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'Tiger Woods' of Supercross meeting expectations

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foxsports admin

 
   
 
James Stewart Jr. has heard himself compared to Tiger Woods

countless times. Ken Griffey Jr. even called him the Jackie

Robinson of motorsports.

The 16-year-old Supercross rider doesn't have a problem with the

fact that much of the attention he's getting in his rookie season

as a pro is because he's black. His aggressive riding has been

enough to turn the heads of his sport's most established stars.

"It's cool to be known as someone like Tiger Woods, but my main

focus is to win races," said Stewart, who is poised to become the

first black champion of a major professional motorsports series.

With two races remaining in the AMA Supercross 125cc West

series, Stewart leads the season standings by 10 points.

If Stewart doesn't hold on for the title this year, he's bound

to win one in coming seasons, said Jeremy McGrath, a seven-time

250cc Supercross champion.

"The kid's an awesome rider. He has great technique. Already,

he's really done a lot for the sport," said McGrath, who could not

recall seeing any black kids at the tracks he grew up on in

California.

Longtime motocross enthusiasts can recall only one black rider

at top levels: Andy Jefferson rode for Sweden-based Husqvarna in

the early 1980s. He was solid but rarely finished among the top

riders.

"What he did is nothing like what James is doing with

Kawasaki," said Davey Coombs, editor-in-chief of Racer X magazine.

Stewart has "the whole pie: the great relationship with the

fans, nice kid, good upbringing, respectful and rides the heck out

of that bike," McGrath said. He even has the hard-to-forget

nickname of "Bubba."

Like Woods, Stewart learned his sport from his father and showed

promise early. Practicing was easy on the family's 40-acre farm in

Haines City, Fla., where Stewart hopped on his first all-terrain

vehicle at age 3. He was racing the next year, and at 7, Kawasaki

signed him to ride one of their 60cc machines.

Stewart went on to win 11 national AMA amateur motocross titles.

And a little more than a year before turning pro, he was introduced

to Griffey, a motocross enthusiast who often rides in Florida,

where he lives during baseball's offseason.

Griffey became one of his biggest boosters, attending Stewart's

first pro race in Anaheim, Calif., in January.

"You never hear about young black kids racing motorcycles,"

said Griffey, whose young son, Trey, and daughter, Taryn, both ride

motocross as a hobby. "We were just as nervous for James and his

family as I've ever been personally. It was like my son was out

there."

Stewart admits to being nervous in his pro debut, and he fell

twice in his first qualifying heat. But then he won a last-chance

qualifying heat and did the unthinkable in the 15-lap main event:

grinding out a second-place finish after going down in the

always-frantic first turn.

Supercross races often are lost on collisions in the first turn,

where riders, having sprinted through a wide starting straight,

must squeeze into the more narrow, serpentine sections of track.

Passing 10 riders is realistic, if infrequent, for a top rider.

Stewart passed twice that many, at times storming to inside lines

in tight turns and forcing his way through.

"I just kind of have to muscle my way in there - not being

dirty, but I do what it takes to win," Stewart said.

He went on to win his first pro race the next week, and built a

21-point championship lead with second- and first-place finishes in

the next two races.

His lead has since shrunk after 11th- and 10th-place finishes in

his last two races, and he's been nursing a broken foot while

landing triple jumps from as high as three stories. The next race

for the 125cc West region is in Dallas on April 20.

While there is only one 250cc class that races in all 16

Supercross rounds, the 125cc class is divided into East and West

regions to make the schedule shorter and more manageable

financially for the generally younger competitors on the smaller

machines.

On May 4, the top East and West region 125cc riders will meet in

the Supercross season finale in Las Vegas.

Stewart expects to ride on 125s again in 2003 before moving up

to the 250 class, where he may face the likes of Ricky Carmichael,

the 2001 champ and runaway 2002 leader, who's taken notice.

"He's just got a lot of heart, and I think him being black is

pretty cool and will be good for the sport because he's got a lot

of marketing power," Carmichael said. "He just loves racing."

Stewart, who sometimes hangs out at Griffey's Orlando home,

seems to understand he's leading a charmed life for central Florida

farm kid. But he doesn't seem awestruck or terribly surprised.

"I am pretty lucky and thank God for giving me the talent, but

it's something I've worked on for 12 years, and I'm just now

getting to this level," he said. "I feel I put my time in

sacrificing a lot of things about just being a kid, but it all paid

off."

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