Dirt biking has entered the mainstream thanks to James Stewart and his rivalry with five-time motocross champ Ricky Carmichael. It doesn’t get any sicker than this.
On the grand hierarchy of things that suck in life, few things suck more than losing. No one likes to lose, and probably no one likes losing less than dirt-bike racer extraordinaire Ricky Carmichael, a.k.a. the GOAT, the Greatest Of All Time.
How much does the 26-year-old hate losing? Since 2001, he has competed in 60 outdoor motocross races in the American Motorcycle Association’s (AMA’s) premier class. He won 52 of those contests and lost only eight. On Sunday, May 21, when 30,000 fans converge for the 2006 outdoor motocross season opener at Hangtown, the twisting, rock-strewn dirt course situated in the rolling prairie hills 20 miles east of Sacramento, the GOAT will be without question the man to beat.
For the past five years, Carmichael’s pretty much had it his own way. The Floridian has won the AMA Supercross Championship—a series that takes place on manmade dirt tracks built inside stadiums such as San Francisco’s AT&T Park—four times. He’s won the outdoor championship five times, including winning the last four events at Hangtown. Carmichael is about as close to unstoppable as a human being on a dirt bike can get.
But all that may be about to change. Just this past weekend, the 2006 supercross season wound down to the tightest finish in the sport’s 35-year history; a new young gun nearly seized Carmichael’s title. Twenty-year-old motocross phenomenon James “Bubba” Stewart, another Floridian and the only African-American to ever win a major title in any form of motor sports, has come of age. At the outdoor season opener in Hangtown, just one question will be on everyone’s mind: Can Bubba get the GOAT?
Bubba does Dallas
It’s a familiar story in sports: youth vs. experience; the young, would-be usurper going up against the wily veteran. Carmichael, at age 26, is already nearing the end of a stellar career, the aging process accelerated by the tendon-tearing, bone-splintering reality of one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, professional motocross. It’s a game that has left more than one former champion spending his retirement years in a wheelchair.
In motocross, riders navigate a closed dirt circuit with left- and right-hand turns featuring steep banks known as berms and a host of obstacles in between corners: huge jumps, double-jumps and triple-jumps known as rhythm sections; dozens of deep, undulating mounds called whoop-de-doos or whoops; and frighteningly steep uphill and downhill sections. Racing at the pro level requires both physical and mental conditioning. The rider who’s not in shape or loses focus will soon be parting company with his motorcycle. Carmichael is widely acknowledged to be the most physically and mentally fit racer in the sport.
However, Stewart, six years Carmichael’s junior, is just hitting his stride. He’s got the speed, and physically and mentally he appears to have caught the GOAT—and he’s got youth on his side. Neither racer likes losing, but, ultimately, one will be stuck with the short straw. It’s not likely to be Stewart. At Hangtown, two weeks after the end of the most nail-biting finish in supercross history, the war between youth and experience begins anew, and time is closing in on Carmichael. The pressure is on, and, as Stewart explained to SN&R shortly after he won his seventh race of the season in Dallas, “any racer that doesn’t tell you they’re nervous, that’s a lie.”
You’d be crazy not to be.
James “Bubba” Stewart is arguably the best thing that’s ever happened to professional motocross racing. The fact that he’s the lone African-American in a sea of Caucasians has attracted enormous attention from mainstream media outlets that previously have relegated the sport to freak-show status. The fact that he regularly whups up on his white competitors is even better. Bubba is just plain fast on a dirt bike, easily as quick and sometimes quicker than Carmichael. He’s been called the Tiger Woods of supercross, a title he tends to shrug off.
“For me, I think I’m doing something for the sport,” he said. “If you come to the races, there’s definitely a lot more black people at the races than there was a few years ago. But I don’t really sit down and say it’s my job to bring different people into the sport. I just feel like I’m a racer. It does feel good to have black kids come up to me and say, ‘You’re my role model.’”
In fact, tens of thousands of kids—white, black, Latino, etc.—look up to Stewart and his cohorts. Supercross, which evolved from outdoor motocross in the early 1970s, has eclipsed its older sibling and is now big business. Both Stewart and Carmichael, who respectively ride for the Kawasaki and Suzuki factory racing teams, earn seven-figure salaries and millions more for the products they endorse—gloves, boots, jerseys, helmets, goggles, tires, chains, exhaust pipes, oil, racing fuel and energy drinks—the logos of which are plastered on their bodies and bikes, transforming them into mobile billboards. As the saying goes, what wins on Sunday sells on Monday. Where there are beaucoup advertising dollars, there is also television. ESPN-2 and the Speed Channel have broadcast supercross races for the past decade; this year, CBS picked up five races, including the broadcast of the Anaheim III round, shown just before the Super Bowl in February.
