Where Are They  Now: Mark Barnett

Where Are They Now Mark Barnett

November 4, 2013 1:40pm
Mark “The Bomber” Barnett is one of the giants of motocross. In the early 1980s he won three AMA 125 National Championships (even flirting with a perfect season) and the 1981 250cc Supercross Championship. He ranked fourteenth in our Racer X Greatest AMA Motocross Racers of All-Time rankings earlier this year and twelfth in our Greatest AMA Supercross Racers of All-Time rankings. Barnett retired at the end of the 1985 season, going to work as a track builder, where he’s known as one of the best in the world there as well.

Racer X: Bomber, what’s going on?
Mark Barnett: I’m still building tracks most of the time, and right now is the really busy season for us. Everyone is getting ready for Anaheim, so I’m really busy with my business, Bomber Built Tracks. We do a few amateur and private tracks, but most of the reoccurring business is with the top guys and the private training facilities they have. I have been doing Reed’s place for over ten years now, and also do JGR’s test track, as well as Andrew Short’s place, Justin Barcia’s and Dungey’s, just to name a few. I used to do a few more, but some of the guys retired, so it’s dropped off a little bit. But I’m good with where I’m at today, as I’m still busy pretty much all the time. In fact, I just got back from Gatorback—I redid the Gatorback amateur supercross track, which was also pretty cool. I also build the Daytona Supercross track. That’s something I really enjoy doing now.

How did you get started with the whole track-building gig?
After I quit racing, I wanted to find some work and was looking for something to do that was still close to the sport. So I actually started out helping the West Brothers—they had Gatorback and ran maybe twenty events a year, including a few supercross races. It just started from there. This was before Feld owned every supercross race. Then when Rich Winkler [of Dirt Wurx] got the contract for all the supercross races, I signed on with him and went and built the tracks every weekend. I worked with Rich and the boys for maybe five or six years, then I just kinda went off my own. One of my friends that I met, Glenn Bates, we got together and have been building tracks together now for fifteen years.

Mark "The Bomber" Barnett was one of the all-time greats.
Dick Miller Archives

I understand your wife started a business and it has really taken off. What can you tell us about that?
Yeah, that’s right. She actually makes and sells pimento cheese. It’s called My Three Sons Cheese and comes in three flavors. It’s basically a cheese spread, but it’s really good! But the story is this: She was an orthodontist, and she was very passionate about her work. But she started having back problems, which are really common in that profession because you’re basically leaned over patients for hours each day, and her back just couldn’t handle it after fifteen years. So she had to retire from that. She didn’t want to sit around, so she started this company back in 2010 for fun and was making product in our little guest house. At first it was for fun, but then it grew, and it just keeps growing today.

Can you give me an idea of just how big it is? I know there are lots of small handmade craft food manufactures out there, but how big is this?
She has a few regular full-time employees and is selling the product in retail stores here in the South. It is now in over 300 stores, ranging as far north as Washington, D.C., and running all the way down to Florida. It is sold in a bunch of different specialty stores and regional chains, including Whole Foods, Lowe’s Food Stores, and Harris Teeter, just to name a few. But really her true love was straightening teeth, as funny as that sounds, but she had to quit when her back went bad. So, she was looking for something else to do—she needed something to fill the void, it’s kinda like when a racer retires, it’s a similar situation. Her full story is posted on her website, www.mtsgourmet.com/

That’s a good point, and probably true for anyone that is passionate about their profession or sport. Speaking of which, what can you tell me about your transition out of racing, and how that went?
Well, it was really hard. But at the time, towards the end of 1985, I felt like I was just not into it anymore. I switched over to Kawasaki, but then I hurt my knee and was off for a little while. I had it scoped but not fully rebuilt. I guess I realized that it was just time to stop. And actually, at the end of the season, I didn’t have any offers and really didn’t have anywhere to go. Back then there were only four or five teams, and there were just not many places to go. Once you’re a winner but then you drop down to finishing in the top five, you were done—you weren’t valuable to the factories anymore. But, you know, at the time I knew I had a great career. I knew that I won a ton of races and had made good money, so I really had no regrets hanging it up.

How was the money for you?
It was good. I’m in pretty good shape on that end of it. Here’s some history for you: I was the first rider to sign a million-dollar contract, which I did with Suzuki in 1981. And then my Kawasaki contact was good as well. But along the way, everyone told me to save my money and put it away—and I did. I listened to them. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly blew some and spent some money on fun stuff, but the majority of it, I put away. I made some good investments with Charles Schwab, got some good advice, and for me, it has gone well. Also, some of contracts were deferred payments for nearly ten years, so I had money coming in every year long after I hung it up. But around the time that ran out, that’s when I went to work building the tracks, and it just fit my style.

