It’s hard to say what Johnny O’Mara is better known for: his career during the 1980s as a professional racer, where he won the 1984 AMA Supercross championship, or his second career as a professional mountain bike racer and trainer /mentor to some of the all-time greats in the sport.
O’Mara raced as a professional for 11 years, retiring in 1990 as a factory Kawasaki rider. Almost immediately, he moved over to mountain bike racing, where he had a factory ride with the upstart Yeti team. Twenty-six years later, and O’Mara is still at it, pedaling away and involved with his own top-level mountain bike team.
O’Mara’s love for training and fitness began early on during his career. His relationship with his friend, teammate, and training partner David Bailey was legendary, as the two riders pushed each other to new levels of fitness. By the mid-‘80s, Johnny and David were generally regarded as the two fittest racers in the sport. And despite being in his 50s now, O’Mara is still in amazing physical condition and rides daily, utilizing the same discipline and work ethic that guided him to two championships back in the 1980s.
Racer X: Johnny, thanks for doing this. We saw you hanging over the fence at Glen Helen watching the 250 Class. What are you up to this summer?
Johnny O’Mara: Well, a quick overlay of what I have going on, basically, my friend Ricky Carmichael called me towards the end of the supercross season and asked if I wanted to help out with Joey Savatgy. So I worked with him for the last four supercross races and for the outdoors. I am trying to help him really get to his full potential and to make that step to winning championships.
So you are training him full time then?
Well, not entirely. Outside of Joey’s program, I am super active in mountain bike racing. I’m involved with and help to run a team called Baghouse Racing. The program is basically 12 guys who all do the cross country discipline. I am still racing myself, and we have a guy in every age category. It’s super fun for me; I have been doing the mountain bike thing for what seems like forever now. I am training daily, as well as doing the family thing. Working with Joey, I have been in and out town, between California and Florida. There is always something going on in my life, and I’m still lucky and thankful to have opportunities like this in the motocross world. I do have to say, it’s cool to be searched out by guys; I must have done something right in my racing days!
I know a lot goes into it, but what is some of the stuff you guys focus on to try and move the needle?
Well, it’s a ton of little things, but basically training trips, race craft, and motivation. For me, it’s a way I can give back to help make people better. I am in a really good position right now, and have been close with some of the best on the planet. So I really try to dig in and get the most out of a rider.
You guys had a rough time in Vegas.
That was tough. Basically, when Ricky brings me in, it is likely because there is a problem, or there is an area where I can help overcome something that is maybe holding someone back. Joey and RC, as well as his team, thought I might be able to make a difference. So yeah, those were some tough races. I had just come in and evaluated his program, and I have been back to Florida to see what he is doing there. Honestly, all I can see is that he has super strong potential, but has some things to work on in order to get there, and we need to make the entire program stronger. When I first start working with a new rider, I like to identify weaknesses right off the bat, and then have a plan for moving forward. Sometimes that is tough to get through and make those changes. I told Joey the same thing I have told the others: he has one option, either quit now, or move on and stay positive. It’s not easy making changes.
How was Hangtown for you guys?
I thought we were going to Hangtown ready, he won the year before, but we didn’t have a lot of prep for outdoors as he was really focused on supercross. Sure enough, he was not that comfortable on the bike. So he stayed back in California after Hangtown and spent some time with the team, and with the goal to get more comfortable with the bike. I think that worked—he got a second in the first moto at Glen Helen, so we were pleased with that. Then in that second moto, he got a bad start, and the bikes had some technical issues. It was honestly the worst timing in the world for him, as it is delicate sport. But we made some big improvements and I’ll stay positive with that. He is off to Florida this week and back working with Ricky and Jeannie on his training. I really like him, he is very technical, he needs to keep grinding away and getting better. The outdoor series is really up and down, [Zach] Osborne is strong right now, but I think there is going to be some changes in the results, and he just needs to keep plugging away, there is still 20 more motos to go and a lot can happen.
What is your connection with Ricky’s program?
