Just outside the heart of Birmingham, Alabama, in an eastward, upscale suburb of Leeds, sits Barber Motorsports Park. It's more than just a 3.8 kilometer, 15 corner road course. It's also grounds to the largest motorcycle collection on the planet. It's a 740 acre oasis for anyone who loves motors, racing, or both - usually both. It's a diamond buried in a dark rough, even among a landscape of great, and historic road courses across the United States.
Opened in 2003, Barber Motorsports Park doesn't yet have the years of racing lineage that are celebrated at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or Watkins Glen. Its infrastructure is nowhere near as gigantic as that of Circuit of the Americas in Texas, or the new-look Daytona International Speedway. But it's absolutely perfect as it is, honestly. Tucked away in a secluded part of the metropolis, away from the bustle and stress of downtown Birmingham, but close enough to ensure driving to the airport isn't an ordeal, there's a decent hotel to stay in for the weekend - and no matter what, you are never out of reach of a decent barbecue restaurant.
Barber Motorsports Park hosts a number of racing events annually, and has so for much of the last thirteen years, but the marquee event is held in late April. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, a 90-lap race for the Verizon Indycar Series. On the bill for the event, there's also the three series of the Mazda Road to Indy, the Indycar developmental ladder, and the Pirelli World Challenge, the top level of production-based racing championship featuring many of the top challengers in the GT3 class and several other categories.
On days where there is no racing, the circuit is the host of the Porsche Sport Driving School. Anyone with a few thousand dollars to burn can get a crash course in performance driving at the wheel of several brand-spanking-new Porsche road cars, under the instruction of enough race-experienced drivers to fill a grid for a pretty decent Carrera Cup race - and that's before you add former three-time Le Mans champion Hurley Haywood, the chief instructor.
Though Indycars are the big ticket here in Barber, motorcycles are the park's heart and soul. This is entirely by design. George W. Barber, the businessman and philanthropist who brought the park to life, wanted to build something different than just the usual automobile museum. He wanted to build a grand monument to the history of the motorcycle. Eventually, the idea grew to include one of the very few FIA Grade 1T circuits in the world - meaning that with just a few more grandstands, Barber Motorsports Park could, in theory, hold a race for MotoGP, WEC, or even Formula 1.
And Mr. Barber wanted to put it in Birmingham, Alabama, his home city. A place that lazy narratives and regional stereotypes decree is the absolute worst place to have a road course race of any kind. Alabama is smack dab in the heart of the southeastern United States, where NASCAR is the king of all motorsports - yet is subservient to the overfed behemoth of SEC college football. Even at the race, there were as many University of Alabama Crimson Tide polo shirts and visors as there were paraphernalia for any one driver in the race.
No one in their right mind would, or should, drive or fly down to central Alabama to see an Indycar race, and yet, the the attendance for the 2016 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was staggeringly good. Weekend attendance was posted at over 83,000 spectators. Even if some of that is comped, papered, and inflated, that's still really good for a weekend of racing that bears no resemblance to a typical 500-mile restrictor plate race at Talladega Superspeedway, just 35 miles east.
If you plan a visit to Barber, for any event, or just for the sake of going, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum is a place that you absolutely, positively, unconditionally must visit. The cost for one adult ticket is fifteen US dollars. For what the museum has to offer in terms of facilities and exhibits, that's borderline giving it away for free.
The motorcycles are the main focus, of course. There's over 1,400 of them in total, quite a few arranged in mammoth pillars that scale all five floors of the museum. Several hundred more of them are in a storage room, waiting to be placed in the museum's gigantic second wing, still under construction and scheduled to be completed in October 2016. And who knows how many more bikes could be added to the collection on top of that?
And oh, there are bikes of all kinds, from every decade of the past century. Cruisers, choppers, mopeds, sidecars, military bikes. Triumphs, Harleys, and a bike named "Vincent" that would, in its day, cost more than your house, and would, today, cost even more than that. Board track racers, land speed record holders, Isle of Man TT winners, and a replica of the tri-oval of Daytona International Speedway that holds some of the finest superbikes that ever raced.
Cars aren't the main focus of this museum - there's already enough museums that focus on cars. But what they have is solid - the world's largest private collection of Lotus race cars, an appreciation of the less-celebrated, yet still remarkable, designs of Colin Chapman. F1 cars built over a span of five decades, some of which were driven by the likes of Mario Andretti, Nelson Piquet, Mika Hakkinen, Elio de Angelis, and Johnny Herbert. Plus the Lotus Exos 125 of Assetto Corsa fame - the closest thing to an off-the-shelf F1 car that exists today.
There's sports cars, like a Lotus Type 26R and a Lotus Type 46 - but you may know them better by their civilian names, "Elan" and "Europa." In amongst the collection, there's an ex-Bobby Allison NASCAR Cup car, the shells of legendary Le Mans rivals, the Ford GT and Ferrari 330/P4, and a baby blue '58 Chevy Bel Air that comes right out of the fictitious ideal of vintage Americana. There's even a showroom stock Lotus Esprit racer once driven by actor/driver supreme, Paul Newman.
Amongst the exhibits, there are two spotlights on two great racers of yesteryear. John Surtees, the only man to win a World Championship on two and four wheels, and Dan Gurney, one of the greatest pioneers not only in American motorsport, but global motorsport. Both men helped Mr. Barber build the perfect circuit for both cars and motorcycles to flex their muscle in competition. The goal was a success.
