The nail-biting, teeth-grinding pressure was unlike any Supercross race Malcolm Stewart could recall.
And this competition didn’t even involve his beloved dirt bike –though Stewart did have a race mechanic in tow as he wheeled his 2002 Nitro to a lake in Winter Haven, Florida, that was jam-packed with the $100,000 boats seen in Bassmasters events.
For the first time in his life, the popular rider affectionately nicknamed “Mookie” was in a competitive bass fishing tournament. Sensing the tension, Stewart’s partner asked if he was OK.
“I’m like, ‘No, I’m not because dude, this is serious. We’ve got to try to win, bro!’ ” Stewart, 28, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “Man, I’d never been this nervous, worse than riding dirt bikes! I didn’t know what I was doing.”
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“We had a really good time. And we got our butts kicked.”
As the pros landed 10-pounders, Stewart struggled to pull in catches at half the weight for three hours, but he still finished a respectable eighth of 30.
“I’ll take it,” Stewart said. “I’ve done a few more (tournaments), and it’s almost like it gets worse because it gets more serious. Your expectations get higher and higher.”
It’s a feeling he can relate to heading into the 2021 Monster Energy AMA Supercross season, which begins Saturday night at NRG Stadium in Houston.
The attention, hype and pressure are as big they’ve been for Stewart, who has a new ride in the No. 27 YZ450F of Star Racing Yamaha. It’s a well-funded factory-backed effort that will put the Haines City, Florida, native aboard the best bike he’s had in the top 450 division.
For the younger brother of retired two-time Supercross champion James Stewart (who will be coaching rival Chase Sexton), stardom dangles like a freshly baited hook poised to be tossed in one of the freshwater lakes that dot the Central Florida landscape where he was raised.
After winning the Supercross 250 championship in 2016, a chance to run for a 450 title in a factory ride loomed as being remembered as the one that got away amid injuries and a lack of team continuity.
Now the moment has arrived.
“I don’t put any more pressure on myself,” Stewart said, “but of course the media and everyone is like, ‘Man, you’re on a factory ride finally.’ ”
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“It’s really hard to classify just where the ceiling is on Malcolm Stewart,” Racer X editorial director and NBC Sports motocross announcer Jason Weigandt said on NBC Sports’ Supercross preview show. “Unfortunately for him, he grew up in the shadow of his brother James. But Malcom is his own rider, and now we really need to judge him as himself.”
Said James Stewart of his brother: “He’s aggressive, fair, but he’s not someone to be messed around with. This year, I’m excited. I think he’s going to do well.”
Last season already was a breakout of sorts for Malcolm Stewart, who consistently rode in the upper half of the main events while earning 15 top-10 finishes in 17 races. He also grew comfortable with emerging as socially conscious voice as the only Black rider in Supercross, speaking out against racism and his experiences with hatred.
That platform could mushroom this season for Stewart, who maximized his equipment last year and finished a career-best seventh in the 450 championship standings (tied in total points with Zach Osborne, who won last year’s finale and then the Outdoors championship).
Stewart said he’s riding the best of his nearly 20-year career and is coming off an encouraging offseason. He has tested the Yamaha in myriad conditions and terrains in Southern California since a mid-October signing with the team (after several marathon late-night negotiating sessions) — a move that caught some of the motorbike industry by surprise.
“I’m in a really good spot; I love the bike,” Stewart said. “Huge shoutout to (team owner) Bobby Regan for even considering me. I know there was definitely some talks (with other riders), and they definitely were on the bubble, and they pulled the trigger at the last minute. … I think it’s one of the sweetest bikes there is. Of course with the airbox being a little loud, you know you’ve got some power under you.”
Stewart’s deal is for Supercross only, and he’s hoping a solid season will secure a Pro Motocross Outdoors ride and Supercross for 2022. He is coy about specific goals (“I can’t tell you guys that!”) but believes his familiarity with trainer Gareth Swanepool and teammate Aaron Plessinger bodes well for getting up to speed quickly.
“It’s almost scary because it’s gone too good,” he said of the transition. “I’ve definitely stepped up my abilities to ride harder. At this point, I feel like all my work is done. I always tell myself that race day should be the easiest day because of all the hard work you already did.
“I definitely feel we’re way better than what we were in 2020. We’re in a better mindset. It’s a cool feeling, the whole vibe, everything about being on the Yamaha team is great. It’s definitely one of those things I’ve been hoping and dreaming for, and I finally am able to check it off my list.”
The opportunity arrives at a unique point in the history of Supercross, which will open a season outside Southern California for the first time in 40 years. In a schedule format that mirrors the final seven races of 2020 season that were held in Salt Lake City, Utah, there will be midweek races and multiple events at the same venue.
That could bode well for Stewart, who mostly thrived in Salt Lake City but is looking forward to having limited crowds again after regularly racing in front of a virtually empty Rice-Eccles Stadium last June.
