Smoke had just filled the burnout area of Cleetus McFarland’s Freedom Factory and Lyle Barnett made sure he was prepared.
He was the culprit of the thick layer of smoke that had ensued for the last several minutes and Barnett was determined to make the most of a magical moment. With the crowd erupting in cheers after he literally burned the tires of the “Bald-R-Eagle” to the ground during the burnout competition at the 2.4 Hours of LeMullets, Barnett was beaming as he emerged from the car.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #173, the #Trending Issue, in December of 2021.]
Before starting his burnout – a memorable melting of the tires on the pavement that gave him the win during the competition – Barnett placed two beers in the car, hopeful he could put them to good use.
With the cloud of smoke still swirling, Barnett climbed up on the car and went full “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, slamming the beers together and downing the remains as the crowd went wild. Barnett had the fans – those in attendance and those watching at home – in the palm of his hand, putting on a show during and after the competition.
“When I cut the car off, the place went nuts,” Barnett says. “The energy was amazing. I was fired up, pointing around at the crowd and smashed those beers together. It was just freaking cool.”
It was another first-time experience in a season filled with them, and like Barnett did during his rookie season in NHRA Pro Mod, he made the most of the opportunity.
After picking up a pair of thrilling victories and branching out in a number of new ways, Barnett’s star has never been brighter heading into 2022. Already a huge fan favorite, Barnett took another seismic leap in 2021, moving to new platforms, competing in new areas and branching out even further.
He won two late-season races in a talent-filled NHRA Pro Mod class – driving a turbo combination many thought was long gone in the category – became a far more outspoken and prominent figure on social media, and wrapped up his year by winning the burnout competition at McFarland’s heavily-hyped event in November.
It continues to be an inspiring tale for the man who nearly lost his life during a horrifying fire at Lights Out 6 in 2015, and further confirmation that Barnett has found his place in the sport. While the crash and rigorous recovery process will always be a massive part of Barnett’s journey and a significantly galvanizing tale for everyone in the sport, a year like 2021 ensures that his incredible comeback is now the catalyst for his current string of success and not the end result.
“I’ve been known for my story for all these years and the fire and the crash and my comeback and whatnot,” Barnett begins. “While that’s still the platform or the foundation of where I am today, we’re finally starting to talk about my success and how well we’ve done both on and off the racetrack and winning on holeshots and driving halfway decent.
“We’re finally starting to talk about talent and success and wins, and that may be because of the fire and the crash I had in 2015, but now they stand side-by-side, in my opinion, as opposed to my fire and my crash being kind of the talked about thing.”
Barnett paused at the question, pondering what his year would have been like had he not pulled off a shocking win in Dallas and following it up weeks later with another Pro Mod victory at the finale in Las Vegas.
Up to that point, the year had been challenging and, at times, frustrating. After joining with Elite Motorsports and Modern Racing in the offseason, Barnett was thrilled to make his NHRA Pro Mod debut in a ProCharger-powered Camaro. He ran well at the opener in Gainesville, qualifying fourth and winning his first round in competition, but there was a litany of struggles after that, including not qualifying at the four-wide race in Charlotte.
The team raced once more in Norwalk, where Barnett qualified 15th and lost in the second round, but decided to take a step back and not race the rest of the summer.
They returned in Indy, winning a round and qualifying seventh, but struggled again at the fall Charlotte race, qualifying 15th and losing in the opening round.
It was at that point the team nearly pulled the plug on the season. Barnett also isn’t sure if that would have been enough to consider his rookie season a success.
Sure, just months before Barnett called his debut in the class a lifelong dream come true, but as he puts it, he’s not a good loser.
“I feel like it would’ve felt incomplete,” Barnett says. “I would’ve been like, ‘You wussy. You gave up.’ I’m obviously now very glad that we did not call it a season after Charlotte. But I don’t know, man. I don’t know, looking at 2022, what it would look like for me. I know that it would be a hell of a lot harder to find sponsorships, somebody that didn’t run but half of the season and bowed out after Charlotte and didn’t run the last three races.
“We all depend on each other to keep this thing rolling, and it takes some of us going to races that we maybe know we don’t have a chance at winning, or we’re out of contention for the championship. It takes us showing up anyway to prove that we belong in the big show.
“So I don’t really know how I would’ve handled it,” Barnett continues. “I think I have a pretty good idea, and I would be just a sour grape sitting over in the corner because it would not have been the year that I thought maybe we should have had. It would’ve been a really long and rough offseason had we not kept our nose down and on just a whim switched combinations and then went out there and had the success that we had.”
Barnett admits he felt defeated after the struggles at the fall race in Charlotte, which made it a stark contrast to the elation he experienced months earlier when he debuted in the class.
But as the debate of sitting out the rest of the season came up, things drastically changed. As Barnett was eating in the Elite Motorsports Pro Stock pits, Jake Hairston came up to him and asked if he would be interested in driving their turbocharged Pro Mod, the same one Erica Enders drove to the NHRA Pro Mod speed record in 2019.
