James Stewart hopes Joe Gibbs can help him reach the next level
Joe Gibbs sold James Stewart on joining his JGRMX team last October by showing a personal interest, convincing him the technology from his Sprint Cup operation could be used to build a better motorcycle than the competition and offering a five-year contract with the opportunity to move into a NASCAR program in the future.
Gibbs started the Motocross/Supercross team in 2008 and his hot pursuit of Stewart shows just how committed and serious the three-time Cup champion owner and three-time Super Bowl winning coach is about the program. Stewart is a two-time champion in Supercross -- the stadium version of Motocross and the most popular form of motorcycle racing in the United States -- and third on the all-time win list with 42 victories. JGRMX has one win in four seasons.
"I had a lot of offers, but I felt like this [JGRMX] was the right place," Stewart said. "When they committed to three years of Supercross and five years total, I felt like that was the team that jumped in and said we're with him whether he dominates or he's done.
"I think you'll see how much they're involved in wanting to win races in Supercross. They built a lot of stuff on the bike. That was a cool part. The other cool part was I got recruited by coach Gibbs. He called me every day, flew down to my house [in Haines City, Fla.], called me late at night. He told me, 'You've got the Motocross side of things and the NASCAR program, whatever you need. We can get it done in the shop. Whatever it takes, we'll get it done.'
"When you see the bike, you'll see what we've been working on. What we've got is a one-of-a-kind thing; there's not another one like it. My teammate [Davi Millsaps] doesn't have one."
JGRMX is housed in the same facility as the NASCAR teams in Huntersville, N.C., with full access to the engineering and fabricating departments. Coy Gibbs, Joe's son, is the team president, and team manager Jeremy Albrecht won seven Motocross and Supercross titles working with Stewart from 2002 to 2007. The team has a contract for Stewart to ride Yamaha bikes for the next three seasons and also has title sponsorship support from Toyota, the manufacturer used by the Cup team.
Stewart became the first African-American to win a major motor racing championship in 2007 and followed up with another Supercross title in 2009. His contract with Gibbs has garnered attention mainly due to the possibility of him breaking into NASCAR. But his focus is on winning the Supercross championship for Gibbs. The 17-event season begins Saturday at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.
"Number one [priority] is the Monster Energy Supercross season," Stewart said. "I think that's our bread and butter, and for me, that's what I love doing."
Stewart drives all-out, never backing off even when he was in the lead. It's led to many crashes, which have caused injuries and knocked him out of the series in both 2008 and 2010. He is prepared, however, to change his style to bring a championship to Gibbs.
"I was raised with no money. Everything I've always raced for and did as a person, I've always earned it," Stewart said. "I felt like I should earn it. I can't be like [two-time Supercross champion] Chad Reed; I can't ride around and get second places and win championships. It's not how I operate. I've always been that person that likes to give everything I've got. But, for sure, this year I want to win the championship, so I'll do whatever it takes to win a championship even if it means [pedaling] back."
Stewart won five Supercross features last season, but finished fourth behind Ryan Villopoto, Reed and Ryan Dungey in the championship. He had a year to go on his contract with L&M Racing, but negotiated out of it.
"Last year was so hard and we had to make some changes," Stewart said. "I broke up my deal with L&M. I felt like it wasn't the right environment for me."
Stewart began expressing an interest in NASCAR following his Motocross/Supercross career several years ago, but he's not in a hurry.
"I have unfinished business here," Stewart said.
Stewart wants to pass Jeremy McGrath's all-time record of 72 Supercross victories and add championships before trying NASCAR. Ricky Carmichael is second on the win list with 48. McGrath won seven Supercross championships, Carmichael five. With the speed Stewart has, many expected him to have more than two titles at this stage of his career.
"It definitely weighs against him living up to the expectations that everyone had for him," Carmichael said. "I know that's probably frustrating. It would be cool to see him live up to a little bit of the expectations of what people had for him and I'm sure he had for himself without a doubt. Nevertheless, it'll always be interesting and fun to watch him."
Stewart will be attempting to win a third title this year against a Supercross field featuring four past champions. It's one of the deepest fields in history.
"I'm one of those people who feels like I should have more [championships]," Stewart said. "But last year was the first year that I actually raced a whole season and didn't win a title."
Stewart will certainly contend, but he needs to stay on the bike. He's counting on the new machine built by Gibbs to validate his belief that the setups have been the major reason behind his crashes.
"We'll find out pretty quick," Stewart said. "But I think this year with JGR, Toyota and Yamaha is going to be pretty good."