Well, the Goat Farm down there, I think it’s flat out the best place to train, period. It is where Ricky came from, it is where Ryan Dungey first went and spent several years at, as well as Jeremy Martin. And Joey has been there for a few years, and now Justin Bogle is there as well. For me, it’s been years since I was there, but it was great to be back. So much of it is still the same as when Ricky was still racing, but the guys do the laps and sprints and are just there doing work. Joey has the best of the best, and his future looks great to me.
So what does the rest of summer bring for him?
We are just going for race wins for right now; that takes a little pressure off. Now it’s time to just win some races, get some points back and chip our way to the top. At Hangtown, we went 7-7, and then at Glen Helen we got a second. We know he is riding well and we just want to chip away and be consistently on the box and take every point you can. You never know!
Your approach to training seems more selective than some of the other guys that are full time trainers. Is that by design?
I guess so, but not by design. I am just maybe more selective on who I take on. I was brought in during the early days with Ricky, and was pretty much around his whole time. Even if I was not there every day, I was always available and was a phone call away. There were a few years where he was on auto pilot, I would get a phone call that I needed to be somewhere, but he was pretty good once we got the foundation in. After that, I was semi retired doing mountain bike stuff, and things would fall in my lap—like helping Ryan Dungey when he was just getting going. At that point, in my life, I had just had my second child, so I was not eager to travel. So I worked with Ryan in his early days to set a program and his mindset, and to help him with what he would run into during his career. I tried to ID weaknesses and form a structure for him. I guess you can say that I am pretty hardcore and don’t sugar coat it. So I was with Ryan for a year and a half, and I knew I wasn’t going to stick around forever, especially when he was on his own and knew what to do. Ryan then went onto a couple of trainers and settled with Aldon [Baker]. It’s worth noting that I got Aldon in the business, he came from the mountain bike world, and we hired him to help Ricky with nutritional stuff, and as it evolved, they got into a good program, and that gave him a good start. We all know what Aldon has done since!
Who are some of the other guys you have worked with?
Ivan Tedesco, and that came through Ricky as well; he was down at the farm. Ricky and I just worked together really closely, and after that James Stewart, then [Justin] Barcia for a little bit, and then Jeremy Martin. As of late, I wasn’t really looking for anything, and then Savatgy came around. I am never out there looking for clients or whatever, but then something comes my way, well I will take a look at it. I love to do it, and the important thing is that I don’t work with more than one guy at a time, as I feel largely that it is not fair to work with more than one guy.
What is your take on Stewart’s situation now?
Well, everyone wants to know what’s going, but no one really does. I think the world of him—he is the best guy in the world for sure—I really don’t know what’s happening. A career like that, it does not last forever. Part of me says he went the whole distance, and if he does come back, I don’t want to see him downgraded in his results. I like to think of him as of the fastest in the world and I want to stay in awe of him and what he did. Aside from that, I really don’t what is happening.
What are your thoughts of the sport today, versus the era where you raced?
I still really enjoy it; it is in my blood. I am lucky enough to know Ken Roczen when he was a kid, I knew Eli [Tomac] since before he could walk, with Dungey retiring there is going to be a void. I totally get it when someone wants to retire; they know what’s left in them and if they have nothing left to give, so be it. I really was bummed on Ken’s crash, that was a tough blow to the sport this year, and I hope he can come back sooner rather than later. I think Eli is the fastest guy now, he’s learned the hard way a few times now. Marvin [Musquin] is going to be good, and then there is a bunch of young guys. The future looks good. The bikes are so good, I don’t know what’s next, how they make them better or whatever. Are electric bikes coming? It is all so impressive now telemetry, the electronics and mapping and traction control. It has all just come so far since the two-stroke days when I raced!
But you had those works Honda bikes—those bikes were pretty special back then!
