OSWEGO — Throughout the two weeks since his breakthrough victory in the Oswego Speedway International Classic, Michael Barnes keeps giving his wife, Jodi, the same one-word answer when asked how he feels — “Light.”
The Mexico native and Liverpool resident described it as a weight being lifted off his shoulders after capturing first place in the 64th running of the annual marquee 200-lap feature race at Oswego Speedway on May 29.
The cherished victory, which evoked a variety of emotions from both Barnes and a majority of his Syrell Racing team, came after five straight top-three finishes at the International Classic in consecutive years leading to the career milestone that had long eluded Barnes and his closest cohorts.
“There were a lot of years of being oh so close, a lot of seconds or thirds, wondering if it would ever happen one day and it finally did, so definitely a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Barnes said during a recent phone interview. “It has felt great, a lot of phone calls, texts from a lot of people from all over.”
Barnes, who is in his seventh season driving the No. 68 Supermodified owned by Gary Syrell and his family-operated race team, had finished third in each of the previous two International Classic features and posted three straight second-place showings prior.
The Syrell Racing team had also been on the cusp multiple times with former drivers, most notably Dave McKnight and Doug Didero, and were chasing their first Oswego Classic victory since the team officially formed with Gary Syrell as the owner and driver in 1990.
“You just kind of always wonder: ‘Are you ever going to get one,’” Barnes said. “Because you never really know, that was a long run of being on the podium like that, and who knows, you can go three or four years and (not finish) that race, so many things can happen in a 200-lap race, stupid little things that can get you, so just to run six in a row on the podium now, hats off to my team.”
Barnes and Eric Syrell — Gary Syrell’s son who serves as a part-owner and team manager — each dedicated the victory to a handful of personal friends and family members who had recently died in the emotional aftermath of their elusive win.
Eric Syrell’s mother, Rhoda Gifford, was among the lost loved ones at the forefront of their respective minds just moments after the victory nearly eight months since her death.
Both Barnes and Syrell also shared a special moment with their respective fathers after the race, both of whom have long been chasing the International Classic victory.
Barnes’ father, Rich, has been attending races at Oswego Speedway since 1959 and started as his son’s crew chief when Michael Barnes was six years-old racing in Quarter Midgets. Rich Barnes didn’t race at Oswego but has been a fixture on his son’s crew since their debut.
“To do it with him was probably the most gratifying feeling, just seeing my father when I got out of the car and knowing what it means to him,” Barnes said.
Gary Syrell, meanwhile, started racing in the area in the 1970’s and worked on the crew for track legend Jim Shampine for much of that decade.
He had been aiming for a Classic victory since launching his team as the driver 31 years ago and stood next to his son in the pits as they anxiously awaited the finish.
“It’s a dream come true for my dad and I,” Eric Syrell said. “My dad has been doing this for so long and one of the things I know he’s been holding on to in my opinion, he wanted to win that race. He wants to win more, too, trust me. But it’s just a dream come true, I’m so happy for him, he has spent his whole life dedicated to that track in one fashion or another.”
Michael Barnes displayed why he is nicknamed: ‘The Hustler,’ as he worked his way from fifth place up to second on lap 127 before waiting back to pick his spot for the next move up.
He trailed the defending champion from 2019, Tyler Thompson, for much of the race before the 19-year-old Fulton native ran out of fuel with 10 laps left. Barnes took advantage and held on through a nerve-wracking end that contained a green-white-checkered finish after a red flag.
Barnes held off five-time Classic champion Otto Sitterly on the restart to pull out the victory and said that Sitterly and Joey Payne were among the competitors to pass him on the victory lap while fist pumping and offering other congratulatory gestures.
“That was a good moment, I just took a lap and finally breathed a sigh of relief like: ‘You finally did it,’” Barnes said. “It was finally a reality.”
Barnes plans to race full-time at Oswego for the remainder of the year and will be among the top contenders for the track title and the 65th International Classic slated for Sept. 5 to cap off the year.
Barnes — the 2016 Novelis Supermodified points champion at Oswego Speedway — is a four-time recipient of the track’s annual award as the Most Popular Driver.
“I’ve never seen anybody out there with more natural or raw talent,” Eric Syrell said of Barnes. “He admittedly, I don’t think (the Classic) is his favorite race, but he’s sure proving he’s pretty dang good at it. He is Mr. Consistent.”