The first time James Stewart was on a motorcycle, he wasn’t riding at risky speeds. He was 3 days old when his father, James Sr., took him for his first ride. By the time he was 4 years old, Stewart was competing, riding tiny dirt bikes against a slew of tiny competitors. By age 7, he had his first sponsor, Oakley. By 10, he was outracing kids five years his senior. By 16, he had turned pro. To make all that happen, James Sr. was working 70-hour weeks and collecting recyclable tin cans to pay for his son’s pricey gear and training.

“I’m different than
other riders
because I always
have the mentality
that I can do anything on
the racetrack.”

That investment has paid off handsomely.­ “When I came into racing, I had no real thought of making money at this,” says Stewart, who grew up 40 miles south of Orlando, Fla., near tiny Haines City and who speaks with a subtle Southern accent and the slow cadence of a surfer dude. “I just wanted to win. But one day in 2004, I looked at the bank account and I thought, ‘Wow, like, there is actually a lot of money in here from racing.’ ”

The money was, and is, there because Stewart was winning and because ­sponsors have clamored to attach themselves to a unique athlete — a black man in a white man’s sport who rides at breakneck speeds. But Stewart is not just a daredevil; he’s an innovator. Among other things, he reinterpreted a move called “the scrub” — a move where riders twist their bikes when going over a jump so as to push themselves back toward the ground as fast as possible. Stewart performed that so-called “Bubba Scrub” plenty of times on his reality series, Bubba’s World, which aired for one season on Fuel TV.

“I have never wanted people to accept me just because I look different,” Stewart says. “I wanted them to accept me because I was a great motorcycle racer. With me, there is an excitement level. You don’t know what is going to happen. You just want to watch.”

Many more people are, in fact, watching, in no small part thanks to Stewart. ­Supercross — the glam, indoor, winter ­counterpart to muddier, grittier outdoor Motocross that Stewart also competes in — had record TV ratings in 2012, and Supercross events at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta sold out last year, contributing to record attendance.

“When I got into this, you could look around the stadium and there would maybe­ be one black person there,” Stewart says. “Now there is a mix, and there are other black kids racing.”