James Stewart Talks Outdoor Motocross

Kit Palmer | May 9, 2014
  James Stewart practices at Glen Helen. Photography by Kit Palmer

James Stewart is one of many riders getting in some valuable testing time in this week for the upcoming outdoor Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship. Photography by Kit Palmer

SAN BERNARDINO, CA, MAY 8 – Yoshimura Suzuki’s James Stewart was one of the many factory racers taking advantage of an open practice day at Glen Helen Raceway, and he spent the majority of the time dialing in the suspension of his Rene Zapata-tuned RM-Z450. At one point during the day, for a one-hour period, the pros had the track all to themselves and that included the entire course that will be used for the National, though not all of the obstacles were in place.

Stewart will be vying for his second-career 450-class AMA National Motocross title when the field lines up behind the starting gate at Glen Helen Raceway for the first time of the 2014 outdoor championship. Stewart’s first 450 outdoor title came six years ago when he won all 24 motos to complete the perfect outdoor season.

Stewart says that getting ready for the outdoors is a lot tougher than people realize and is very time consuming — so much for taking it easy during a rare two-week break in the Supercross/motocross racing season.

“You feel, ‘yeah, got two weeks off!’ but you’re just as busy as ever, but you’re just not flying on the weekends,” Stewart joked about the break between the end of the Supercross series and the beginning of the outdoor National series. “But it’s been going pretty good so far. We’ve been trying a bunch of different things and just trying to get back into the swing of things for the outdoors.”

Suspension, Stewart says, is the key to bike set-up when it comes to the outdoors, and that setting up the bike for motocross versus Supercross is fairly significant.

“It [suspension set up and outdoor racing] is a lot different than Supercross,” he says. “You have to get used to a lot softer motorcycle and also get used to the speeds. That’s probably the biggest thing, getting used to hanging it out. But I think we’re doing pretty good with the bike and we have another week and a half to get ready.”

Which really isn’t much time at all.

“With Supercross, you really have months to get ready, but for the outdoors you really only have maybe two or three weeks. Most guys start [outdoor testing] in April, maybe once a week or whatnot, and when you add up all the days testing for the outdoors, it really isn’t all that much. For us, we don’t have time to test for the outdoors with Supercross [in progress], plus, with the outdoors, it’s a lot harder to set up the motorcycle and you have less time doing it, which makes it tough. Luckily, we have a great group of guys on the Yoshimura Suzuki team who lead us around in the right direction, so we should nail it.”

Stewart says that getting the suspension/chassis dialed in is the toughest and most important part when it comes to testing and getting the bike dialed in for the outdoors.

“Suspension is most important,” he says. “In Supercross, if the bike is kicking in the whoops that’s a no-no. In the outdoors, if the bike is kicking, it’s okay; it just depends on how bad it’s kicking. You have to transition in your mind to different things [from Supercross to the outdoors], so you have to understand that the bike is supposed to move around and is supposed to kick, as long it’s in a certain realm. You’re okay with that, wherein Supercross, that’s not the case. That’s one of the biggest things, just getting used to that mentally, and it takes a couple days. After that, then you get in the groove.”

As far as the motor, Stewart tends to calm things down a bit for the outdoors.

“In Supercross, you want something explosive to be able to jump things, but, at the same time, the four-strokes really kind of helps that smoothness compared to two-strokes. Outdoors, you need power, but you have to be able to hang on for 35 minutes, so you don’t want it jerking out of your hands, but if you go outside and bury it in the corners in the deep stuff, you got to have the pick up from the motor. But, to me, the motor has never been that big of an issue. I feel that you can win with a slow motorcycle but you can’t win with bad suspension.

“Forks are important,” Stewart says. “In Supercross, you set up the fork stiffer initially [in the stroke] because in the whoops you have to get the front end to return, here [outdoor tracks] the front end needs to move, so we definitely have to run the forks softer out here.

“Damping-wise, overall, Supercross forks are stiffer, but I don’t think that we’re far off from our Supercross settings, when you come down and hit some of these potholes, you have to have a lot of damping in there and that’s the hard part — getting a fork that moves and soak up things but also doesn’t blow your hands off the handlebars. In Supercross, I concentrate a lot on the forks. I ride up on the front end a lot. For the outdoors, however, I have to concentrate more on both ends. They are both equally as important. If you have a good set of forks and the back end is kicking, well, that won’t work. Both ends have to work together.”

Stewart says that getting used to a new schedule and routine when it comes to the outdoors is also an issue.

“It’s quite a transition between Supercross and the outdoors,” Stewart says. “But once you race, that part is the same. To me, I feel the outdoors is easier to race. It’s more laid back, not as much stress, you can get a bad start and make your way up, you can make more points up. In Supercross, you don’t have that luxury. It is, however, stressful for the mechanics. [Motocross] is outside, you have weather issues, and isn’t as predictable. When you show up in the morning, the track is usually muddy and when you get to the actual race, it’s a whole different track. So, the outdoors is a little easier to race but it is a little harder to prepare for because it changes each time you ride it.”

The daily ritual at the outdoors is different, too, but one that Stewart favors over Supercross.

“When you think about it, when you get to an outdoor race, the riders’ meeting starts at, what, eight (a.m.), the riders’ meeting at a Supercross starts at 11 o’clock, and normally I don’t leave the track till almost midnight, where at outdoor race, you start at eight and we’re out of there like about six o’clock, so the day actually feels a lot shorter than Supercross. Even though you race two times, once it starts, everything happens real quick. The day part goes fast and is a little easier.”

Glen Helen will host one more open practice day on Thursday, May 15, before closing the track on May 16 to prepare for the May 24 National.


Kit Palmer | Off-Road Editor

Kit Palmer started his career at Cycle News in 1984 and he’s been testing dirt and streetbikes ever since – plus covering any event that uses some form of a knobby tire. He’s also our resident motorcycle mileage man with a commute of 120 miles a day.