Hairston’s dad, Jim, showed similar interest and Barnett was all ears.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, at this point, anything.’ It was anything to change the direction this wind’s blowing,” Barnett says.
In less than two weeks, the car was back at Justin Elkes’ Modern Racing shop and everything was re-certified and ready to compete at the Texas Motorplex for the Texas NHRA FallNationals. Elkes found a consistent tuneup, with Barnett qualifying 12th with a 5.844 at 251.86 in the turbocharged Camaro. Then, something magical took place during eliminations.
Barnett knocked off Khalid Al-Balooshi in the opening round of eliminations and then beat Mike Salinas on a holeshot to move to his first semifinal berth. He was a lethal .007 on the starting line there to defeat fellow Pro Mod rookie J.R. Gray and then added another holeshot in the final round, as his run of 5.894 stood up against Justin Bond’s 5.829 thanks to a .040 reaction time.
In the span of one day of eliminations, the season was a rousing success, a tribute to the work of a team that searched for any solution to find a winning combination. As they all joined Barnett on the top end to celebrate an incredible moment, Barnett was understandably overcome with emotion. It was the culmination of the last six years, all the work and all the trying times. Receiving the Wally was unlike anything Barnett had ever experienced.
“When I pulled the ‘chutes in Dallas and saw my win light blinking on the wall, I immediately started crying. Honestly, when it was time for me to turn off the racetrack, I could barely see, I was crying so hard,” Barnett says. “I swing the door open, and I just hung my head for a second. Here’s the NHRA with my Wally and my medal that they hang around your neck and I’m sobbing, man. But I gathered my stuff up long enough there to be handed the Wally, and Amanda [Busick, FS1 reporter] starts the interview, and I lost it again.
“At that moment, the full circle effect hit me, like, dude, we came from the ashes and you’re standing in a top end interview with Amanda Busick on FOX talking about your first Wally. It’s something that can’t be described. It can only be felt.”
Barnett was soon met by his crew, his father, close friends like Stevie “Fast” Jackson, team owner Richard Freeman, and the floodgates of emotion opened again. So much went through Barnett’s mind in those few minutes, with much of it centered on his road to recovery from the harrowing crash at South Georgia Motorsports Park.
“My dad tells me all the time he sat there at the hospital in Augusta wondering if he would ever see me alive again. For us to share that moment and then with the rest of my crew, it was just special, man,” Barnett says. “You could have ended my drag racing career right there, and I would’ve been OK with it. The single word that comes to mind is just thankful, man. That was not just a win for me and my team. It was a win for every single person that donated, prayed, called, and texted. To be given an opportunity to do this and race at this level is once-in-a-lifetime.”
Just weeks later, Barnett made it twice-in-a-lifetime. After Gray won in Bristol at the following race, the pair of standout rookies seemed destined to be on a collision course to close out the year.
After qualifying fifth, and with the turbo combination proving its worth in a field filled with ProChargers and roots blowers, Barnett had a chance to make an impressive statement to close out the 2021 Pro Mod season. He went 5.798 with a .012 reaction time to beat Bond in the opening round, going 5.823 a round later. He made a clean run of 5.813 on a bye run in the semifinals, setting up a marquee matchup with Gray.
For Barnett, this chance at redemption dated back to the opener in Gainesville when Gray beat him on a holeshot in the second round in the debut race for both drivers. It’s a round Barnett replayed a thousand times in his head and each time it irked him more and more.
Gray had his own fascinating story, returning from a mid-season crash in his rookie year to beat 2021 Pro Mod world champ Jose Gonzalez in the final round at Bristol. But Barnett wanted this final round and he answered the bell, posting a reaction time of .011, earning the win with a run of 5.814 at 253.56 to Gray’s 5.796 at 248.66. In short, it was the perfect finish to a standout rookie season.
“He beat me in Gainesville, I beat him at Dallas and in the final round of the final race of the year, the two rookies square up,” Barnett says. “Justin and my whole crew just did a fantastic job keeping my hot rod ready and we won the final race of the year on another holeshot. So I guess that was a common thing that was said all year long, that we kept winning on holeshots.
“But my crew [which includes Elkes, Anthony Lum, Mark Barnett, Ben Staas, Mike Earle and Johnny Maguda] gave me a race car that could run with those guys,” Barnett adds. “All the credit goes to those guys for giving me something that was competitive, and I told them, ‘Y’all give me a car that can compete, and we’re going to win.’ I couldn’t ask for anything better and some good morale in the shop headed into 2022.”
Barnett called it a thrilling end to this chapter, with a thank-you list that includes the likes of his father, Elkes, Freeman, Elite Motorsports, car owners Jim, Jake and Clint Hairston, MAC-FAB Beadlocks, Motion Raceworks, PeeDee Fleet, Billet Atomizer, VP Racing Fuels, Wilson Manifolds, Precision Turbo, Ferry Farms, JJ Supply of NC, HED, Customs by BIGUN, Mag Gaugh and Tommy Kirk.
