Bart Markel won the AMA Grand National Championship three times during the 1960s. His final national win in Columbus, Ohio, on June 27, 1971, marked his 28th career AMA national victory. That victory broke the record for most wins, previously held by Joe Leonard at 27. Markel's record of 28 Grand National wins held until 1982, when Jay Springsteen earned his 29th victory at the Houston Astrodome.
From 1958 until he retired from racing in 1972, Markel competed in more than 140 AMA Grand National Series races. When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998, Markel's 28 wins placed him seventh on the all-time win list. He is still considered one of the best riders in the history of AMA racing.
Bartlett David 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."
Before long, Markel entered the BSA in a flat track race in Wisconsin.
"I figured they paid a little money at dirt track races so I decided to give it a go. In my first race, I was doing pretty good until the bike blew up."
Markel didn't let that inauspicious start hold him back. He continued to race and soon began winning. Midway through the 1958 season, Markel was bumped up to the expert ranks. His first finish in a national came at the Peoria (Illinois) TT in 1958, where he took eighth. Markel began to make his mark in 1959, when he earned four top-10 finishes, including runner-up at the Springfield (Illinois) Mile. He ended the season ranked seventh in the series and earned a factory-backed ride with Harley-Davidson.
After a slew of podium finishes, Markel finally broke through with his first national win at the Peoria TT on August 28, 1960. He ended the season as the third-ranked rider in the Grand National Series. Markel came back to defend his title at Peoria in '61, but only finished fourth in the series.
Markel began earning a reputation of being a very aggressive rider and was dubbed "Black Bart." At one point, Markel was suspended from racing for rough riding.
"I didn't like following anybody," explained Markel, who was an amateur boxer in his younger years. "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 1962, Markel came back to have his finest season ever. That year he won a total of six races, the most wins in a single season since Joe Leonard's incredible 1954 campaign, in which he won eight nationals. Markel earned his first national championship that year over second-place Carroll Resweber, whose career had ended after being seriously injured late that season.
Over the next nine seasons, Markel would go on to win the championship two more times. In 1965, he scored in 16 of the 18 nationals that year to win a close battle with Dick Mann for his second title. In 1966, Markel won his third and final championship. The '66 season mirrored the previous year. Markel again earned points in all but two of the nationals.
At Daytona Beach in 1967, Markel was awarded the AMA Most Popular Rider of the Year Award (now called AMA Athlete of the Year) for the 1966 season.
The Daytona 200 was one race Markel never mastered. His best finish there was fifth in 1961. One year, 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."
As it turned out, road racing was the only type of Grand National competition that Markel never won. He came close, finishing second to Resweber at Watkins Glen, New York, in 1961. Markel explained his lack of success on the pavement: "I was too hard on the equipment on the road courses."
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 AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.