“There was maybe 10 people in the stands,” Stewart said. “I remember all the riders looking at each other the first race like, ‘This ain’t real! This can not be serious right now!’ We had a little chuckle there. It felt so out of order. We’re so used to 1) racing at night and 2) having fans, the commentators. It was like, ‘This is kind of awkward.’ ”
Salt Lake City also was memorable off the track for Stewart.
Supercross’ restart began just days after protests driven by the death of George Floyd were enveloping the country. Stewart was compelled to weigh in by donning a Black Lives Matter patch on his uniform June 14 in Round 15 (four days after Bubba Wallace drove a BLM-emblazoned No. 43 at Martinsville Speedway).
“I just wanted to make sure that people heard me, and I want to see change for the good for everybody,” Stewart said. “Not just African-Americans, I want the change to be for everybody. And I felt like, ‘Speak how you feel.’ If you don’t and just shy around the corner, things won’t happen and won’t get recognized.
“A lot of people were like we shouldn’t say anything and get in the middle of it, and I was like, ‘Look, it’s not about that. This is about how I truly felt.’ I know exactly what it feels like because I dealt with it.
“Me and James, we had to deal with that. I know what it feels like to be coming across the checkered flag, and people are throwing cans at me. Memories of the things that I went through, but at the same time, it doesn’t create hatred. It’s just that you want to see change in the world for the better for us. White, Black, Hispanic. I feel we’re all Americans at the end of the day. Like we all should be treated the same.”
Stewart points to Wallace’s activism as a good example of effecting change in NASCAR, which banned the Confederate flag last year shortly after public lobbying by the only Black driver in Cup.
The reception to the BLM patch was mostly positive in the Supercross paddock, where Stewart said he heard from many riders who respected his stand.
There also was pushback, particularly from some fans on social media. Stewart said he has received death threats via Instagram but doesn’t allow the vitriol to faze him.
“I’ve gone through this my whole life,” he said. “I know how to block it out. But I feel like I have more people that love me than hate me, and that’s the mindset I have.
He also is careful about clarifying the issue wasn’t political but personal for him.
“I didn’t want people to think ‘Oh, you’re just doing this because everyone is doing this,’ ” he said. “What drives me to continue to keep racing is I want other African-Americans and Hispanics to keep doing what we’re doing and follow the footsteps to continue to be a professional motocross racer. We have some African-Americans in the amateur world that are doing it now because they looked up to us. That’s kind of how I am. I’m paving the way to get people out there.
“As long as you continue to keep doing what you’re doing and being smart about the moves you make, you can’t go wrong. These things are not something to be afraid of. I’m not trying to be about politics.
Stewart said he remains “100 percent” committed to wearing the Black Lives Matter patch in events this season.
“I slowly see changes happening,” he said. “As long as we’re seeing these changes happening, it’s for the better for all of us.”
Stewart has found unity in filling his Instagram feed with nearly as many shots of largemouth bass as dirt bikes.
“I feel like a lot of my fans can relate to me more because they are so into fishing,” he said. “They want to show me pictures of fish they caught. ‘Come to Seattle, we can catch salmon.’ I’ll be fishing on a lake, and they’ll come right up to me and be like, ‘Let’s fish together!’ It’s just a really enjoyable moment.
“That’s one thing I love about fishing, the reaction I get from my fans. I could talk hours about fishing. There’s no end.”
Of course, there are many other things he loves about fishing, a passion passed on by his father (brother James, by the way, “hates everything about fishing,” Malcolm laughs).
“It’s just being out in the open,” Stewart said. “There’s nothing to distract you. It’s just you, the boat and the water. I put my phone on airplane mode and just enjoy the time.”
Stewart has proved fairly adept with a rod and reel (preferring a “big caster” in the Abu Garcia Revo). His record is 8.3 pounds from a public lake and 12.4 pounds from a pond (“it was stocked, so it’s kind of cheating.”). But he got hooked the day he came home empty-handed.
“This is a true story: I got up at 4:30 in the morning, drove an hour and was on the lake at 6,” he said. “I didn’t catch one thing for eight hours, and I was determined to go back the next day. That’s when I knew that I loved fishing.”
He also can tell from numerous trips to Bass Pro Shops, where he probably has invested enough to qualify for minor sponsorship on his Yamaha. “I would love that,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of money on some fishing, boy!”
A straight catch and release practitioner, Stewart actually doesn’t eat fish, which he says is “a mental block. I’ve tried tuna, mahi-mahi and put it on the grill and can’t do it. People are like, ‘Man, you do all this fishing to not eat a fish.’
“But I do it for sport,” said Stewart, who grew up idolizing watching fisherman Kevin VanDam and Bill Dance on TV.
And just like in the 450 class, the best still might lie ahead for his tournament career.
“Once I hang the boots up and retire from dirt bikes,” he said, “that’s definitely going to be a thing I’ll be focusing on.”