A.J. Maestas, who heads the Navigate Research sports-and-entertainment research firm in Chicago, agrees. “Bubba is drawing more people to the sport,” he says. “There is reason to believe he could be the face of the sport for a long time to come.”

But there’s also reason to worry that Bubba — a nickname Stewart picked up on the circuit that is mostly used by fans and commentators (his parents hate it) — could be the mangled face of the sport if he’s not more careful. Stewart has suffered seven concussions, endured knee injuries and has broken an arm, a leg, a wrist and a collarbone. Those injuries have cut into his dominance; the last three seasons, all shortened by crash-related injuries, have resulted in individual event wins but no championships. He has also run afoul of the law, pleading no contest to a misdemeanor after he was charged with slapping red-and-blue lights on his truck and impersonating a police officer near his home.

Both his on- and off-track troubles have made Stewart a love-him-or-hate-him figure in the niche world of dirt-biking. But he ­insists he’s matured a lot in the last couple of years and that fans shouldn’t confuse his flashiness on the track with his persona off it. “I don’t think anyone who has met me walks away not liking me,” Stewart says. “I tell people all the time, ‘Dude, I’m from Haines City. I’m just a country boy.’ ”

That country boy still believes he can best dirt-biking’s current champs, Ryan Dungey and Ryan Villopoto — who have dominated the sport while Stewart has sat out. He has reason to believe that. Stewart won the first four Motocross events of 2012 before yet another injury, this one to his wrist, put him out for several races and eventually ended his season early.

Ready to return with the start of the 2013 season this month, Stewart also promises to continue his effort to top Jeremy ­McGrath for the all-time win record in the ­Supercross Series. McGrath had 72 wins. Stewart has 44. Whether he tops that record or not, Stewart ultimately has his sights set on something else: a run at NASCAR, another sport dominated by white athletes. “I don’t just want to prove I have something left in racing,” Stewart says. “I also want to do something spectacular.”


Frequent American Way contributor Joseph Guinto rode a small dirt bike as a kid and had plenty of “whoops” moments.