James Stewart begins pursuit of his third Monster Supercross championship Saturday at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Like Tiger Woods and Serena Williams, Stewart didn't set out to break down barriers by becoming the best black athlete in a particular sport. He was pursuing his dream and made it to the top, becoming arguably the most successful of his race in American motor racing history.
"Until Tiger and Serena came along, there hadn't been black athletes who had been No. 1 in their sport," Stewart said. "I'm the first black athlete in my favorite sport who also is No. 1 in the sport."
Stewart was guided into motocross, the outdoor, natural terrain version of stadium-series Supercross, by his father, James Sr., who had him on a motorcycle two days after his birth and riding at age three. His race was never a topic of discussion.
"My dad raised me right," Stewart said. "He did the right things, never cared about race. I was out to win, to finish ahead of everybody."
Stewart won a record 11 American Motorcyclist Association amateur titles before making his pro debut in 2002 at age 16. By 2004, he had moved into the premier Supercross series, which fills stadiums with fans, attracts major sponsorships and rewards top riders with multi-million dollar salaries and endorsement deals. Stewart, for example, has a deal with Nike on top of his factory contract with Yamaha.
Stewart took his first Supercross championship in 2007, but a knee injury forced him to withdraw from the series early in 2008. After surgery and rehabilitation, he returned four months later to have a perfect season in AMA Motocross, winning all 24 races. Stewart and Ricky Carmichael are the only riders with that accomplishment.
In the 2009 Supercross opener at Anaheim, Stewart and rival Chad Reed, who won the 2008 stadium title, collided in the main event and Stewart finished 19th out of 20 riders. Stewart departed 23 points behind event winner Josh Grant and 20 behind Reed, who finished third. Stewart won the next seven events to take the lead, fell back out of it by 11 points, then won four more and took the championship over Reed by four points, 377-373.
"For me, it was great [championship]," Stewart said. "My first championship  was pretty special. Last year was tough, the mental side was harder. I went to every race knowing I had to win. I won seven in a row and had a three-point lead, then went 11 behind and had to win four in a row to get it back. It was an emotionally tough year, but I wouldn't change it in any way. Honestly, it was the best thing that happened in my career. It gave me more confidence. It definitely was satisfying. It was a lot of work. To win seven in a row, that's a lot of pressure."
It's possible Stewart could follow Carmichael into NASCAR, but don't expect it for several more seasons. Supercross/motocross riders rarely race past the age of 30 because of the physical pounding from riding over bumps and landing hard from jumps on the rough terrain. Stewart is only 24 and in no hurry to leave.
He is asked often about going to NASCAR, which covets a black driver in the same way it wants Danica Patrick to succeed and make the switch to full time in Sprint Cup. He admits interest, but answers questions with a sense of humor.
"If Rick Hendrick offers me a contract, I'd be running there," Stewart said, smiling. "But nobody has offered me a contract. I always thought it would be cool to win both [Supercross/motocross and Sprint Cup]. But even if I do NASCAR, I'll probably [own] a team in Supercross, too."
Stewart has unfinished business in Supercross, which opens a 17-event season at Anaheim.
"We're Americans," Stewart said. "If you get to five championships, you want 10. But realistically, I'd like to get 73 wins."
Jeremy McGrath is the all-time leader in Supercross victories with 72. Carmichael is second with 48 and Stewart third with 36. "If I do good this season, I might catch Ricky [Carmichael]," Stewart said. "That would be awfully special."
Stewart isn't ready to concede any of the 17 this season.
"People ask me, 'Can you win them all?' Stewart said. "I'm going to do my best to do that."