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It's Bubba's world

Haines City's James Stewart, the biggest name in motocross and supercross, is on a fast track to pop culture celebrity.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published December 17, 2004


HAINES CITY - The road to Bubba World veers off Interstate 4 here in the shadow of Disney and follows miles of faded asphalt deep into cow country.

You could easily blow right past the place if not for the distinctive icons adorning the entrance - a motorcycle tire mounted on a pillar and an old state road sign bearing the number 259.

Of course, the strip of pavement that leads down the grassy hillside onto a sprawling 80-acre farm, complete with grazing cattle, isn't really Route 259. It's just a long driveway. And the huge modern home below - along with three smaller buildings, a regulation red-dirt racing track with stadium light poles and enough motorcycles for a small bike convention - isn't actually called Bubba World.

But it might as well be.

The biggest name in motocross and supercross these days, James "Bubba" Stewart, lives with his family in this rural haven smack in the middle of nowhere. The 18-year-old Haines City native earns more than $3-million a year in prize money, counts Tom Cruise, Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey among his friends and wears No. 259 to honor the person who helped inspire his rise to fame and acclaim. The upshot: Bubba's in a world all his own.

On the spectrum of professional motorsports, where the dominant color of the racers is white, Stewart stands out in the field for another reason. He is the lone African-American going today in the extreme sport of pro motocross and supercross - a dare-devilish pursuit where athletes and their bikes go seriously airborne, blast down rugged straightaways and do hairpin turns on jammed dirt courses.

In fact, Stewart is also the first black rider ever to win a major U.S. motorsports series title of any kind.

Meanwhile, on the track of pop culture, he's revving along in the ride of a lifetime - a recent HBO Real Sports segment; a possible major motion picture on his life produced by Cruise; talk of an MTV-like reality show built around his daily life; hailed by Teen People in 2003 as one of the 20 teens who will change the world; named by Sports Illustrated as one of the 101 most influential minorities in sports; dubbed the Tiger Woods of motocross by ESPN: The Magazine. But the hype isn't merely rooted in the color of Stewart's skin and his ground-breaking presence on the circuit.

It also has to do with the theme of a little reality show Stewart has been scripting for years: Nobody, it seems, has figured out a way to beat this guy.

As an amateur, he won hundreds of races and an unprecedented 11 national titles before turning professional two years ago at age 16. Since then, he has shattered virtually every mark in the 125cc racing class. That is the first-tier category of pro motocross (held outdoors on challenging natural terrain) and supercross (run inside arenas and domes on shorter but more treacherous man-made obstacle courses). Stewart has won a remarkable 90 percent of his races, outdoor and indoor, to become the most successful rider of alltime at that level.

But in less than a month, Stewart will advance to the next bracket, the heavyweight competition of the 250cc field, with larger bikes and tougher competition, specifically dominant champion Ricky Carmichael. Stewart, who turns 19 on Tuesday, will make his 250 debut on Jan. 8 in California, and talk of a heated rivalry with 25-year-old Carmichael, who was born in Clearwater, already abounds.

For his part, Stewart remains mostly laid-back about all the hoopla he has generated. On a recent morning, he sits in the spacious kitchen wearing a tan polo shirt, baggy khakis and flip-flops - a typical-looking teen who sprinkles his sentences with "dude" and "like" and is busy enjoying a Moon Pie and a bottle of root beer.

But in other respects, there's nothing typical about Stewart - not his collection of luxury cars outside, such as his prized red Ferrari, not the passion for riding he began cultivating at age 3, not his relentless drive to excel, not the way he handles the pressure of being a pioneer on two wheels.

"Sometimes it's hard, when you look around and don't see any other African-Americans racing, but you have more coming to the races to watch and if I'm bringing them in, that's cool," he says. "I mean, it does feel good to be the first ever, but I honestly don't sit here and think about it a lot.

"With a helmet on, we all look the same anyway."

It was his toughest loss in a long time.

Stewart had been winning until the final 10 seconds when he lost the lead to a well-known veteran, who razzed him unmercifully. But the clash six months ago didn't involve motorcycles. It was a Madden 2004 NFL video game, and Cincinnati Reds slugger Ken Griffey Jr. pulled off a 19-18 come-from-behind victory in his Orlando home over Bubba.

"Oh dude, I was so close," he says. "He used to beat me real bad, like 42-0, but then I started getting better. My defense is coming up. I'm going to beat him. It's just a matter of time."

Griffey, on the other hand, knows better than to ever challenge Stewart when he comes out to visit him in Haines City to ride on the track, a winding course of jumps and bumps made from $300,000 worth of special clay and dirt, illuminated for night riding by a dozen banks of towering field lights.