Like most of his competitors, Bubba is a small- to medium-sized young man, measuring 5 feet 7 inches and weighing 155 pounds (Carmichael’s vitals: 5 feet 6 inches, 150 pounds). They ride 450-cc four-stroke motorcycles that weigh about 220 pounds, churn out some 50 horsepower and feature more than a foot of suspension travel at each end. The wheels are fitted with knobby tires to grab traction in the dirt. Anyone with $6,000 or so to spend can purchase virtually the same motorcycle the stars ride, from their friendly neighborhood Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Honda or KTM dealer.
Indoor and outdoor motocross tracks are essentially the same, with the exception of uphill and downhill sections, since supercross tracks are laid out on flat stadium playing fields. However, because supercross tracks are shorter, and the action is compressed into a much smaller space—the audience can see the entire track all at once—the racing can seem far more intense.
“I prefer supercross better,” Stewart said. “It gets more attention; there’s more fans. It’s a lot cooler show.”
Certainly, few sports can match the display seen at the Dallas supercross on April 22. For the 20-lap main event, Stewart lined up with Carmichael and 18 other riders behind the metal starting gate. A deafening thunder filled Texas Stadium as the best 20 supercross racers in the world simultaneously revved their engines in anticipation of the start. The gate dropped, and the pack of snarling four-strokes roared toward the first corner, the riders engaging in a game of chicken to determine who had the balls to keep the throttle pinned the longest and claim the “holeshot.” Carmichael won, exiting the first turn with the lead.
The spectacle was under way, riders skying 50 feet in the air off triple jumps, whipping their bikes sideways in the air to slow down for corners (a move invented by Stewart and known as the Bubba Scrub), pinning fellow riders high against the berm in a maneuver called the block pass, rear wheels hopping back and forth through the whoops. As has been the case all season, Carmichael and Stewart broke away from the pack with Team Yamaha’s Chad Reed following, already a distant third after just the first few laps.
Five laps in, Stewart—who is second to none in the whoops—blazed past Carmichael in a rhythm section. Carmichael, ahead in the season points with just two races remaining, Seattle and Las Vegas, might have backed it off and let Stewart go. As long as he finished second in the remaining events, he’d claim his fifth AMA Supercross Championship, even if Stewart won the final two races. But they don’t call him the GOAT for nothing. One lap later, in the same rhythm section, Carmichael attempted to retake the lead. His rear wheel hopped off one of the whoops, the bike swapped ends, and he careened off the track, barely missing a boat (a boat!) parked in the infield before plowing into two cameramen. That’s the thing about the GOAT. If he’s going down, he’s going down swinging. He remounted his badly tweaked bike and rejoined the fray in dead last place.
Meanwhile, Stewart was cruising comfortably out front, building a nice cushion over Reed. However, as Reed, who currently sits second in points between Carmichael and Stewart, has been wont to say this supercross season, “anything can happen.” On lap nine, Stewart landed wrong off a jump, bottomed his suspension, center-punched a hay bail and flew over the handlebars and off the track, gifting Reed with an easy victory. Stewart remounted to finish second; a bruised and battered Carmichael salvaged the points lead with a sixth-place finish.
In AMA supercross, a victory is worth 25 points; second place, 22; third, 20; and so on. Heading into Seattle, Reed was a scant two points behind Carmichael, with Stewart another 10 points back. The Vegas finale was shaping up to be a winner-take-all title bout, and Stewart was on a roll, having won the previous three races before Dallas.
“I think my chances are good,” he said. “We just saw what happened to Ricky this weekend. Of course, I’ll need some luck with two races to go. For me, the one thing I do have on my side is speed. Every single weekend we’ve been going to the races, I’ve been the fastest. I don’t really have to pick up my pace. To win, the main thing is to stay out of the carnage and ride smart.”
Good idea, staying out of the carnage.