But it’s a book that’s also just getting started.
His journey started years ago as Barnett successfully made his way through the ranks in the radial world, but everything changed during his wreck at Lights Out 6.
The devastating crash resulted in third-degree burns that covered 15 percent of his body and nearly cost him his life. He became an inspiration for many as he made a triumphant return to the sport two years later, winning at Lights Out 8 in Digby’s single-turbo ’69 Dodge Dart.
Barnett has taken it a step further this year, feeling like NHRA Pro Mod was the next logical step to move up the ladder in his racing career. It also further emphasized his drive and willingness to battle back from adversity. The crash and fire hasn’t defined him, and as 2021 proved, it’s what he’s done since then that has.
“When I laid in that hospital bed in 2015 when my dad asked me if I thought I ever wanted to race again, I really didn’t know. I told him, I said, ‘Dad, I just don’t know right now, man.’ There’s a lot that you need to consider, but after getting out of the hospital and spending some time around the shop and going back to the racetrack for the first time, I knew I at least wanted to try,” Barnett remembers. “A year later, I was in a car and here we are at the end of 2021, and I won two NHRA national events in Pro Mod, and I just don’t think it gets much more full circle than that.
“There was nothing at the time that I could do to change what happened to me. I just had to pick up what I had left and keep moving forward, and I kept my head down and my nose to the grindstone. And I came out on top and have continued on that upward trajectory since then. You’ve got to lean on people. I mean, I had an unbelievable support system: my parents, my family, my friends. The drag racing community as a whole is a powerful thing. They did things for me that I never thought possible and it’s something that words will never be enough to thank them.
“I hope I’ve got a long-standing career, that whether I spend it all in Pro Mod, or I continue to climb the ladder here, if I end up at Pro Stock or Top Fuel or wherever I end up, I just hope that I prove that you can come out of something really, really bad and make your way back to the top,” Barnett says. “We came from a 7.0 index bracket racer making my way through the radial ranks and qualified for all but one national event my rookie year and won two of them. So I just think it’s a really cool deal, and I’m excited to see kind of where 2022 takes us.”
It doesn’t take much prying for Barnett to reveal what’s No. 1 on his list for 2022.
“I’ve got my sights set on a freaking championship,” Barnett says emphatically. “I think coming off of this year and using the momentum, next year is looking pretty damn good.”
He believes he’s got the team, the sponsors and everything else needed to do it. The team heads into the new year committed to the turbocharger combination, which certainly makes them an anomaly in a Pro Mod category that will also add screw blowers to the mix as a fifth possible power adder in 2022.
Barnett views it as an opportunity to stand out and he’s ready for the challenge competing against the likes of Gray, Jackson, Gonzalez and others.
He notes the unique circumstance of competing against guys like Gray and Jackson, who, like Barnett, honed their craft in the outlaw ranks. Whether it was grudge racing or small-tire success, that trio became stars on and off the track, and Barnett sees a world of potential with what each brings to the table.
Jackson won back-to-back championships before finishing third a year ago, while Gray and Barnett finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in 2021.
“I think that myself, Stevie, and J.R. have a job to do. I think that us three have a weight on our shoulders to kind of keep this class in the forefront and make sure that it’s a topic of discussion when big names talk about NHRA drag racing,” Barnett says. “I talked about that with J.R. at the PRI Show. I said, ‘Dude, we’ve got a unique opportunity here to take this class and do something cool with it. We’ve just got to keep talking about it and make sure we stay true to the personalities that we came into this class with and keep it alive, keep talking junk.’ I think you’re going to see all of us do well and finish within the top five, and I hope all three of us are battling it out in Dallas next year for the championship. I think it’s going to be entertaining and I think it’s going to be fun.”
The entertaining aspect is a big part of Barnett’s focus and he’s determined to become an even bigger star in the sport. Already a huge fan favorite in the sport, Barnett hasn’t been afraid to branch out and tackle new avenues, jumping at the chance to be on shows like Horsepower Wars and Netflix’s Fastest Car in previous years.
This season, it was competing at the 2.4 Hours of LeMullets with Jackson at the Freedom Factory and winning the burnout contest on a huge stage. That’s prompted Barnett to build his own burnout car specifically catered to those types of events, making it just another way Barnett hopes to build the sport.
It’s a tall task and a huge undertaking, but considering what Barnett has been through and overcome, doubt him at your own risk.
“When you’re given opportunities like that, you’re a fool to not use that and to put yourself out there,” Barnett offers. “We’ve got to do a better job of attracting new fans and the younger generation. I think we’ve got a good opportunity to attract those younger fans and we’ve just got to take advantage of it.”
Photographs by Rick Belden, Joe McHugh, Chris Sears, and NHRA/National Dragster