Yeah, I get the question a lot; everyone wants to know what era is better. I am totally content to have had a career that was half with works bikes and half with production bikes. Back then the sport was so new, and I like to think that David and I carved the way for supercross, and especially for the technical riders like JMB [Jean-Michel Bayle] and MC [Jeremy McGrath], and then Ricky. I am a real student of the sport and I am still learning a lot on a daily basis, be it working with Joey, or maybe what is the next thing in technology, or what is the next new riders technique, and just I love picking that apart.
Tell me a little about your mountain bike team?
Right when I retired at the end of 1990, I had a factory contract with Yeti for 1991. So I didn’t change my lifestyle at all. I did pro cycling at the highest level for six years; I was a professional mountain bike racer. Now that I am older, I have won some levels at the master level and have a few championships there. I still hit it pretty hard, and every year hit the National Championships in July. This year we will bring six out of 12 of our team members to the races, but only the guys who are ready to win. It is the USA Cycling Cross Country National Championship. For cross country mountain biking, it is the highest level here in the USA. I am the team leader of the team, I pick and choose the guys just like the factory team, we just do the top amateur rides. Specialized is our biggest help, and the team is owned by Chad Smart. He owns a business in Corona called Baghouse & Industrial Sheet Metal Services, and he races himself. We formed this team five to six years ago and hand picked some guys to be part of it. We just have a ton of fun. I even just offered Dungey a ride on the team right after he quit!
What are your thoughts on Dungey’s retirement?
It’s almost like clockwork. Ryan and I had talked about it years ago, but basically there is about a 10-year window at the top. I did 11 years, some guys do nine, but it’s literally right around 10 years, if you do it hard enough. There is always another guy coming up who is going to take you off the top, and I told him that his first year. I had a hunch that if he won this year, he would probably pull the plug, and it’s not like we talked about it. It’s hard when you are a champ—it’s hard to let go. It gets harder as you get older, the training part of it, a couple of new guys coming up, how do you have any more inside to give more than what you are already giving? Ryan is one of the all-time bests. So it didn’t surprise me one bit. He got that win in Vegas, then decided to leave. There is no better way to do it then what he did. He had to have been mentally and physically done. There is always the question: do we really want to risk it all? To go [Eli] Tomac’s and Rozcen’s speed, it gets harder, and you are thinking about it [the danger] more and then you know you shouldn’t be. I thought I would do it forever; you just know when it’s your time. The general public doesn’t know, but the rider does. And he left.
What about your family?
Well, my wife Gina and I have been married for 20 years. We met after I was done racing. She didn’t know anything about what I did. We have two kids. Shelby, who is 13 and a son, JJ, or Johnny Junior. He is 10. We live in Laguna Niguel, by Laguna Beach. We have been there for some 20 years now. We have a great life. My son is not into bikes, and he hasn’t found a sport he is really into. But he is only 10. My daughter is into soccer. My wife is very active; she does marathons. We go hand in hand as we are both super active. Honestly, I got a late start with the family stuff. After racing it was kind of the last thing I thought I would do, as I was so focused on myself and was pretty self centered. But you know, I am super happy now and am in a really good spot.
One last question for you: how was the money for you when you were racing?
I raced for 11 years and was always pretty consistent with my earnings. I did well. I am pretty much retired now as far as money goes, and I owe a lot of that to Al Baker. He was like my dad, mentor and manager all in one. Any money I made, he invested. So I put a lot of money into properties in the Lake Tahoe area. Al told me I had to buy real estate, and that really set me up. I spent that money early on and it has allowed me to do pretty well with other things in life. I think some of my peers from that generation made good money, but might not have invested it well, or they spent it. I had some good people around me and Al made me spend it on some things that at the time, well I thought I didn’t need. But I live on those expenditures now, and they were good for me at the time. For me, I wanted to have some flashy sports cars and whatnot, but he encouraged me to buy real estate instead.
Al was in a plane crash, right?
Yes. About half way through my career, he was in a plane crash. He never made a real recovery, but he lived for a while afterwards. I think of him every day. Any decision I make, I think of what he might do. He really taught me how to do things. I didn’t have a ton of support when I was young, and Al helped me down the road. He helped me get that first Honda ride, and I could not have asked for a better path in life.