“The Mugen generated so much interest. The bike was unique and had a lot of style and flair. The whole deal and all the parts came right from Japan. I remember when the bike first came over, I said to Al, ‘What’s this?’ It was all white with a blue seat and it was so trick. It looked like the Space Shuttle. The bike was even better than the Honda works bikes.”
-The Greatest Show on Earth with Johnny O’Mara and Eric Johnson. Cycle News, January 13, 1999.
The rain was falling and I was already soaking wet and covered in mud, but I didn’t care at all. The date was Sunday, July 27, 1980 and I was guarding my spot along the red snow fencing at Mid-Ohio. Before me and up on a bike stand was a red, white and blue Mugen. The bike put me in a trance. I didn’t know too much at all about the technical specifics, but I knew that the magnificent Mugan ME125W had come from straight Japan and that Hiritoshi Honda – the only child of Honda mastermind Soichiro Honda – had waved a heavy hand over the bike. I was in awe, sitting in a lawn chair and staying out of the hard driving rain. I then saw the bike’s rider: Johnny O’Mara. He was straight from sunny Southern California and about to go out for timed qualifying for the 1980 Mid-Ohio 125cc United States Grand Prix of Motocross. My brother and I had driven down to the Mid-Ohio facility that morning and were both stoked beyond belief. As history has taught all us wild eyed motocross fanatics, Johnny O’Mara and the Mugen went out and won that dreary afternoon. “I beat all the favorites there, including Mark Barnett, Broc Glover and Harry Everts, Stefan’s dad,” said O’Mara to me back to me in 1999 when I first started hanging out with him. “Winning at Mid-Ohio was a huge upset because no one in Europe knew who I was and to win something like that was a big break. Mid-Ohio and Mugen put me on another level.”
On a warm December afternoon a few weeks short of Christmas 2020, exactly 40 years removed from the Mid-Ohio USGP we were both present at, Johnny O’Mara and I sat in my garage in Laguna Niguel, California, way down deep in the OC. Now one of my very best friends as well as my neighbor, Johnny had rolled up in his BMW SUV and assumed a seat to do an interview for Racers in Japan. Relaxed and having got Hunter and Jett Lawrence on a jumbo jet back to Australia the night before, the world was ours and we settled in to talk all things Mugen. Take it away O’Show!
Racer X: Both you and Jett Lawrence were teenagers when you entered the professional ranks of professional motocross racing. How similar are you and him?
Johnny O’Mara: That’s a good question and it’s a hard one to answer, too, because at that age I didn’t know how intelligent I was. I was pulled out of school a little early—just like Jett was. We may be really similar. I think that everybody knows I work with Jett Lawrence now and they say that he’s more secure with himself than I was at that age. He’s not lacking on confidence. I think I had a vision that I knew I could be the best, but I wasn’t totally sure. Jett already has that vision .
When did you get an offer from Hirotoshi Honda?
In 1979 I first met Hirotoshi Honda through Al Baker. The offer was shown to me in 1979. I was a professional racer at the local level. I was 16 years old.
There was a Saddleback specialist named Jeff Jennings that you really admired, correct?
Oh yeah, of course. Jeff was the most stylish guy in my eyes and I was always such an attention-to-detail guy—you’ve got to look a little bit different, you have to ride a little bit different on the technical-side and have style. I was really into the presentation of your outfit or your kit or whatever you want to call it. Everything from that period, even my nickname O’Show, was because of my attention to detail. On the fashion-side, I was definitely a risk taker. I knew I had to pull it off. Everyone knows about my boot gaiters and all of that. I thought it was a calculated risk to be different than everyone else. Also, and on the flipside, I was like, “I can be laughed at if I don’t pull this off.” You still have to get the results. I mean, even racing for Mugen was the big platform for me. Al Baker had already built a relationship with Mugen and Hirotoshi Honda, the son of Mr. Honda. I met him a few times when he came to America. Obviously, Al was helping me and saying to Hirotoshi, “You should watch this kid ride.” I was only 15 or 16 years-old and I was beating everybody in SoCal. I wouldn’t be who I am without Al Baker and I think about him every day.
Almost like a father figure?
He was. He was like my father figure, manager, he did everything for me. It was amazing the support crew I had, even back then around 1979 and 1980, and they all came along with me through the end of my career in 1990. I feel like I always surrounded myself with unbelievable people that I could trust. I just focused on doing my job. I even feel very blessed to be sitting here and be talking about all this. I feel very fortunate. I never felt like I had a job or anything because it was always so fun for me. I took it very seriously and always felt that I outworked everybody and put in a little bit more than everyone else. I was so committed to the sport that it was almost scary. It was borderline not even that healthy. There are a lot of sacrifices made along the way to achieve those goals.