Mark Barnett-sticker
Fox Racing photo

You made a come back in 1989 with Tuf Racing. What was that about?
I was living Chicago and their shop was close to me. I had taken a few years off and hadn’t started the track building and was just hanging out. The owner of the shop, Dave, he offered to give me a ride. So I moved back to my farm in Alabama and was training and riding a lot. I actually had a pretty good deal going, then I got hurt. It was strange, as supercross started late that year, and the schedule was really spotty, and a lot of the outdoor races were mixed in with the supercross events as well. But the problem was, I was never really able to regain my speed. I had been off for three years, and I lost too much. It was fun for a while, but I just didn’t have it any more. Also, the supercross tracks had changed so much between 1985 and 1989, and I wasn’t the best jumper. But, you know, I’m glad I tried it. I certainly got it out of my system. But now it’s funny—all these guys come back and go racing Loretta’s again. I even did that myself one year awhile back. I guess you don’t ever get it out of your system fully, though.

What are some of the memories that really stick out to you from your career?
Just getting started—getting that Fox Racing ride in 1977. That was a really cool deal for me. I was pretty much just a local guy sponsored by the local bike shop, and then I got that Fox ride, which gave me a bike and everything else I needed to ride the whole series. It really got me going. Then, at end of that [1977] season, and after the Trans-Am series, I was approached by Mark Blackwell, the team manager for factory Suzuki. He offered me a paid ride, and I got some really nice bikes and flew to the races each week. That was really something back then! Also, I would say probably winning the L.A. Coliseum supercross in 1979—we had a huge crowd that night, something like 79,000 people, and I won in front of all those screaming fans. It was crazy, and I think that might still be the record for the largest live crowd to ever watch a supercross race. Oh, and one other thing: when I finally was able to beat Broc Glover consistently [in the 125 Nationals]. That took me a few years to get figured out. That was a big deal for me!

Tell me about your family, and do you still ride at all?
Well, my wife is Cheryl, and I have three stepchildren with her—John, Michael, and William—and they are all teenagers. That’s where the My Three Sons name came for her cheese. We’re living in Greensboro, North Carolina, now. I don’t ride that much anymore, but I have been doing the mountain bike thing, which is a lot of fun. The mountain bikes are really good. I got into it because of the trails around here. The single track is really good.

You built the new track this year for Muddy Creek. Looking back on that event, how do you think it went?
I thought it went really well considering they decided to have the national there late last year and we didn’t have a lot of time to work on things. The venue needed a lot of dirt moved in order to host the needs of a national, so it was a ton of work in a short period of time. I don’t think everyone realizes what’s required when you have 20,000 people coming to your track. Stuff like putting up fencing, grading—all that stuff is just a lot. Sam Gammon and his crew, they did all that. But Glenn and I came in and reworked the track. Some of the complaints were that it was too narrow, but it was tough to move certain parts of the track. But, you know, RV came from dead last to third, so you can’t say that passing was that tough. But looking back, I think I would have gotten the mulch mixed in sooner, but that was near impossible as it rained for weeks leading up to the event, and it was really hard to get stuff done because of that.

You work at some of the best and coolest private training facilities in the world. What can you tell us about those places?
Well, it’s kinda normal for me to go there and build the tracks for those guys. I guess I don’t really think about it—but all those places, they’re all really nice and built very well. Everyone that I’ve worked with, they don’t cut any corners. Each rider has his own equipment—they all have bulldozers, Bobcats, and a water truck. When I go in, the only thing we rent or need is usually an excavator—that’s it. But they’re a lot of upkeep. Someone has to work on the place constantly; the tracks are always being prepped. You also have to mow the grass, maintain the trucks and equipment, carry property insurance, and a lot more. So there’s really a lot to having your own supercross tracks. It’s not a simple set up by any means.

That said, I don’t see how you be competitive at the top today if you don’t have your own place. When I was racing you could use fire roads and stuff for training, jumping fire breaks and laying out tracks back in the woods. But now if you don’t have your own place to ride, forget it. There are a couple different ways to do it, though. Most guys buy their own place, but then some guys, like Dungey, they just rent. So if you want to train at Ricky’s or some of the others’ places, you just pay your money and that’s it. You don’t have to worry about it as much.

Barnett has become a world class track builder since retiring.
Dick Miller Archives

Where do you see the sport going in the future, and what are your thoughts on the four-strokes?
I see it growing, despite what some people say. I think the best thing is the TV coverage. You can pretty much see all the races live now, and it seems like the fan count at supercross and outdoors have been really strong, so you know that people are coming to watch.

As for the four-stroke and two-strokes, I don’t know. I’m old-school! I like the four-stroke—they’re great to ride—but I still like the two-strokes and the sound they make. There’s just something about a guy riding the guts out of a two-stroke that does the trick for me.

Anything you want to close with?
Well, I still love motocross and building tracks, and probably always will. But now I’m 53 years old and I can kinda cruise. Things are slowing down some for me. I can always put it out there and build more tracks, but that’s just more travel and being away from home. But in motocross, you hear all the sob stories—guys who didn’t save anything, they’re all banged up—but it’s been good for me. Motocross has taken care of me. But I tell people, it’s crazy. You’ll be retirement age before you know it!