AT THE SEASON OPENING NEWS conference at Angel Stadium in January, two-time AMA Supercross champ James Stewart took his seat onstage among the top five riders from 2011. As is customary, each one was dressed in a pit shirt showcasing his team colors and sponsor logos. Every rider, that is, except Stewart, who opted for a blue button-down with a crisp white collar and cuffs, a white Toyota-Yamaha hat and a diamond-encrusted Rolex. It was a small act of defiance that signifies a change not everyone in the industry is ready to embrace.
Just two months earlier, Stewart shocked much of the motocross world by signing a three-year deal with Joe Gibbs Racing-Motocross, a fledgling outfit run by Coy Gibbs, the youngest son of the NFL coaching legend and NASCAR owner. That one of the most sought-after riders would sign with a nonfactory team was considered a radical move in the conservative-minded sport, in which riding for teams like KTM, Yamaha or Suzuki is considered the only way to win.
"Joe Gibbs is a huge name," says Jeremy McGrath, the all-time Supercross wins leader and first-year owner of the L&Mc Racing/Honda team. "But the difference is the technology that comes straight from Japan to the factory teams. James is an awesome rider who can make up for some of those deficiencies, but it's going to be harder for them to compete as far as technology."
Coy Gibbs, a former NASCAR driver and assistant coach for the Redskins, plans to challenge that way of thinking. When he and his dad were wooing Stewart, they invited him to their North Carolina headquarters to show that there's nothing a factory can produce that their engineers can't manufacture on-site. "Folks in Supercross don't understand how big NASCAR is," Coy says. "Sure, we're a tiny race team, but we have the leverage of a huge operation."
As Stewart proved that day in January, Gibbs' involvement in motocross does something else for the sport: It attracts attention. This season, Supercross is posting the highest attendance and TV ratings in its 38-year history. "When I signed with JGRMX, it was on ESPN," Stewart says. "Me not wearing my pit shirt at the press conference was more news than all four of those guys showing up put together. Coming from NASCAR, Coy understands it's about sponsors but also about publicity. For me to win a championship with JGR will be a bigger deal than for factory Kawasaki to win. It's good for our sport."
Of course, now comes the hard part: actually delivering that championship. Even Gibbs says that anything less than a title this year will be considered a failure. Unfortunately, the first half of Stewart's 2012 season was marred by crashes and the death of his practice mechanic, Mark "Tex" Adams, who was killed in a traffic accident two days before the Jan. 28 race in Oakland. After a huge victory at Daytona on March 10 (his second this season and 44th overall), Stewart sustained a concussion the next week at Indianapolis that knocked him out of the event. He also sat out the March 24 Toronto event to heal. With four races remaining, however, he's within striking distance of series leader and defending champ Ryan Villopoto.
Stewart's long-term goal is to top McGrath's record of 72 career wins. He knows he's on the clock. When his Supercross contract expires in three years, he hopes to transfer his loyal fan base -- folks he invites to prerace dinners and emails after races -- to NASCAR.
"If it wasn't for the things I want to accomplish in motocross, I'd go to NASCAR now," says Stewart, who tested a stock car in November and, according to Joe and Coy, has a natural gift. "But if I quit today, I'd regret it. I still have more races to win."