What sort of races did you take part in? Indian Dunes?
Yes, Indian Dunes. It was just a little bit north of Los Angeles. I believe there were big amateur races back then and Wardy and Brian Myerscough did all that, I didn’t. I was successful racing at the local level. Back then you could do that because you would have big California Winter Series races. There was always a big enough purse that everyone would come. You’d get the best guys and they all lived in SoCal. You would show up at one of these races and it would literally be like going to a national. You’d look across the line and there would be 20 factory riders and I won some of those races and that really opened up everybody’s eyes.
How did you get into motocross? How old were you then?
It was definitely through my family. My dad was not a motocross racer, my dad was a desert racer. When I was a kid it was just normal stuff. I was four or five years old and riding motorcycles and minibikes around the campfire out in the desert. My sister, a few years younger than me, was there too. We all grew up in the desert. Why did I choose motocross? I don’t even know actually. Probably because it was closer to my house, in all reality. Indian Dunes was just 30 minutes was away and I was sponsored by Suzuki Van Nuys. It was only two blocks from our house and I’d ride my bicycle down there and those guys helped me with some bikes. Things were still pretty inexpensive then and it helped a lot because it was a lot of money for my family to buy me a motorcycle. We’d go racing back then and I was starting on a milk crate for my starting blocks. Everybody always wants to know if I started racing on minibikes. I guess I did a little bit. In the desert I rode a little Taco minibike and didn’t really spend much time like Jeff Ward and Brian Myerscough did. They were really famous on minibikes. I rode a 90 or a 100. Back then that was a pretty popular class to race in. I mainly rode Suzuki my whole career. I was an expert professional at a local level.
You were seen in Mugen's ad posing with an air-cooled ME125 but you rode a water-cooled in the races. Were there two versions or was this just a matter of transition?
Matter of transition. So when we talk about that 1979 period, at the tail end of 1979 we had the air-cooled Mugen. That bike was really nice for its day, but we knew the other one as coming. The air-cooled bike was just something to hold me over and I’d train on it through the end of 1979 and into the 1980 season. We got the water-cooled bike in the February of 1980 and everything was prepped for me to race the outdoor nationals.
How did you make friends with Al Baker?
Some of my friends worked in Al Baker’s shop in Van Nuys. I had a couple friends such as Tom Halverson. Tom was my mechanic and a good friend of mine and he helped me when I was younger. Jim Felt was also really good friends with Al Baker and he was my mechanic through all the years. That’s how I got introduced to Al. I’d go down there and just sweep the floors. After school I would ride my bike there. I was just a kid. It would be like, “Hey, it’s Johnny O’Mara,” and Al would be like, “Hey, dude.” Al came out and watched me on a Friday night out at Indian Dunes and Al said, “I like that kid.” Al was all-in and I had some support to move forward.
Did Al live in Van Nuys or did he have a shop somewhere near there?
His shop was in Van Nuys and I think he had a place, but for the most part was always out in the desert. He was a desert guy. I spent a lot of time in the desert, especially when I was racing. I’d just go out there.
Did Al move his shop to Hesperia or Apple Valley?
He lived in Hesperia and moved his shop to Apple Valley right on the runway of the airport out there. Al was really into aviation. Al had two planes and I flew in them all the time. I had a lot of interest in flying the planes, but then Al got killed in a crash when the motor cut-out on takeoff in Flagstaff, Arizona. That kind of took it out of me.
Were you employed by Al?
No. If anything, Al was employed by me and Johnny O’Show Inc. when hen I built my corporation, which Al helped me build. I wouldn’t say I was an employee of Al’s, he just put me under his wing and just took care of me and also took care of a lot of my financial stuff too. I was his son, almost.
What was your first impression of Mugen ME125W, engine-wise and chassis-wise?
Jaw-dropping. Literally. It was so ahead of its time that it’s hard to even explain to people that my bike was actually better than the Honda factory bike that year. I was coming off of really good machinery riding Suzukis. Al was building them and they were pretty good back then but these were hand-built. I literally though that bike was like a Formula 1 car. The only thing on it that was Honda was the transmission. Everything else was hand-built.
Did you race with Showa or Ohlins?
Ohlins rear shock and we had twin shocks for that first year. I had factory Showa front forks.