It’s a family affair
On any given weekend, the Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area, the 900-acre spread 20 miles east of Sacramento where Hangtown is located, is teeming with off-highway motor vehicles of every description: mini-bikes, trail bikes and full-blown motocross bikes. Fat-tired monster trucks, Jeeps, dune buggies and ATVs. Here and at similar off-highway-vehicle (OHV) parks across the country, the motocross superstars of tomorrow hone their skills, riding the same bikes, wearing the same gear and tearing up virtually the same track as their idols.
Compared to a supercross track, Hangtown is both faster and more organic, with loose Northern California dirt that dusts up in the hot summer if it’s not constantly watered down. The course is more than twice as long as a supercross track, so engines have more space to wind out. Obstacles such as jumps and whoop-de-doos tend to follow the natural terrain—the track is laid out on a hillside—and flow more freely.
To begin, the racers blast down a 200-yard-long starting chute and through a left-hand kink before slamming into the sharp first corner, which veers to the right at almost 90 degrees. A series of right- and left-hand switchbacks meanders up the hillside, then down the hill and then up again to what on the pro course is the largest obstacle: a gnarly, lipped step-up jump that catapults the riders some 70 feet through the air. Then it’s back down the hill again and into the fastest part of the course, wide right- and left-hand sweepers separated by long straights, rhythm sections and more jumps. Go full-bore for 35 minutes plus two laps and call it a race, or, in motocross vernacular, a moto. An entire race is composed of two motos, with the best combined score from both legs taking the win.
Not everyone at Prairie City imagines he or she is the next Bubba. The truth is, riding dirt bikes is a gas for just about everyone involved: the 6-year-olds plunking around on 50-cc mini bikes, the teenage posers sharing bench-racing tales with pals on the side of the track, the girls on trail bikes wearing pink-accented racing gear (pink!) and the 50-year-old amateurs exploding berms on exotic racing machinery they really have no business riding. Smiles are abundant and highly noticeable, as most of the faces are caked with dirt. Hang around this scene very long, and at least one thing becomes apparent: Doing it in the dirt is a family affair.
“The number of families that are coming into the sport is just incredible,” said Ed Santin, competition director for the Dirt Diggers North Motorcycle Club. “When you come out here, it looks like a race every weekend, there’s so many people in the staging area.”
The 35-member, all-volunteer nonprofit organization funnels all of the proceeds from the annual AMA national back into the track and to various local charities. The Dirt Diggers organized their first motocross race in 1969 near Placerville, known as “Hangtown” during the gold-rush days thanks to its penchant for swift frontier justice. Although the race moved to its present location at Prairie City in 1970, the Hangtown name stuck, and the Dirt Diggers have been holding events there ever since.
The names of past winners constitute a who’s who of American motocross, a veritable hall of fame: the legendary Dick “The Man” Mann, who excelled in road racing and flat track as well as motocross; “Bad” Brad Lackey, the first American to win a motocross world championship; Bob “Hurricane” Hannah, the first genuine American superstar; Rick Johnson, who dominated the sport in the 1980s; Jeremy “Showtime” McGrath, still the all-time leader in supercross victories and perhaps the most popular racer of all time; Ricky Carmichael, the winner of the last four Hangtown events; and the recent winner in the smaller “motocross lites” class (formerly known as the 125 class), none other than Carmichael’s present nemesis, James Stewart.
Stewart, of course, isn’t the first younger racer to threaten one of his elders. In fact, Carmichael dethroned the older but more popular McGrath as supercross champion in 2001, which didn’t exactly enamor the younger rider with McGrath’s rabid legion of fans. And before that, as a 125 rider, Carmichael ran over the then-current champion, Northern California’s own Steve Lamson.
“We’re good friends now. He has my old mechanic. But when Ricky was coming up, he was the one who took my titles away,” said Lamson, 35, who lives in Camino, just east of Placerville. “It was hard for me for him to come up and beat me, to take my No. 1 plate away. Through it all, though, I had respect for him. He was a fast kid.”
“Lammy,” a two-time 125 national champion during the mid-1990s, was a fast kid in his own right. He grew up in Orangevale and began racing before getting out of grade school, at tracks throughout the Sacramento region: E Street in Marysville, the Sand Hills in Dixon and Sacramento Raceway. He scored his first national motocross victory in 1992 at his home track, Hangtown.
“I remember everything about that day,” he recalled. “I was just coming back from a broken femur.” Broken bones and other injuries are touchstones Lamson employs often when tracing a motocross career that’s been better than most. Blown-out knees, torn rotator cuffs and a tib-fib compound fracture repaired with a titanium rod in 2002. “I broke it again with the rod in there in 2003,” he said. “It was a blessing because it would have never healed right. It seems like every year, you average a surgery or two.” He plans on racing at Hangtown—he’s currently national No. 6 and must race a few select events each year to keep his number plate—even though he broke his wrist a week before the SN&R interview.
