By: Bud Northrup

            Most District 17 dirt trackers are quite familiar with the name of Mike O’Brien.  They know him as one of the very best of riders – a top competitor but also a rider ready to help his friends and competitors alike with bike problems.  Other friends called him ‘Bart’, and that’s how I knew him.  We all suffered a tragic loss on December 6, 2000 when Bart passed on.

            Bart began his racing career in 1968 at age 11 in Fisher, Illinois and ‘got serious’ the next year with a 100cc Kawasaki Green Streak racer.  He noted to me that  most of his oldest and fondest memories revolved around going to Flat Track, TT and Scrambles races with his father, Raymond (‘Ed’).  It was only natural that he would become a dirt tracker himself, and he did so with great success.   He won over 200 trophies (mostly 1sts) as an amateur and turned pro at age 16 and went Expert in 1978.  He rode the professional circuit for many years before retiring from the track, burned out from the rigors and demands of professional racing.

            But in 1997 as he watched the races at the Champaign County Fair from the pits, he felt the old urge again and borrowed a bike from Jason Northrup and rode once again.  That was enough – he was hooked again.  His comment:  ‘I’ve got that great feeling back I had when I was a kid every time I throw a leg over one of these things – I love riding these things!’.  So Bart ‘got serious’ and in 1998  built an extremely competitive 600cc dirt tracker – a 1995 Rotax 600 ‘outfitted for serious competition’, mounted in a 1985 Knight Ultralight frame. 

            Bart was immediately successful, becoming one of ‘the guys to beat ‘ in 1999 in the Senior and Veteran classes. He claimed the Veteran half mile win at the 1999 Illinois State Championship race.  In 2000 he claimed the State Championship titles in half mile, short track and TT races.   He finished second in both the Vet and Senior classes in the 2000 D-17 season points championship despite running in only about half the possible races.  He told his father that he still loved competition but made sure he found time for a good balance  for the rest of the good things of life.  A Champaign/Urbana native, Bart was especially pleased with his  wins at the Champaign County Fair in front of his hometown supporters.

            In addition to his riding skills, Bart was also an outstanding mechanic and bike builder.   In the winter of 1999/2000 Bart built an incredible 750cc hillclimber for his friend, Jason Northrup.  The bike featured a 1973 Kawasaki 750cc triple engine, heavily modified , mounted in a 1983 CR480 frame.  In truth, there was very little left of either the stock engine or frame, after Bart worked his magic. It seemed like Bart was more excited than Northrup when Jason rode the machine to the 2000 National Hillclimb Championship title the very first time out.  Bart’s winter project in 2000/2001 was going to be building an Open Class climber for Jason’s brother, Kaleb – a modified Yamaha R1 engine riding in an ATK frame. What a bike that would have been!  Bart was also the genius behind Kaleb’s KX500 mounted 750cc triple which claimed the second place national finish in 1999 and third in 2000.  Bart built good bikes!

            The only thing Bart loved better than motorcycle activities was his family. He married his wife Laurie in 1998 and was completely devoted to her - truly happy with his life.  As he noted his sponsors for an article I wrote last year, he finished that list with ‘most of all, my wife Laurie, for without her love and support none of this would be possible’.  Just in passing one time, he casually noted that Laurie was much more than a wife – she was his best friend. High praise from Bart, for friendship was extremely important to him.  Laurie accompanied Bart to all his races, and became an important part of his pit crew.  They were inseparable.

            Bart was the Service Manager at Sportland Motorsports in Urbana, Illinois, and was well known to so many bikers who put their trust in him.  When I or my boys took a bike in to him, we just left instructions to please do whatever he thought it needed – don’t bother to call, just do it.  We knew we would get an excellent job at a very fair price.  It was not uncommon to pull into the service area and see Bart outside bending over and wrenching on a customer bike.  He would often take a look, and if it was a relatively ‘quick fix’, he would do the job himself and send you on your way with a smile and a handshake.  If you had a broken racebike, he would work all night if necessary to make sure it was ready for the next race.  He knew how important the racing was to the rider, and responded to their needs quickly and expertly.

            Bart’s gone now, and we will painfully miss him.  We will miss the thrill of seeing him dive into a corner with throttle pegged.  We will miss his mechanical skills and bikebuilding genius.  But most of all, we will miss HIM.  We’ll find other mechanics and bike builders, and exciting riders come and go. Our greatest loss is the loss of a true friend – the smile, the slap on the back, the encouragement.  Riders, mechanics and bike builders can be replaced, but true friends are irreplaceable.  Bart’s death created a void that can never be filled.

            We’ll all be going to ‘Biker Heaven’ some day.  When I get there I’m going to the dirt track races and look for Bart.  He’ll be easy to spot. I’ll just look for the big number 44 on the front of bike leading the pack to the finish line.