Did you like the white frame?
Yep. Mr. Clean. I was always a real clean freak. I still am today. It was gnarly that they dressed in white and the bike was white. I didn’t like to get dirty. I knew I had to get to the front! I had a lot of pressure on myself. If I didn’t win or get good results, I was going to be a laughingstock. I know that sounds weird, but that was how I looked at it. I was not a super-confident kid growing up. I was a little insecure and quiet and then they throw me on highest profile motorcycle in the world. Let’s just say that I was pretty motivated to not let anyone down and to not let myself down. It was my job for Hiritoshi Honda to make that bike look good.
What about "Johnny O'" on the seat cover?
It was interesting, for sure. That just gets back to, “Wow, can I really pull this off?” It was so over the top for me. Like I said, I’d look at the stuff in my garage, Johnny O’ on the seat of my bike and I’d never seen anything like it and I’d just go, “Man, I have to do my job. This is too good to be true.” I think that instilled pressure, put good pressure. If I pulled it off, I knew I was going to have a great career. The Mugen gave me that opportunity.
Who nick named Johnny O'?
Did you ride ME125W at local races?
How did it feel to race the nationals?
There were probably more people at my box van than probably Broc Glover and Mark Barnett—the current champions back then. Fans just wanted to come and see the Mugen Honda and this kid John O’Mara. The hype was already built up for me. I was the chosen one and I felt very privileged to be the one they chose to ride that bike.
You told me 20 years ago ME125W was actually faster than Broc Glover's factory YZM125. How were you able to tell the difference?
I think we all knew. Even today, we all know whose bikes are the fastest. The bike had 35 to 40 horsepower and that was a 125.
Please tell us about your races at Hangtown (March 23, 1980).
What I just always remember that my work ethic wasn’t totally in place yet. That was literally the first national I ever raced. The motos were 40 minutes plus two laps back then. I led that thing for 30-plus minutes. The last five laps I was exhausted and couldn’t hang on. I was gone. I was leading the best guys in the world and the guys that I looked up to. I got the holeshot and I ended up fading and I think [Broc] Glover and [Mark] Barnett got me, but I still hung on for third. That was a work-in-progress. I always felt like a boy and they were men. To beat Mark Barnett and those guys back then, they were men. I was just a kid. It takes years to build that up. I mean Mark Barnett put logs on his back and ran up sand hills. Back then it was just hard work.
After Saddleback National (March 30, 1980) you were sidelined due to a traffic accident. Would you tell us about the crash and injury?
I fell asleep. I was on the 101 Ventura freeway in Westlake, California. The truck veered left on the freeway. I nodded off for just a second. I was tired from training and daydreaming. I broke my back and that sounds really bad, but it was just compression on a couple vertebra. That put me out of the nationals for six weeks. I dodged a bullet there.
Were you in a good shape when you came back for Washougal (July 6, 1980)?
Yeah, I was pretty good. I was really ready to go.
Please tell us what happened at Mid-Ohio (July 27, 1980)
I was definitely aware of what was going on in Europe. I was very much a student of the sport and I’ve always preached that. Anyone reading this right now and the new generation kids please be a student of the sport and learn wat these guys have done. We were on home soil in Ohio, you were at the race that day, It was a mud race. It was really more their style. I mean even now people will ask me, “Were you a mud rider?” I hated the mud. I hatted getting dirty! White bike and white gear and by the time it was over, I was completely covered in black mud. I didn’t like the mud, but my skills were always good in it.
What was on your mind after you won?
I was 17. I was so young that I didn’t even fathom what the meant really meant.
Why didn't you race supercross in 1980?
We just purely focused on the 125.
In 1981 you rode 250SX and 125MX, which bike did you prefer? I think 125 was the most suitable for your riding style.
Absolutely the 125. I wanted to be the best 125cc racer in the world. I didn’t even care about supercross. That came later. I won the supercross title later on in 1984. I was designed to be the 125cc champion.
In 1981, you were picked to represent Team USA, and you won the Motocross des Nations held at Bielstein, West Germany. What was it like riding that event, which didn’t have 125s?
I had no focus at all with the big-bore bike. I didn’t want to ride that big sluggish thing. They laughed at me in a good way that day because I was riding the 500 like a 125. I didn’t want to shift that thing. It was too fast! I was overrevving it and clutching it. They were laughing at me and saying, “Nobody rides a 500 like that!” I was still good on it and we won that day. I took the challenge and I adapted.