctors said he was good to go for the fifth round at Budds Creek, which would be his first outdoor race since ending the previous season with eight consecutive wins.
Budds Creek promoter Jonathan Beasley liked to mix things up from time to time at his Maryland track, and for ’03 he decided to run it clockwise—or “backward.” That meant the riders would be going from the bottom of the infield up and over Henry Hill, the massive mound off which Doug Henry had his back-breaking crash in 1995. Eight years later, during practice, small braking bumps started to form before the peak of the hill, as riders throttled up but then got on the binders in order to keep from launching themselves. It was from one of these bumps near the very top that Stewart, eager to show how much he’d improved his motocross game since the previous summer, began bunny-hopping his Kawasaki KX125, flicking the bike sideways and skimming over the peak. That allowed him to immediately get back on the throttle on the backside of the hill. It was a highly creative and efficient maneuver—not to mention a scary one.
To no one’s surprise, Stewart dominated the first moto. He got out front quickly and simply disappeared. As a result, he didn’t get much TV airtime. He didn’t show off his new move very many times, either, but when he did, aspiring photographer Chris Tedesco (no relation to Ivan) was standing there on top of Henry Hill to take the photo that became iconic, as seen on this feature’s opening spread.
In the second moto, Stewart tangled with French KTM rider Steve Boniface, leaving #259 on the ground. He got up, dusted himself off, picked the bike up, adjusted his levers, and took off after the other 39 riders. Before the end of the first lap, he’d passed more than half the field. He used every inch of the racetrack to find passing lanes, and soon the ESPN2 cameras picked up on him. Announcers Todd Harris and David Bailey were astonished by what they were seeing—and they had yet to see his new trick.
“He’s moving up through the pack faster than I’ve ever seen!” gushed Bailey, himself one of the most technically creative riders of all time, after watching Stewart blow by Mike Brown, Andrew Short, Grant Langston, and more. It wasn’t long before Stewart was bearing down on Yamaha of Troy’s Brock Sellards, who was in second place, just as they came around to Henry Hill. Then it happened. The scrub.
“Oh!” shouted Bailey. “Alright, I gotta . . . what? I gotta see that again.”
“You said this earlier—this is fun to him,” countered Harris. “This is like a videogame, and if this videogame is for sale, I think most of America’s going to buy it.”
To which Bailey responded, “You know what? I don’t even remember what I was saying. . . . The crowd’s not even making noise—they’re in shock.”
Later, as Stewart closed in on the checkered flag, Bailey said, “The crowd is making all kinds of noise now, because at this point it’s sunken in . . . they’ve just seen something that, perhaps, they’re never going to see again.”
And that’s where David was wrong. The people were going to see what would soon be known as the Bubba Scrub again and again and again. Before “going viral” was even a thing, Stewart’s jump at Budds Creek did exactly that.
“I only remember doing one really good scrub that second moto, and that was the one where David Bailey couldn’t believe what he was seeing,” James Stewart says now, 20 years later. “And I didn’t remember the scrub being the biggest takeaway at the time either. I was just proud of how much faster I was going than everyone else that day, passing people wherever I wanted, the speed separation, and I was just coming back from injury.”
Stewart also says that while Budds Creek wasn’t really the first time he did the scrub—he had done it on smaller obstacles here and there during his rookie season—it was the place where people first really took notice because it was the first time the media really captured it.
“The scrub was already happening, so it wasn’t new to me, so I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal,” Stewart says, “but then the TV guys were going crazy, showing replays and all. And then the photo goes up online. That’s the first time everyone else was seeing it.
“Seriously, I can remember several that I had done before that were better, but there just wasn’t anyone there to capture it. But with the way it played out, there could not have been a better time, a better place, a better race for me to do it than Budds Creek.”
Grant Langston had a front-row seat that day. He was riding for Red Bull KTM and would eventually win the ’03 title, but at Budds Creek he was just another one of the 39 other guys.
“I remember having a decent start, and then I was behind my friend Brock Sellards for too long,” Langston recalls. “I probably should have just stuffed him! Anyway, after James came along and passed me, I was thinking he must not have had a very good start. But then I went back and watched the race on TV and was like, ‘Oh, that’s embarrassing—he was down before the first turn and still passed me.’”
Super Slow-Moto: The "Bubba Scrub" w/ James Stewart
How fast was Stewart going? His best lap time of the day came in the first moto, a 2:20.130—faster than 250 Class winner Ricky Carmichael’s fastest time by half a second. Cycle News wrote of Stewart that day “he had even the industry experts shaking their heads” and that he was passing riders “like they were going backwards.” Said Ivan Tedesco, the early leader and the last man he passed, “Stewart was riding unbelievable. He’s riding on another level.”
Indeed, this was the beginning of the most dominant period of Stewart’s career. He would win out the last seven 125 Nationals of ’03, and then win 23 out of 24 motos in ’04. The only race he lost was due to a first-turn crash and DNF at RedBud.
