Pictured here is the moment that the drama of a difficult season was decided. Pictured here is the exact instant that Michael Barnes won the AMA Pro Vance & Hines XR1200 championship for the KLR Group/Spyke’s Harley-Davidson team. Pictured here is the instant of no return, the buzzer-beating shot, the nose at the line, the full count on the mat, the tick of the clock that was in equal measure to the months of events leading up to this single, decisive moment.
At stake at the final race in the XR1200 class—taking place at NOLA Motorsport Park just south of New Orleans, Louisiana—was a big purse, with the champion taking home a cool $25,000. Plus an AMA number-one plate. Plus entry into the elite club of AMA Pro champions.
Coming into the final event of the 2012 AMA Pro Road Racing Series, 44-year old Michael “Barney” Barnes had a two-point lead over 25-year old Tyler O’Hara. Whichever rider finished in front of the other would be the champion. The one finishing behind would not be the champion; he’d be something different.
Starting at the Indianapolis race back in August, Barnes was riding for Kyle Wyman’s team. So, he had a well-prepared machine that, in qualifying at NOLA, he took to the second-fastest time, slotting his bike in beside pole-winner Jake Holden. O’Hara, on his Bartels’ Harley-Davidson XR1200, was alongside Barnes with a time that was only 0.187 seconds slower. It was clear that this was going to be a race to the very, very end. Being too aggressive could win it or lose it; being not aggressive enough could only lose it. Each of these racers knew they needed good choices properly executed.
On the first circuit of this nine-lap race, Holden crashed out on the course’s dubious traction, leaving the lead to these two championship contenders. Barnes made the most of it, leading early and, ultimately, the most laps, though interrupted by a red flag.
In the subsequent short dash to the checkered flag, O’Hara glued himself to Barnes and proved that he could also lead, though many watching wondered if it didn’t seem as though Barney’s bike had a little more power for the long, front straight. If Barnes led when exiting the finial corner, that might be the final order at the line.
On the last lap, the lead changed a couple times with Barnes and O’Hara side-by-side into all the braking zones. Rounding the final turn, which opens up into an increasing radius onto the front straight, O’Hara was inside Barnes and only a wheel or less behind, maintaining his position through the corner. At the exit, O’Hara was so close he could reach out and grab Barnes’ throttle arm if he wanted to. Unfortunately for O’Hara, he did want to, and so he did grab Barnes’ throttle arm, causing Barnes to lose some of his drive. You can’t do that.
Sure, it was likely that Barnes could have kept a wheel in front of O’Hara to the line, but that wasn’t guaranteed. A missed shift, an over-revved gear, a seagull…the race isn’t over until it’s over. Or until a rider reaches out and grabs another rider.
Grabbing another rider in a televised race is hard to hide. Doing it on the front straight in full view of the competing teams makes hiding it even more difficult. It was obvious, it was intentional, it was undeniable. Barnes sat up and started shaking his head at O’Hara even before they crossed the finish line, which O’Hara did cross first. But before the riders had even completed their cool-down lap, O’Hara was disqualified and Barnes was declared the winner. And the XR1200 Champion.
One thought is that O’Hara might have done this in a moment of high emotions and immediately knew the gravity of his error. But O’Hara showed up at the winner’s circle, not leaving until it was explained to him that he wasn’t getting a trophy, that he hadn’t finished first or second or even third. According to AMA Pro Racing, O’Hara was disqualified for “Avoidable contact with another rider.”
Barnes said of the incident, “He tried every dirt-track trick he could think of, but he tried one too many.” O’Hara has since sent out a press release that in part said, “I made contact with Mike’s right arm. I was not trying to be malicious or make a joke or gain an advantage. I was riding in the moment, and my instincts took over.”
But maybe the note that Tyler O’Hara posted on his Facebook page tells the full emotion of the moment: “If you’re not first, you’re last.”