Bart Markel in 1969 (Cycle News Photo Archives)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 10 years since we lost Bart Markel, one of the true icons of American motorcycle racing. Markel, who turned pro in 1958, went on to win a total of 28 AMA nationals during his 15-year racing career, earning the AMA Grand National Championship three times along the way – 1962, 1965 and 1966. He rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles to all three of his titles.
When Markel retired from racing in 1972 he was the all-time AMA Grand National wins leader. That record held for 10 years, until fellow Flint racer Jay Springsteen broke the mark.
Markel was born in Flint, Michigan, on August 19, 1935. He rode a few times on street bikes as a teenager, but didn’t get into the sport in earnest until he came out of the Marine Corps in 1956. A good friend of Bart’s named Ronnie Williams was racing in local scrambles events. Markel decided to get involved and went out and bought a Jawa for $25 and started racing.
“I did pretty well on that old clunker as long as it kept running, which wasn’t very often,” recalled Markel. “I raced four or five times on the Jawa before I went out and splurged and spent 50 bucks for an old BSA B33.”
Markel was a boxer as a youth and he carried that hard-nosed competitiveness to the racetrack. His aggressive riding did not win him friends among his fellow riders, but fans loved his hard-charging style. He was nicknamed “Black Bart” and he made riders leading him very nervous.
“I remember at Springfield in 1964, a big pack of us were coming down the back straight going off into turn three at a buck-20,” said Gary Nixon, another AMA Grand National Champion and rival of Markel’s, about a race at the famous Springfield (Ill.) Mile. “He caught my handlebar and I slid down. Man I was seeing red and I picked up my bike and I was going to center punch him. Fortunately, the oil tank broke on my bike and the engine seized up before I could get to him. After the race I went up to him and said. ‘Hey you knocked me off over in three.’ And typical Bart, he just stared straight at me and said he didn’t see me.
“Markel always ran it wide open. He was really good on the rough cushion tracks. He was a badass in his day, that’s for sure.”
Despite his reputation as a roughneck, Markel was voted the AMA’s Most Popular Rider of the Year in 1966.
“I didn’t like following anybody,” explained Markel, in an interview after he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998. “If I needed to give someone a little shove to get in front of them, that’s what I’d do. I don’t like to admit it, but I guess I was a little rough. Back then I figured if I settled for second one week I’d settle for third the next and so on. So I always rode as hard as I could.”
In spite of becoming the all-time winningest rider of his era the one prize that eluded Markel was victory in the Daytona 200. His best finish there was fifth in 1961.
One year at Daytona, Markel crashed early in the race and his goggles got filled with sand. He got back in the race, but couldn’t clear his goggles so he discarded them.
“I was ducking my head down on the straights and because of the sand I would only look up every once in a while,” Markel recalls. “Coming down the beach at almost 140 miles per hour, I looked up over my number plate and there was a rider on a BMW going about 40 miles an hour slower. I hit him and ricocheted off into a spectator’s car. I was in the hospital a few days for that one. Years later, a guy came up to me and told me I totaled his Studebaker on the beach.”
In 1968, his tenth pro season, Markel showed that he still had a lot of skill left when he took five wins. By 1969, Markel’s career was winding down. That was the final year that he took more than one victory and finished inside the top 10 in the series standings. Markel came back and won races in both the 1970 and ’71 seasons. His final national appearance came at Atlanta on September 10, 1972. He finished 12th. Thus ended the racing career of one of the all-time greats of the sport.
Markel retired from General Motors in 1995. He and his wife, Joann, had two children, Bart Jr. and Stacy. He died Feb. 3, 2007. He was inducted into the inaugural class of the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.
Markel hung up his helmet after the 1972 season, but remained active in the sport running teams with several of the nation’s leading motorcycle riders.
“He was telling Ricky Graham to run in it harder in the turns,” recalled Scott Parker, another Flint native who followed in Markel’s footsteps and became the winningest AMA Grand National racer of all time. “Ricky would go harder and harder and Bart was still giving him grief. Finally, Ricky went so fast into a turn that he ended up crashing into the wall. When Ricky came back to the pits Bart said to him, ‘OK, now you’re going fast enough, just back it off a little bit.’”
Parker went on to say that Markel was an icon in motorcycle racing and he inspired several generations of top riders that came out of the Flint area, including AMA champions Jay Springsteen, Randy Goss and Parker himself.