Griffey stores his red bike, No. 24, and those of his kids in the rafters of Shop Two, along with bikes for Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin and his children. The room is filled with other motorcycles for Stewart's 11-year-old brother, Malcolm, a promising rider in his own right, and youngsters who come to the Stewart house to practice or get lessons from Stewart's dad, James Sr.

Then there are the three-dozen or so other motorcycles that Stewart has ridden since his pee-wee race days, a store's worth of tires and a row of trophies Stewart has earned over the years, some of which stand taller than his 5-foot-7 frame.

"I have to put them out here, because I don't have enough room in the house," says Stewart's mother, Sonya. "It's crazy!"

A few yards away, one of the Stewarts' six dogs, a lab named Trigger, lounges in front of Shop One. This is where the intensive work takes place, performed by Stewart's mechanics, who keep the young star's Kawasaki bikes in top working condition. Parked next to that is a sleek, $900,000 motorhome the Stewart team's driver brings to every race, serving as a get-away for the family whenever they're at a track. Affording such luxurious amenities is no problem when your sponsors include Kawasaki, Fox racing attire and Oakley sunglasses. (Oakley has placed billboards featuring its hot commodity in such cities as London, Montreal and Toronto.) Corporate sponsorship can make riders wealthy indeed, with six-figure earnings easily attainable for standout newcomers, who are allowed to turn pro at 16. Proven stars can pocket more than a million with factory contracts, prize money and apparel endorsements. And there's Stewart, who may earn as much as $5-million this year.

That's not to suggest that motocross will ever rival the ultra-popular NASCAR in drawing mainstream audiences. Still, no black stars have emerged on the NASCAR circuit. At the same time, Stewart has managed to heighten the profile of his sport - which drew just under a million fans to motocross and supercross events in 2003 - and broaden its appeal beyond mostly white spectators. The sport projects further growth next year, and Stewart is at the heart of those expectations.

"Supercross is the second largest racing series in the country, second only to NASCAR," says Tony Gardea, Stewart's business manager. "It really does attract fans of all ages - from little kids who wear James Stewart jerseys to their dads or even grandpas who've been involved in the sport since it came to the States in 1972 from Europe. It's been building for several decades, and when you have a star like James Stewart who can attract mainstream press, there are those who think he's only going to help grow the sport and bring it to people who've never heard of it before.

"Because his story is just so compelling."

His parents were high school sweethearts from Auburndale who started dating in the 10th grade. James Sr. loved to ride and work on motorcycles and became a regular on the local racing circuit.

There were few African-Americans racing back then even on the amateur level, but Stewart's father had grown up on a farm in Georgia and ridden motorcycles from the time he was a child.

He and Sonya married after high school and lived in a one-bedroom apartment just out of Lake Alfred. She worked at a McDonald's, her husband worked at a Wendy's. "Things were tight," she says. "I had to get food stamps and James was working and racing."

She was pregnant, too. And after James Jr. was born, it was only a matter of time before he became transfixed with watching his dad ride. "Little James, he wanted to ride from the time he was in diapers," Sonya recalls. "We would go to races and he'd say, "Daddy!' He could always pick his daddy out."

He started to learn when he was 3, and his parents bought him a Yamaha for his fourth birthday. And he started racing, learning everything from his father. The Stewarts weren't sure they could afford to take him to many events, but he reached the Loretta Lynn Nationals in Tennessee before he was in kindergarten. There was no turning back.

"We'd come home from work and Little James would just beg us to take him riding," Sonya says. "We'd say, "We're tired!' but he was like, "I want to go!' So if he wants to do it, you continue to do it. And that's what made him better."

He won his first national title at 7 and the buzz was on. Stewart started garnering clothing sponsors while he was still a grade-schooler, and he just kept getting better under his dad's tutelage.

James Sr. taught him many things but chief among them was how to take corners aggressively - part of Stewart's winning style to this day. While others slowed down, he'd zoom by. "We practiced that over and over and over," says his father.

Stewart also came to idolize a racer named Tony Haynes, one of the first African-Americans to excel at motocross. The Stewarts didn't have a lot of money, so they would stay with Haynes' father on the road. Stewart recalls saying, "Tony Haynes, how you go so fast?' He'd just laughed.' "

But when Stewart was just 7, the 16-year-old Haynes broke his neck in a race and was left paralyzed from the waist down. Haynes wore No. 259, and soon after the accident, Stewart asked if he could wear the number. He has worn it ever since, even a gold charm around his neck reading, "Keep 259 Safe." To this day, he and Haynes are like brothers, talking by phone every day, with Haynes mentoring his protege.

