Mark Blackwell was a leading rider in the early days of motocross in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He won the 1971 American 500cc Motocross title (a predecessor of today’s AMA National Motocross Championship) by being the top-scoring American in the Trans-AMA Series. He also scored a victory in the 500cc motocross class at Daytona International Speedway in 1972. Blackwell was one of the first American riders to compete in the Motocross World Championships during the early 1970s. Perhaps even more influential than his racing exploits were Blackwell’s contributions as a manager in companies such as Suzuki, Husqvarna and later, Victory.
Blackwell was born in Southern California on June 15, 1953. He grew up at a time when a new age of motorcycling in America was emerging. As a teen, his parents agreed to let Blackwell get a Honda 50 as long as he kept his grades up. He began racing informally with friends and eventually moved into sanctioned flat-track, TT and scrambles racing. Unlike most racers, who were led to racing by their fathers, Blackwell’s racing led his father, Jack, to become a racer as well.
"He started racing at 40," Blackwell recalls. "Racing kept my dad and I close and, frankly, it probably kept me out of trouble. Many of the kids in my neighborhood were getting into drugs and things like that and racing gave me something else to keep my focus on."
By the late 1960s, motocross was about to arrive in America and Blackwell would become one of this country’s earliest stars. Early in his professional career, Blackwell rode Yamahas and then was contracted to ride for CZ. In 1970, Edison Dye convinced Blackwell to ride for Swedish maker Husqvarna. During the summer of 1970, Blackwell went to Sweden to train with the factory Husqvarna riders. To pay for his stay in Sweden, he worked as chase driver for one of Dye’s European motorcycling tour groups — all of this at the age of 17.
Upon his return to America in 1971, he raced in the Trans-AMA Series, which pitted the top European riders against America’s best. The Europeans were so dominant at this stage of the series that a separate championship was held within the Trans-AMA Series for the top-scoring Americans. Blackwell had a slew of consistent finishes and beat out Brad Lackey by a single point to win the American rider portion of the Trans-AMA Series.
In 1972, Blackwell began the season with a victory in the 500cc class in the prestigious Daytona Motocross (which later evolved into the Daytona Supercross). He then spent the majority of that season racing in international motocross events in Europe and by 1973 was competing full-time on the Grand Prix circuit. He dominated the Florida Series that winter and went on to score a podium finish in an international race in Germany, which gained him a lot of attention among hardcore motocross fans in America. Everything was starting to fall into place for Blackwell when he suffered a freak injury at a GP in Luxemburg.
"It was a muddy race and I was running in the top five," Blackwell remembers. "I couldn’t see so I put my visor down and got hit by a rock in the eye."
Blackwell ended up spending two weeks in a hospital and temporarily lost vision in his left eye. His vision eventually came back and he returned to racing, but he never regained the momentum he’d built before the injury. The eye injury led to an initially undiagnosed cataract, which Blackwell felt led to a slew of crashes and resulting injuries.
Though Blackwell continued racing primarily in select U.S. events through 1975, he began to transition to the business side of the industry. He taught at a popular motocross training school for Suzuki and did product development for a number of companies, including Goodyear Tires, Scott Goggles and Boots and Fox Racing. During this time, Blackwell began attending college at night to earn his degree.
Suzuki asked Blackwell to advise the company's struggling U.S. motocross team in 1977, and by 1978 he was asked to take over as team manager. Under Blackwell’s guidance, the Suzuki team made a dramatic turnaround to become the most successful factory team in AMA Motocross and Supercross racing during the early 1980s, with riders such as Mark Barnett, Danny LaPorte and Kent Howerton.
In 1981, Blackwell left Suzuki on friendly terms for a few years to take on an exciting opportunity at Husqvarna, the company he’d first worked for as a teenager. He started as product manager and worked his way up to Vice President of Marketing. Blackwell was a major contributor to returning Husqvarna’s U.S. motorcycling division to profitability. One of his last projects at Husky was to make the presentation to the Castiglioni brothers of Cagiva, who bought Husqvarna’s motorcycling interests.
In 1986, Blackwell returned to Suzuki as advertising manager and eventually became the top American employee of the company. Under Blackwell’s guidance, Suzuki merged its struggling marine division into the motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle division and helped turn that segment of the business around. All during this time, Blackwell continued his education, working towards an MBA.
"I would learn something in class and put it to business use," Blackwell recalls with a smile. "I remember writing press releases for a PR class, getting a grade on them and then going to use them at work the next day."
In 1992, snowmobile maker Arctic Cat approached Blackwell to join the company. Blackwell felt he had advanced as far as he could with a Japanese company and took the opportunity to go to work for a publicly held American company. At Arctic Cat, Blackwell helped guide the company’s entry into the ATV market. At Arctic Cat, he joined a company that was doing about $150 million in sales annually, and during his time there running the ATV business, the company grew to over $500 million in sales.
In 2000, Blackwell became General Manager of Victory Motorcycles.
"For me, it was a chance to truly run a business," Blackwell said. "I also came back to motorcycling, the industry I loved and knew so well."
When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000, Blackwell and his family lived on their horse ranch near Minneapolis, where they breed racehorses.