Johnny O’Mara was the 1983 AMA 125cc National Motocross and 1984 AMA Supercross Series Champion. In addition to his AMA titles, the O’Show, as his fans like to call him, was part of four American teams that won the prestigious Motocross des Nations, including the first U.S. team ever to win the international competition in 1981. He first came to prominence by winning the 1980 United States 125cc Grand Prix in Lexington, Ohio, and went on to win the 250cc USGP in 1985 in New Berlin, New York. O’Mara was a pioneer in bringing world-class fitness to motocross. He was equally at home competing in triathlons and national-level bicycling competition as he was on a motocross track.
O’Mara was born in Encino, California, on March 25, 1961. His father was an avid desert rider and from an early age O’Mara began motorcycling on the weekends with his family. By the time he turned 10, O’Mara got involved in the exploding Southern California motocross racing scene. His earliest forays into racing didn’t show his true potential.
"I wasn’t very good," O’Mara said flatly. "I rode a 100cc bike that I was really too small to race. They had to put a milk crate next to the bike so I could get on. Even though I didn’t do very well at first, I liked the feeling of being around the races."
In spite of his slow start, O’Mara began winning trophies within a couple of years. By the time he was 15, his garage was overflowing with them. O’Mara tore up the Southern California motocross circuit as a young pro for a few seasons before tackling the nationals in 1980, riding for Mugen. It didn’t take long for him to make a major impact, but it wasn’t at an AMA national. Instead, O’Mara, riding a striking all white and exotic, hand-built 125cc Honda-based Mugen, shocked the GP riders and the established American pros by taking the victory at the muddy 125cc USGP at Mid-Ohio.
"That was the victory that helped me make my mark in the sport," O’Mara recalls of the GP win in Ohio. "I had broken my back in a car accident, so I missed a bunch of the nationals that year, and that race proved I was back and healthy again and it probably helped me get the factory Honda ride in 1981, even though with Mugen I was already pretty much as close to a Honda factory rider as you could get."
O’Mara signed with Honda in 1981 and immediately became a championship contender in AMA 125cc National Motocross. That was the season Mark Barnett dominated and won every race he entered. O’Mara won the final 125 national of 1981 when Barnett was forced to miss the race due to a training injury. O’Mara finished runner-up in the final standings in his first full season and was considered the up-and-coming rider of the time.
In 1982, O’Mara began chipping away at Barnett’s control of the 125 class. He again was runner-up to Barnett in the championship, but this time O’Mara scored two victories over him. In addition, O’Mara began to show he was more than an outdoor specialist by finishing the season ranked third in the AMA Supercross Series.
1983 was the breakthrough year for O’Mara. In one of the best battles in the history of AMA 125 motocross, O’Mara won two nationals and a slew of podium finishes en route to winning the title over Jeff Ward and Barnett.
"A lot of people consider the ’83 season as one of the toughest ever," O’Mara said. "Barnett was still in his prime and Jeff Ward and myself were peaking and (Ron) Lechien and a few other guys were coming on. It wasn’t just one or two guys dominating, it was five or six having a knock-down drag-out at every national. It was quite fulfilling to win such a competitive series with the kind of talent that was in the series that year."
Another big season followed in 1984. That year, O’Mara won a series-leading five AMA Supercross races and took the championship in that series. His Supercross title earned him the nickname "The O’Show," which stuck with him the rest of his career. Many considered O’Mara to be an outdoor specialist, but he knew he had the ability to win the stadium races.
"I always considered myself a good technical rider, which is what’s needed to be successful in Supercross," O’Mara explained. "I think early on, Supercross took a bit of a back seat since my main focus was on winning the 125 national title. After I accomplished that goal, I put a lot more emphasis on Supercross and won that championship the next year."
In 1985, O’Mara moved up to the 250 class in motocross. He proved to be a top-notch rider on the bigger bikes as well. He finished a close second to Jeff Ward on the 250s in his first year in the class. In Supercross, O’Mara had bookend victories at the start and end of the season and finished fifth in the standings.
1985 also proved to be a successful campaign on the international front as well. O’Mara followed up his 125 victory five years earlier by winning the 250cc USGP held at the famous Unadilla circuit in New Berlin, New York.
"Not much was said about those wins at the time," O’Mara says of his GP victories. "I’m really glad I got those USGP wins and I enjoyed racing with the European riders. It was great to be a part of that transition when Americans became considered the top motocross riders in the world."
O’Mara’s victory in the 250cc national at Washougal, Washington, late in August of 1985, proved to be his final victory. He continued to be competitive throughout the rest of his career, earning numerous podium finishes and scoring high in the standings. He signed with Suzuki in 1987 and then with Kawasaki in his final year, 1990.
"By then I was becoming a development rider helping those factories get their bikes up to speed," O’Mara said. "A recurring knee injury was taking its toll, but I still felt I was competitive all the way through my final year."
Indeed he was, scoring a third-place ranking in the 1990 AMA 500cc Motocross Championship to round out his career.
O’Mara became just as well known for his incredible success in Motocross des Nations as he was for domestic success. He was in integral part of the U.S. team’s first victory at both the Trophy and Motocross des Nations in 1981.
"I was a first-year rider for Honda and I was just so excited to be a part of the des Nations," O’Mara remembers. "We were definitely a B team, but under Roger DeCoster’s guidance we came together as a team and shocked the world, I guess you could say. It was really amazing to lead and beat some of the riders I’d only read about in the magazines."
O’Mara was named co-AMA Pro Athlete of the Year in 1981.
Because of his experience and success in the international competition, O’Mara was named to the U.S. Motocross des Nations team three more times (1982, 1984 and 1986) and each year the U.S. won. Many considered the 1986 squad of O’Mara, Rick Johnson and David Bailey to be the best American team ever assembled.
O’Mara retired from pro racing after the 1990 season. In 11 years as a pro, O’Mara amassed a total of 16 AMA national victories (seven 125 nationals, seven AMA Supercross and two 250 nationals) and two national championships.
The intense training regimen O’Mara was known for served him well after his motorcycle racing career ended. He became a leading mountain bike racer in the early-to-mid 1990s and rode as a factory rider in that sport, as he had in motocross.
O’Mara then helped advise a young Ricky Carmichael when he became a pro. Many feel O’Mara’s guiding hand played a major role in Carmichael’s phenomenal success. O’Mara himself downplays his role with Carmichael, saying simply, "I take a lot of satisfaction in being a small part of what Ricky’s been able to accomplish."
After being inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000, O’Mara became a double inductee after the entire 1981 Motocross des Nations team was inducted in 2003. When inducted, O’Mara still lived in Southern California with his wife and daughter.
Inducted in 2000