Despite the numerous injuries, Lamson’s parents have always been supportive, shepherding him as a teenager to far-away events such as the annual AMA Amateur National Championships at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Tennessee. Success at Loretta Lynn’s has made many a young motocrosser’s career, including James Stewart, who holds the record for the most wins, which was formerly held by Ricky Carmichael.
“My mom and dad were behind me 110 percent,” Lamson said. “We certainly didn’t have the money to go out there and live big. It’s hard to go it alone.” Although he’s now semi-retired, family involvement in the sport continues to play a role for him. He has started a traveling motocross school, training the stars of tomorrow. “I try to hit all of the amateur races now,” he said. “The market is unreal. People have a lot of money, and they want to go racing.”
Before graduating to the larger 450-cc motorcycles, racers compete on 250-cc motorcycles in the lites class. Two up-and-coming lites racers who’ll appear at Hangtown, Mike and Jeff Alessi, substantiate the importance of family in the sport. Under the watchful eye of father Tony, who at various times has served as his teenage sons’ mechanic, driver, business manager and public-relations agent, the Alessis have earned full factory rides from Austrian manufacturer KTM and are on the brink of superstardom. Last year, Mike nearly won the outdoor lites championship, finishing second by just 10 points in his rookie season.
“My dad used to race. Then he got us into it,” Mike said via cell phone from Dallas, where he was preparing to race in the lites supercross class. He started racing at age 3. “I was wild when I used to race on peewees. I was really wild. I crashed a lot.” He’s in control now and fast as blazes. “It’s very dangerous. There’s a lot of stuff you have to do to win,” said the 17-year-old. “But it feels so good to win.”
Similarly, family plays an important role in the careers of Carmichael and Stewart, both of whom also started racing as toddlers. Jeannie Carmichael, Ricky’s mom, continues to serve as her son’s press agent. James Stewart Sr., a former racer like Tony Alessi, never strays too far from James Jr. and can almost always be found in the Kawasaki pits whenever his son is racing.
“Family is very important,” the younger Stewart confirmed. “If you look at all the factory riders … their mom, their dad are a big part of their career. They’re people to look out after you, people to cheer you. Family is very important in racing.” Stewart’s younger brother, Malcolm, also races. “He’s been doing good; he just got back from Texas,” Stewart said before quipping, in the best tradition of sibling rivalry, “I don’t think he’s going to be as good as me.”
Pride mixed with adolescent hormones and inexperience occasionally contributes to incidents that are less than sportsmanlike. Last year, during the final lites race, Mike Alessi pulled an ill-advised block pass on Kawasaki’s Ivan Tedesco, knocking both riders to the ground. As the diminutive Alessi picked up his motorcycle, he stood on Tedesco’s front wheel, preventing him from picking his bike up. Alessi was heavily fined by the AMA. In previous years, Stewart has exhibited behavior that straddles the line between genuine pride and willful arrogance. Lamson recalled a time back in 1996, at the world mini-bike finals in Las Vegas, when Stewart’s father asked Lamson to take young James under his wing.
“He was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m hanging out with Steve Lamson,’” remembered Lamson. But eight years later, when the two were competing against each other in the East Coast supercross lites series, Stewart snubbed Lamson, and the older rider had to straighten him out. “Hey, Superstar, you too good to talk to me?” he asked. Stewart apologized for the gaffe, and today Lamson gives him his due.
“Things change,” he said. “You can’t take anything away from him. This has been his most mature year. I give him a lot of credit.”
Viva Las Vegas
Things were actually supposed to change last season, when Stewart first stepped up from the lites class to the bigger bikes. However, 2005 turned out to be a humbling year for the young Kawasaki superstar. It started early, at the Phoenix supercross, when he fell, broke his wrist and missed the next five races. He returned in Orlando, Fla., and promptly twisted an ankle. After finally picking up his first supercross victory in Dallas, he badly sprained a thumb in Las Vegas. At Hangtown two weeks later, he contracted an intestinal virus that would plague him for the entire outdoor season. It was easily the worst year of Stewart’s career.
