'It's not the team; It's the new Yamaha'
"I feel like I can't win." That's what James Stewart told Coy Gibbs, owner of the Joe Gibbs Racing -- Motocross team. Stewart won two races in the Monster Energy AMA Supercross series, finished seventh overall and spent a lot of time on the ground and sidelines. Now, a contract that was supposed to last for three years and eventually lead into car racing, didn't even last the duration of the Supercross season.
Stewart is nearly a week into testing for his new employer, Yoshimura Suzuki, where his racing contract doesn't technically start until 2013. Stewart is not unfamiliar with Suzuki. He bought a stock RM-Z450 last autumn and built a relationship with the factory's team manager, Mike Webb.
As Stewart says in the frank interview below, it's the brand he wanted to be on all along. His two-year deal has a third and fourth year option and Stewart said he wants finish his career on yellow. But before all that he has decided to race the 2012 Lucas Oil Motocross Championship for Suzuki. For free.
ESPN.com: Is it true that you told Coy Gibbs, "I feel like I can't win?"
Stewart: Correct. I told Coy that I felt like, in the current situation, on the bike that I was on, that I couldn't win. In my contract I didn't have a performance thing so I could -- I would never do it -- but I could literally go to the races and finish 20th place every weekend and nothing can happen. Obviously it wasn't what we both wanted to hear but this was a conversation that we had before the season even started. He kind of knew my dislike for the Yamaha, and that current [model], knew how much we struggled, so we tried our best to try to fix it but I came to him and told him straight up I cannot win because of these reasons.
Give one example of why you can't win on the bike. What's something that would prevent a rider of your caliber from winning?
It's not the team. It's the new Yamaha. This is different. When I say I can't win, it's not what the team's doing, it's how that motorcycle was particularly built. I've crashed a lot. In 2009, I won 11 of 17 races so it wasn't the brand, it's just how they built this new motorcycle that did not gel with me. I was uncomfortable on the motorcycle. It's not what the team did. The team tried their hardest but we knew going into it that we had to fix the motorcycle for me to perform and we didn't. I didn't on the L&M Team. We couldn't fix it there. I had the same issues. I don't know anybody that's doing really good on it. Davi did awesome but he's 25 pounds heavier than I am. I think bigger and taller people can handle the bike where I can't.
Is it too stiff, too soft and would it have been possible to go back to the 2009 settings?
You can't go back to the '09 settings. It's a completely different chassis. It's a whole new frame and Yamaha is trying to push this bike so if I went out there and rode the '09 bike it would tell the public that this bike doesn't work. Now that's the thing I'm not saying. I'm not saying the bike doesn't work. I'm saying the bike doesn't work for me and we've had struggles on it for a long time.
Are you difficult to deal with?
No. If I was difficult then Coy never would have picked up the phone, like Yamaha never would have wanted to work with me again. I still talk with Yamaha. Before I left they said, "Is there anything we can do?" I was like, "If you change the model of the motorcycle or we do something drastic I would stay."
Even when I left Coy, with this whole situation, we still want to work together. We're still probably going to work together in the future. I'm not a difficult person to deal with, I just, like I told Coy, "It comes down to this; you are paying me a lot of money. I could do one of two things: I could split now and give you six months to find another rider and you could save a lot of money, or, I could sit here and get 20th place the next two years and take every dime that you got that you're putting into this team and there's nothing you could do." I'm not that type of person. I do not race for the money. That was the thing he really understood: This guy really wants to win. And so, if that makes me difficult, maybe I am.
If Suzuki had been in a position to sign you last year, would you have signed with them right from the beginning?
Absolutely. When I originally came to Gibbs, I wanted to ride for Coy, I love Coach [Joe Gibbs]. Those are the people I wanted to ride with. But, I couldn't -- they were originally going to ride Suzukis, that's what both of us wanted but unfortunately they were having the same issues I was with going to [factory] Suzuki. I think they were having some issues where they didn't know exactly where they were going with their racing program. If Suzuki had either gone to Joe Gibbs or if factory Suzuki would have stepped up like they did this time I would have rode for those guys last year.
What's good about the Suzuki? What makes it right for you?
The easiest way to explain it is that it feels normal. It feels like walking again, left foot right foot. It feels like that instead of hopping on one foot trying to run a marathon.
Well, you're riding this summer for free. You have nothing to prove but what message are you trying to send?
I'm not trying to send any message. Actually, what it comes down to is that I love racing motorcycles. I made a lot of money. I still make a lot of money. To me, like, when I came to Suzuki I asked them, "Can you do what I want to do? Can you give me a motorcycle? Can you give me a team? Can you guarantee me those for the next few years?" And they did.
And then they said, "Do you want to race outdoors?" I was like, "Hell yeah, I want to race outdoors." They said, "You know we can't pay you, no bonuses or anything like that?' I told them, "I don't care. I love racing motorcycles, I just left making a lot of money, I just want to race."
Yeah, I am racing for free when it comes to factory Suzuki. My contract doesn't start with those guys until January and that doesn't bother me one bit. I could really care less.
Are you concerned at all that you won't be able to figure it out here? You said, "I could suck here, too." Are you worried about that?
I think -- I feel like I am better. I feel like I have a lot of races left to win but it's going to take a little while to get the bike and all that stuff worked out but I'm going to make it happen. So yeah, when it comes down to it I do feel like I made the right decision and if I suck, I suck. It is what it is.
What would make it a successful summer for you?
To have fun. I look at it as something where we're going to build for 2013 and so a successful summer would be to learn about the motorcycle, be out in front of my fans and obviously, winning the championship would be nice but I think, with some people, I'm never going to get the benefit of the doubt.
If I go to Hangtown and lose, then people will be like, "You suck." I don't look at it like that because I've had five days on the motorcycle and I'm trying to do something that's probably going to be very hard. I haven't raced motocross in four years and it's going to be tough. My real goal is to win the 2013 Supercross title.
How is your health?
My health is 100 percent. I took a few weeks off because I broke my hand and had that concussion. I was going to come back for maybe the last two races but by then me and JGR had already split up right before Salt Lake City so I didn't have a ride at the last two races.