There is a certain continuity in motorsports. The great racers often are linked in some way, one to another. Sometimes those links are direct, as when one legend serves as mentor to another. More often, the connections are indirect - railbirds argue about which hero was the best of all time.
Grand National motorcycle racing has produced four previous inductees to the Motorsports Hall of Fame - "Smoky Joe" Leonard, Dick "Bugsy" Mann, "King Kenny" Roberts and Carroll Resweber. Each was a hero in his own right, and each connects in some way with 1999 honoree Bart Markel.
Among that group, Markel stands out in a number of ways. First, he was a comparative latecomer to the racing game. Before he grabbed the handlebars and launched his assault on the dirt track record book, he did a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and then focused his considerable competitive drive on a brief career as an amateur boxer. He arrived in the racing game older than most beginners but tough as leather and determined as all Hell.
Mann connected with Markel directly, as a competitor, and says Bart's success was more attributable to attitude than aptitude. "He wasn't the most talented guy out there," Mann remembers, "but he was the toughest."
During the early '60s, Markel lent credence to Mann's observation, smashing track records and hay bales with equal enthusiasm. And if iron will was not enough to compensate for any lack of inherent ability, he could always fall back on a deep well of combativeness. Willingness to join in the occasional on-track altercation led him to be nicknamed "Black Bart."
Toughness is not always admirable. An oft-repeated anecdote finds Markel at an indoor short track race down south, seeking a paycheck en route to the next National. He was the class of the field, so it was a great thrill for all when the local hero got a holeshot and led the vaunted Grand National star the whole race. The home crowd's frenzy grew with every lap as Markel hounded the kid, probing for an opening that never came. So on the last turn of the last lap, Markel simply knocked the youngster on his rear (As an self-respecting dirt tracker of the day would have!) and took the checkered flag.
The cheers turned into a torrent of boos, but the winner was unfazed. "Why did you knock our local hero down?" the victory lane interviewer demanded.
"Never saw him," Black Bart answered without hesitation.
For Markel and his peers, such local racing ventures were an important source of supplemental income, but the Grand National tour was the spotlight attraction. In that arena, unfortunate circumstances denied fans the opportunity to witness one of the great rivalries in the history of the sport.
Markel arrived on the scene in the midst of Carroll Resweber's reign as the king of the sport. A 1998 Hall of Fame inductee, Resweber won four consecutive championships while Markel was learning the game and rising to the level of contender. The two were engaged in spirited battle for the '62 crown when Resweber suffered career-ending injuries in a racing crash.
Markel won three of the next five championships and remained a contender through the end of the decade. Though he and Resweber were denied the opportunity to duke it out for the mythical title "best ever," Bart's 28 career wins link him to Hall of Famers Joe Leonard and Kenny Roberts in the annals of Grand National history.
In 1961, Leonard posted his 27th Grand National victory, called it a career and moved on to a car-racing career. Nine years later, Markel came to Santa Fe Speedway with 26 victories to his credit. A devastating wheelie at the start left him dead last in the first turn, but he proceeded, in 25 laps of roughly 15 seconds each, to pass the entire field! With one of the most determined rides in Grand National history, Markel tied the record for career victories. A year later, he added a final win at Columbus, OH, raising the mark to 28.
And if racing history is notable for its links, it is also filled with asterisks. Markel's record stood until Kenny Roberts scored his 29th career victory at a California road race in 1980. The fact is that half of "King Kenny's" conquests came on the pavement, while all of Black Bart's were on the dirt. Both types of racing counted toward the championship, but Markel's specialization on the dirt side of things only serves to emphasize his unmatched ability to win in the agricultural arenas.
There is no doubt Markel was the best of his era. There are railbirds who will argue to this day that "Black Bart" was the best ever.