Mark Barnett was the dominant AMA 125cc motocross racer of the early 1980s. "The Bomber" won three AMA 125cc National Motocross Championships from 1980 to 1982 and proved his versatility by winning the AMA Supercross Series in 1981. When he retired from racing in 1985, he was the all-time win leader in AMA 125cc Motocross history with 25 national wins in the class and was second to Bob Hannah on the all-time AMA Supercross wins list with 17 stadium victories.
In addition to his four AMA championships, Barnett also had success on the international stage as a member of the winning 1983 Team U.S.A. Motocross and Trophee des Nations squad. He twice won the 125cc U.S. Grand Prix of Motocross.
Barnett, born in 1960, grew up in Bridgeview, Illinois. He learned to ride on a pull-start minibike as a kid and began racing motocross by the age 10 in Illinois and Indiana. He rapidly became the dominant rider in whatever class he competed. As a boy, Barnett was a big fan of Belgium motocross star Sylvain Geboers. He saw first saw Geboers race a factory Suzuki in a Trans-AMA race in Wisconsin.
At 15, Barnett earned national recognition by winning an AMA amateur championship. After he turned 16, Barnett hit the national circuit on a privateer Suzuki.
In his 1977 rookie pro season, the Midwesterner turned some heads by scoring three top-10 finishes in the 125cc nationals and finishing sixth in the final standings. In 1978, Barnett signed his first factory contract with Suzuki, paying him $1,000 per month. Later, at the height of his career, Barnett would sign a three-year, one million dollar contract with the company.
Barnett was one of the few riders from the Midwest to earn a factory ride at the time.
"It was tough to get recognition if you didn’t grow up racing in California," Barnett said. "I won some key amateur races at the right time and then went out and raced a season in the nationals on my own to prove myself. I think growing up racing in the Midwest gave me an advantage when the nationals came back East. I was used to the mud, ruts and roots."
On April 23, 1978, Barnett won his first AMA 125cc National riding the factory Suzuki in Houston, Texas. A shoulder injury put an early end to his 1978 campaign and hampered his return early in 1979, but by the end of the year Barnett was fully healed and closed out the season with a string of consecutive victories in the 125 nationals and finished runner up to Broc Glover in the series. Perhaps his biggest confidence booster that year was winning the 125cc U.S. Grand Prix of Motocross at Mid-Ohio against the world’s best.
He also scored his first AMA Supercross victory in July of 1979 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in front of 79,000 fans. Barnett called the LA Supercross victory one of the most memorable in his career. In the race, Jeff Ward led early before losing the lead to Gaylon Mosier. Barnett worked his way to the front and passed Mosier late in the race, as did Mike Bell. For the final two laps, Barnett and Bell battled feverishly, with Barnett taking the checkered flag by a bike length over Bell with the throng of fans cheering enthusiastically.
By then, Barnett had moved to his grandmother’s 400-acre ranch in Alabama. He quickly became known as perhaps the strongest rider on the circuit, not only from weight training, but also from hauling hay in the hot Alabama summer sun. Unlike many of his peers, Barnett, who had a quiet and polite demeanor, avoided fast cars and high living and lived a uncomplicated life on the farm eating fresh vegetables he grew in his garden and riding countless hours on the practice track and surrounding woods of the ranch.
After chasing Glover for three years, Barnett dethroned the reigning 125 motocross king in 1980. But Glover didn’t go down without a fight. The 1980 125 national championship was a battle all the way to the final moto. In the searing August heat of St. Petersburg, Florida, Barnett finally took home the victory and with it the trophy that Glover had a stranglehold on for years. He had just turned 20 when he won the championship.
"I’d say the biggest rival of my career was Glover," Barnett would later say. "He was the rider everyone was shooting for when I came into the sport and we had a lot of great races along the way."
In 1980, his first full season of AMA Supercross, Barnett finished fourth in the series.
While Barnett was coming into his own by 1980, no one could have dreamed he would experience one of the most dominant seasons in AMA Motocross and Supercross history in 1981. That year, he gave Suzuki its first AMA Supercross Championship, winning a series-best six races along the way.
In the 125 nationals, Barnett was simply unstoppable. He won 14 straight motos and seven consecutive nationals en route to the title. He broke his collarbone at home practicing and was forced to miss the final national. That was very likely the only thing that kept him from turning in the first undefeated season in AMA motocross history. As it was, he won 14 of the 16 motos that season. In spite of missing the final round, Barnett set a number of AMA winning-streak records that would stand for over 20 years.
If the 1981 AMA Supercross and 125 Motocross Championships weren’t enough, Barnett put an exclamation mark on his unbelievable season by humiliating the Europeans at Mid-Ohio in the 1981 125cc U.S. Grand Prix. He lapped the field up to 10th place in the first moto and was nearly two minutes ahead of the second-place rider at the finish. In the second moto, he came from dead last in a pouring rain to win again. Motorcyclist magazine said the one consolation the Europeans had when they returned home was that Barnett didn’t go with them.
Barnett was runner up in the 1982 supercross series and went on to defend his 125 Motocross title in a close battle over Johnny O’Mara. It marked his fourth AMA championship.
In 1983, Barnett finally relinquished the AMA 125 Motocross Championship after he experienced a tough string of mechanical problems with his bike. In the 1983 AMA Supercross Series, Barnett led most of the season, but again had bike problems late in the season and lost the title to David Bailey by just two points.
"That was my most disappointing year," Barnett admitted. "I should have won the ’83 supercross championship. I was in a battle all year with Bailey, but the bike broke on me [in the Foxboro, Massachusetts race] and I lost 25 points and it cost me the championship."
In 1984, Barnett moved to the 250 motocross class for the first time. He had some good results, but suffered a knee injury and finished fifth in the final standings. It was then that he felt the desire to stay on top was beginning to wane.
"Maybe I was getting tired or maybe the other guys were just getting better," Barnett admitted. "I won very early in my career and I think it’s tough to maintain that level for any length of time."
In 1985, he signed with Kawasaki, but re-injured his knee and never regained the speed he had before the injury. Barnett decided to retire after the ‘85 season.
During his nine-year professional racing career, Barnett won a total of 43 AMA national events, taking victories in AMA 125cc motocross, AMA Supercross and Trans-AMA. His 25 career wins in AMA 125 motocross would be the record until Ricky Carmichael moved back down to the 125 class after clinching the 250 championship and earned his 26th win in 2001. His riding style was one of the most aggressive of the era, earning him his nickname of "The Bomber." He was also known for his incredible cornering speed, said to be the best of any rider from the 1980s.
After retiring from racing, Barnett honed his skills as a track builder and became one of the leading motocross and supercross track designers and builders in the country. He built many of the private practice tracks for the factory riders of the early 2000s. He continued to live on his family ranch in Alabama.
He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2002 Racer X Illustrated ranked Barnett sixth on its "25 All-Time Best American Motocross Riders."
Inducted in 2001