Barnhill’s Passion for Engines Steers Passion for Sportsmen Racing, Victories at Five Flags Speedway
By Chuck Corder
Mark Barnhill has been working on cars since before he had his driver’s license.
“There wouldn’t be a weekend that would go by that me and my brother weren’t pulling a motor outta one car and putting it in another,” the 47-year-old Alabama driver said.
These days, Barnhill is still tinkering with engines. He does it for a day job, as a mechanic for United Rentals in the Mobile-area. And, he continues messing with motors in his spare time, as one of the perennial contenders in The Dock on Pensacola Beach Sportsmen class at Five Flags Speedway.
Barnhill already has two victories under his belt this season at the famed half-mile asphalt oval and will be eyeing a third Friday night at Five Flags.
“We got five or six good cars in Pensacola, and on any given night any one of them can win,” Barnhill said. “I like to see different winners. I’m happy to put on a good show. It doesn’t matter who wins. If there’s a car dominating the class, I don’t think people wanna come and watch that.”
Thousands are sure to be there Friday. Not only is there a dynamic program scheduled with The Dock on Pensacola Beach Sportsmen, the Modifieds of Mayhem, the Pro Trucks and the Lloyd’s Glass Pure Stocks, but Friday marks the track’s annual Demolition Derby.
Gates open at 5 p.m. Friday and the races will begin approximately at 8. Admission is $5 for fans of all ages while kids 5 and under get in for free.
Barnhill got his second win of the season on July 28, the last time Five Flags raced. It would’ve marked his third win of the season had it not been for having a victory tossed out in April when Barnhill’s No. 3 rolled through technical inspection.
That, unfortunately, wasn’t a first for the Theodore, Ala., driver. Barnhill crossed the start-finish line first at the 2014 Sportsmen Snowball Derby only to have the win vacated in the ominous “room of doom.” Barnhill didn’t disagree with the ruling, only its timing.
“That was a bad deal there,” he said. “I led 45 laps only to have it taken away. It’s aggravating. If you see something that ain’t right don’t wait until someone wins the biggest race of the season, or any race really, to pinch them. Any race is big for me to win.”
Barnhill has proven that each time he arrives in Pensacola. Week-in and week-out, he is unquestionably the biggest rival for the Pensacola tandem of Steve Buttrick and Brannon Fowler, who have five Sportsmen track titles between them and an eye-popping seven Sportsmen Snowball crowns.
“I’d rather race with them than anybody else over there,” Barnhill said in complimenting Fowler and Buttrick. “Buttrick is aggressive and Brannon always hits his lines. I try to race them like they race me. Every now and then, you get into somebody, but nothing intentional.”
Buttrick was the other storyline to come from Barnhill’s victory last time out. The legendary local short-tracker from Cantonment sustained a broken leg following an incident.
Barnhill’s night, while uninjured, was equally as wild. After race officials ruled he jumped a restart against Buttrick, Barnhill was sent to the back of the field. He stormed forward to take the checkered flag. It was Barnhill’s eighth podium finish in 10 races this season
“It was shocking the way everything turned out with Steve getting hurt, and what I was able to pull off coming from the back,” he said. “What I’ve been focused on is getting the car to handle better on the outside. If you don’t get around who’s in front of you, you start to aggravate your tires. Learning that it’s OK to sometimes drop and work your way back has been big for me.”
That was a hard pill to swallow for Barnhill, who spent 15 years full throttle running on dirt. He competed at tracks all across the Gulf Coast, winning championships and accolades along the way.
Barnhill moved to asphalt racing in 2009 when the classes and rules kept changing at the different dirt tracks he raced at.
“I started looking at Mobile (International Speedway), and noticed the Sportsmen had stayed the same,” he said. “I said, ‘Heck, I’ll build a Sportsmen car.’ Little has changed in all those years. With dirt, I had to build three different cars, and it got to be a little expensive. It’s why I quit.”
There’s zero hitch in Barnhill’s giddy-up these days. With wife Dena coming to nearly every race, Barnhill has the support he needs to chase after his hobby.
And he’s always willing to lend a helping hand. Earlier this year, Barnhill let close friend Jason Huffmaster borrow his practice tires for a feature race. Huffmaster, in turn, captured his first career victory at Pensacola’s high banks.
“I was so happy for (Huffmaster),” he said. “We’ve both done a bunch of work on each other’s cars.”
Barnhill’s love for engines hasn’t waned one iota since his days as a teenager.
He’s mixed in a healthy appetite for competition that allows him to keep the sport in perspective.
“As long as I can run near the front and be competitive, it doesn’t matter to me who wins,” Barnhill said.