Preston Mack

Dirt-bike sensation James “Bubba” Stewart has changed the face of Motocross racing.

It was the whoops that got him. It happened in Salt Lake City during a 2011 American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Supercross race. That’s where they truck 700 tons of earth into a big sports arena, then build a twisting, turning, undulating track and let loose 20-something dirt-bike riders to see who can get around it the fastest. And James “Bubba” Stewart was certainly the fastest that night. That is, until he hit the whoops.

Stewart was way out in front as he approached what dirt-bikers call the “whoops” — 10 closely spaced speed bumps that riders bounce over at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. He had just fallen coming around a corner, but he’d leaped back onto his bike and gunned its 450-cc engine, sending him barreling into the whoops.

Turns out he mistimed his approach. The bike caught the edge of a speed bump and lurched, throwing Stewart over the handlebar and sending the bike flipping over him, just missing his head. Again, Stewart got back on the bike. But by then he was too far behind. He’d lost the race. And yet, he’d gun that engine again today.

“It’s not like I want to crash,” Stewart says, speaking from his 100-acre central-Florida training compound where he spent all winter preparing for the 2013 ­Supercross season after recovering from a crash-related injury for most of the fall. “But I do a lot of stuff on a motorcycle that no one else does. I’m different than other riders because I always have the mentality that I can do anything on the racetrack.”

Stewart is different than other riders in a lot of ways. For one thing, he has often been dominant on the track. He was undefeated in 2008 and is now third in all-time wins, with a shot at the top spot before his career is over. For another thing, Stewart is one of the richest riders ever. He has earned as much as $10 million in a single year, mostly through sponsors and endorsements. And then there’s his, well, race. Stewart is a black man in a sport where almost all the other competitors are, and always have been, white.

But the thing that truly sets Stewart apart is his speed. He’s considered by many to be the fastest man ever to race on two wheels. And although at 27, he likely has only a few years left in a sport where riders rarely compete into their 30s, Stewart has a chance to finish his career as the most accomplished motorcycle racer ever. That is, if he can keep the crashes to a minimum.