In watching the coverage, Langston says he was thinking, "What in the world is he doing to go that fast?" Then he saw the move.
“All I could think of was, 'Oh, now that was gnarly,' because he really took staying low to a whole different level,” Langston says. “He was preloading the bike and getting airborne before the top of the lip, clipping his foot peg off the top of the jump! My first thought was, 'We gotta figure this out.' My second thought was, 'Damn, that looks pretty risky.' When you’re completely pancaked and you catch a foot peg, that can get pretty ugly.”
Langston wasn’t alone, as the rest of the 125 title contenders—Ryan Hughes, Mike Brown, Sellards, Tedesco, and more—must have all realized they had just witnessed a game-changer, and they all were going to have to learn how to do it in a hurry.
“He wasn’t doing it just for show—he was gaining huge amounts of time,” Langston admits. “We were all going to have to take some risks, because it was like James was making a mockery out of these jumps—he was going forward, we were going up and down.”
The first man bitten by the move would be the veteran Mike Brown. He went to scrub the first big roller at the base of Horsepower Hill at Washougal, but he caught his turned-down front wheel on the lip and high-sided at speed. Then he was hit by Hughes, leaving Brown with a dislocated shoulder. (Several years later, the exact same type of crash on the exact same jump left Trey Canard with a broken femur.)
One rider who was not pressed to learn it quickly was Ricky Carmichael.
“Stew was still in the 125 class, and so it wasn’t as urgent for me as it was for the guys he was racing against,” says Carmichael, who would not race against Stewart until the start of the 2005 Monster Energy Supercross season. “And it’s not a move you do that much in supercross, where we were already driving into the jump faces and keeping the bike low. But by the time we were both on 450s, yes, it was something we all had to do.”
“Prior to the actual patented-sort-of Bubba Scrub, the whole idea of staying low over the jumps had become a thing, after Jeremy [McGrath] really started to soak it with his legs,” Langston explains. “When I started supercross in 2001, my dad would say, ‘You’re going up and down, up and down, but you really need to be going forward. You’re getting too much height. You need to learn how to absorb it with the bike.’ And then James took it to a whole different level.”
“It seems like every kid has to have the scrub in their holster now, for good or bad,” says Chad Reed, who would become Stewart’s fiercest rival over time. “My kids want to do it, and I see them literally three seconds slower, knowing we need to work on the turns, but they want to work on their scrubs!
“I’ve been going to these amateur races, and you see kids from literally the time they’re on Cobra 50s and KTM 50s and they’re already starting to get that style—it’s like their nac-nac!” Reed adds. “And when you think of Jeremy’s first nac-nacs, he just barely got his leg over the seat, to what it became, that’s the same with what James created and what kids are doing now. James created it and took jumping up a whole level, and pro racing had to adapt to that, and now it’s industry-deep, right from the little seven-year-olds.”
The scrub also went global, as aspiring racers all over the world could see Stewart’s moves on TV and online.
“When we were kids, we’d see Bubba and others doing it and you’d think, 'Can I do that?'” Swiss MXGP star Jeremy Seewer says. “Now we all do it, and I think that’s just from growing up with it and the flow of riding. Nowadays I wouldn’t say we’re scrubbing massively during races—it becomes a safety question, like, how low do you want to go? It starts to get a bit risky, but in my opinion, it is still a very efficient move. If you have ten jumps on a track, scrubbing as many as you can, then I reckon it could be up to a second per lap.”
The scrub does have teeth, as both Jeffrey Herlings and Eli Tomac might also tell you. Like Brown and Canard, they’ve both crashed heavily on the same jump, in this case scrubbing over the finish-line jump at Teutschenthal in Germany, an obstacle similar in size and pitch to Henry Hill. Tomac did it at the ’13 MXoN while battling with Ken Roczen; Herlings caught his foot peg in the German GP two years later, leading TV commentator Paul Malin to shout, “He pulled a Tomac!” It cost him that year’s MX2 title.
Twenty years on from Budds Creek, the Bubba Scrub remains risky business. It’s also a huge part of the story of James Stewart. In MXGP journalist and Racer X contributor Adam Wheeler’s mind, “The maneuver will always be part of James Stewart’s legacy. More than the championships, wins, and perfect seasons, breaking the paradigm of a sport must be the ultimate marker of achievement in any professional’s mind.”
“It was just a part of me riding and racing. It was just a part of me riding and trying to go faster and faster, everywhere on the track,” Stewart says. “And the Budds Creek race was where I finally got to show how much better I had gotten as a motocross racer, in all parts of it, from my rookie year. I was really proud of that. But it was the scrub that everyone saw and remembered. It became my signature move, and it came naturally to me, because I was just trying to go faster, and it really was faster.”