"I think Tony Haynes would have been me if he hadn't been hurt," Stewart says.

Instead, Stewart carried on Haynes' legacy, and the legend of a kid named Bubba began to grow. Actually, he started off as "Boogie" - a nickname his father gave him because he often seemed to be dancing in his mom's womb. But some women at a race called him Bubba, says Sonya, and the name caught on. To this day, the parents prefer Boogie, but he's Bubba to the rest of the world.

Yet, away from the track, Stewart endured his share of taunts from middle school classmates who snickered at his preoccupation with motorcycle racing and his frequent travel. Eventually, the race schedule became so demanding that Sonya began home-schooling James.

"I'm more of a shy person, and I didn't really know how to talk to people back then," Stewart says. "I didn't like to hang out late at night. So some kids thought I was a dork. But now, the same kids who wanted to beat me up want my autograph."

Life for the Stewarts slowly began to improve. James Sr. had gone to work for a local Coca-Cola outlet and become a supervisor. Six years ago, still living in a small home in Winter Haven, they bought a few acres of farm land in Haines City so Stewart could practice riding. Not long after, they built their house on the property, moved in and began buying adjacent land.

Stewart's instant success as a pro two years ago helped them substantially expand their dream surroundings. That includes a large third shop on the land to store more cars in the family's armada of vintage vehicles, SUVs and trucks from sponsor money and earnings that keep pouring in. "I may have cars and money now, but I'm the same person I was before," Stewart says. "If I worked at McDonald's, I'd be the same person."

The big-screen TV in the living room is showing a replay of a race on ESPN. Stewart and pal Kyle Chisholm, a racer from Seminole, lounge on leather sofas and laugh as Bubba bursts into the lead.

It seems like light entertainment, but Stewart constantly studies film of his races. Anthony Paggio of Oakley sunglasses, who has known Stewart for years, remembers how the young racer, while staying in California, asked Paggio to buy him a VCR with automatic rewind.

"James wanted to play racing tapes when he went to sleep, and he wanted a machine that would rewind the tape and start playing it again while he was sleeping," says Paggio, a Tampa native. "He wanted a racing tape to be playing when he'd wake up."

At his own races, Stewart is a showman. He has developed a mind-boggling stunt called the Bubba Scrub, in which he takes a steep jump parallel to the ground. After victories, often in front of crowds of 60,000 or more, he dances, to the delight of fans.

"It's easier for me to dance in front of 60,000 fans than six," he says. "I'm not trying to showboat. I'm just enjoying myself, because you never know when your last day might be."

Stewart has had his share of injuries in the bone-jarring, physically demanding sport, which requires rigorous training to withstand the punishment. He has dislocated a knee and shoulder and broken his ankle and collarbone. So far, he always comes back stronger and faster.

In the process, Stewart has attracted quite a fan club. He doesn't have time for a girlfriend, but he has many female admirers. In addition, Jordan, the basketball legend, asked to meet him at a race in Daytona and they hung out. "He was the first person I was ever nervous to meet," Stewart says. "Now I talk to him all the time." Golf great Woods also heard about Stewart and asked to meet him.

Then there's Cruise, a race fan who's become a Stewart fan, too. Cruise's production company has expressed interest in making a major motion picture about Stewart's life. "Tom Cruise sees an interesting story," says Gardea. "Racing and pro motocross is at an all-time high, and here's a father-son, family story about overcoming adversity and breaking new ground to get to the top."

For his 18th birthday, hip-hop headliners David Banner and Lil' Flip performed at his party at home in Haines City. So goes life in the fast lane for Stewart, who also has drawn interest from several NASCAR teams hoping to lure him to four-wheelers one day.

For now, though, he's resting up for the big move. He spends most of his time out west in Orange County or his parent's spread (and sometimes hangs out at a place he bought for himself in Winter Haven.) He tools around Polk County in his assortment of vehicles, choosing among the Ferrari, Escalade, Range Rover, Ford F-150 pickup and others depending on his mood, the next race always on his mind.

Occasionally, Stewart thinks of things he missed out on. "I kind of wish I went to a prom," he says. "Sometimes, it bums me out when people go. "I got homecoming this weekend; I'm taking so-and-so.' "

But the rewards easily top the regrets.

"I'm blessed to be able to do this and get paid for it," he says. "Nothing against Tiger, but I don't want to be known as another Tiger Woods. I just want to be known as James Stewart, because I'm in my own world."

Bubba World.