“I think mentally it was such a draining year,” he said. “But I never gave up on myself. I knew I had the talent. I knew I had the heart to win races. I think that’s the only thing that kept me from saying, ‘Forget this; I’m over it,’ is believing in myself when everybody else didn’t.’”
Carmichael went on to claim both the supercross and outdoor titles, and Stewart learned from watching the champ. When Stewart picked up his first victory in Dallas, Carmichael pulled alongside, threw his bike down and raised Stewart’s arm in victory. It’s not easy fending off these young punks trying to steal his titles, but Carmichael has handled it with class and style that appears to be rubbing off on Stewart, who doesn’t hesitate to give Carmichael props.
“It’s the determination; he’s just mentally strong,” Stewart answered when asked what makes the GOAT the greatest. “He knows what it takes to win championships, to win races. That’s what’s changed really for me. I feel like now I’m as mentally strong as him. I know what it takes to win races. I know what it takes to win titles. It takes time. I’m only 20 years old. It takes brains and mental strength.”
At the Seattle supercross, he proved he wasn’t idly boasting, taking an easy victory on a rain-soaked, muddy track. Reed finished second. Carmichael gated poorly and was mired in the back of the pack for the first half of the race. He finally caught fire and at one point hit a rhythm section so hard it flipped his bike completely sideways in the air. A lesser rider would have lost it right there, but Carmichael somehow managed to save it, briefly running off the track before rejoining the field to finish third. Heading into Las Vegas, Carmichael and Reed were tied in points with Stewart just five points behind. With her son’s title in serious jeopardy, Jeannie Carmichael canceled all interviews.
“With the points situation being what it is right now I hope you can understand my position in asking to reschedule the interview until after this weekend,” she wrote in an e-mail to SN&R.
The points situation was like this: As the riders lined up behind the starting gate for the finale at Las Vegas, Stewart had won seven of the 15 races held so far; Carmichael, six; and Reed, two. By virtue of his consistent finishes—and Carmichael and Reed each crashing at several events—Reed was tied for the lead in the championship with Carmichael; both riders were five points ahead of Stewart. As far as the AMA Supercross Championship was concerned, the race was between Carmichael and Reed. To win the title, Carmichael needed to finish no less than second behind Stewart and ahead of Reed.
As the gate fell for the main event, Stewart squirted to the front of the pack and was never headed, leading all 20 laps. Carmichael did what he had to do, finishing second behind Stewart. Reed rode the wheels off his Yamaha but could only manage third, and Carmichael earned his fifth supercross title and further cemented his legacy as the greatest of all time.
“I kept telling myself that Chad [Reed] hadn’t beaten me straight up except for last week,” Carmichael said after the race. “We pulled ourselves out of a hole, and I can’t believe it. I seen him coming, and I thought, ‘There ain’t no way he’s catching me.’ He didn’t do it all year, and he wasn’t going to do it tonight.”
There was some consolation for Stewart, who won the less prestigious World Supercross Championship, which included races conducted in Canada before the AMA season starts. When the outdoor motocross season opens Sunday, May 21, at Hangtown, there’s no doubt that Bubba, who won five out of the last six supercross races, will have momentum on his side. He’s determined to atone for his poor performance outdoors last year.
“I’m a winner, and when you’re not winning, it hurts pretty bad,” he said. “All of us feel that way: Ricky, Chad, all of us. This year, I feel like I have something to prove outdoors. I just want to go out there and be myself.”
Carmichael, who prefers riding outdoors to supercross, will have something to say about that. But there’s no doubt that Stewart can look forward to many victories in the years to come—until the cycle inevitably repeats itself, and some new young superstar rolls up to the starting gate with his race face on. There’s no shortage of them out there: Grant Langston, Andrew Short, Ryan Villopoto, Broc Hepler or perhaps Mike Alessi, one of the few riders who hints at having Stewart’s speed.
“Stewart and Carmichael are so fast,” Alessi said when asked if he might be in their league someday. “I don’t know. I raced against Stewart on 80s a long time ago. I almost beat him in 1999, in the super-mini class at Mosier Valley, Texas. He passed me on the last lap. Everyone is beatable. He could be here today, gone tomorrow.”
But tomorrow won’t be anytime soon, Stewart averred.
“I’ve got a racing mentality. I want to win,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys coming up. It’s not really one rider who stands out to me; it’s all of them. There’s going to be a lot of guys up there. Hopefully, by then I’ll have that mentality of Ricky and say, like, ‘Look, you young grubs, just stay away from me.’”