Gurney's racing lineage is represented by the Lotus 31, the company's very first Indy 500 challenger. Jim Clark once said that Gurney, a man who won in every category from Formula 1 to Le Mans, from NASCAR to USAC Champ Cars, was the only other driver he ever feared. Surtees' old MV Agusta bike is parked next to his old Ferrari 158 from 1964 - but on the bottom floor, there's another Ferrari of his, or at least a convincing replica thereof, painted in an unfamiliar blue and white - the livery in which Surtees clinched the '64 World Championship. There's a great story behind that too.
Ninety-nine percent of these great machines, the 1,400 bikes and another hundred cars, are in operating condition - ready to go take a lap, in nostalgic leisure or pure anger, around the track which sits at the foot of the museum. Some will take part in the Historics event in May, or the Vintage Festival in October - the former focused on old racing cars, the latter on the bikes. The Barber Vintage Festival, in particular, is a huge deal - it drew over 69,000 spectators last year. It could easily eclipse that mark this coming autumn.
As I toured the museum, I walked over to catch a few laps of the Indy Lights series race that was going on at the same time. And as I peered through the massive pane glass overlooking turn 8, I had to realize how satisfyingly strange it was to stand inside a museum housing a century of motoring history, look out the window, and see young drivers competing in the very dawn of their careers. The winner of that race was a series rookie named Santiago Urrutia, the first Uruguyan driver to race - and succeed in racing - at this level of competition since his late countryman, Gonzalo Rodriguez.
Barber Motorsports Park has its own distinct characteristics that separate it from many other great road courses. But even still, one can still find a few similarities to other circuits around the world.
If I had to pick a track outside of the borders of Sweet Home Alabama that best resembled Barber, I'd go with Brands Hatch, in England. Both tracks are great venues for cars and bikes to race. Both tracks have many long, sweeping curves, and an array of elevation changes more like a roller coaster at an amusement park than a closed circuit for racing. And both venues are set in picturesque, wooded areas where trees line the roadways as much as armco walls, tyre barriers, and gravel traps.
Grandstand seats are overrated at Barber Motorsports Park. Along the backstretch, you can plant a six dollar folding chair somewhere along the slope of the bright green hillsides, or in the shade of the trees further back from the action. The children tend to levitate to the fence that separates the natural grandstand along the backstretch from the actual catchfence that contains the cars in case the worst happens. Getting as close to the action as the circuit will allow just feels like the right thing to do.
My favourite spot to set up is at the entry to turns 11 and 12, a fast, one-groove left-right chicane. This sequence sets up for a long, long, right-hander, just out of sight from this spot, that goes uphill, then down, then up again, then down again to set up for the final left-hand corner. It's Hawthorn's Bend, Westfield Bend, Dingle Dell, and Sheene's Corner, excavated out of Kent, and planted into a piece of real estate in Alabama that could have been a golf course instead - if one wanted to waste 740 beautiful acres of land in such a mundane and insipid manner. And the thing is, there's another corner just like it at the other end of the track - appropriately nicknamed the "Alabama Rollercoaster".
From there, you can also see the entry and exit to the hairpin, turn five. This is the prime real estate for overtaking. But not everyone gets it right when they're trying to chuck it up the inside. That's where Charlotte comes in. Charlotte is a giant statue of a spider, named in honor of the E.B. James childrens' novel. Think of Charlotte as a watchful, yet passive guardian of the corner, and the gravel trap beyond the tarmac as their web of safety. The circuit has many other "guardians" - for instance, there's a Bigfoot statue within the forest along the backstretch, and there's a skeleton inside the giant elevator to the museum. Those were all Mr. Barber's ideas, he's a rather funny man, and that was one way he wanted the circuit to stand out from the rest. Again, mission accomplished.
And just beyond turn five, you can just barely see the cars cross the start/finish line. All of these crucial points of action on the circuit overlap within a narrow field of view. There's a big screen TV to the left, and on the right, you can see the cars approach turn 11, flat out, from all the way back to the exit of turn 8. The scoring pylon is also there, just in case you lost track of who's running where.
There's also a Fan Zone nearby, with a small pond that doesn't have nearly enough big fish to risk getting thrown out of the park for illegal fishing. Establishing that monolith grandstands are overrated, there is one in the Fan Zone, and it doesn't cost anything extra to sit there. Which is nice.
But just next to it, there's two arguably more interesting seats in the house: One on the ferris wheel to the left of the grandstand, and one on the bucket truck ride to the left of the ferris wheel. The ferris wheel isn't as grand in stature as the one at Suzuka or Le Mans. But it feels every bit as grand as them on race day, especially after an adult beverage or two.
After all the sightseeing, there is still a race to watch. Over the last few laps of a very entertaining, and mostly clean Indycar Grand Prix of Alabama, the battle for the win comes down to two men, representing two manufacturers, from two entirely different backgrounds.
Simon Pagenaud, the Frenchman, the man of a thousand scarves, the newest star in Team Penske's stable of elite international talents. A man who's represented Peugeot in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and stood on the overall podium. A man who could easily be plugged into a top Formula 1 team right now and win races right off the trot. He won the last race at Long Beach. He's driven a perfect race all day today, and it looks like he's going to win again in a landslide. This dude is locked. In. But... it's never that easy.
He has competition fast approaching, in the form of Graham Rahal. Rahal's a second-generation American driver, son of a three-time Indycar champion, driving for his father's single-car team. He's gone from plodding around two years ago as a forgettable mid-fielder, to a bonafide championship contender - and that turnaround was sparked by a second-place finish at this race a year ago - and as anyone who was there could tell you, it could have easily been a win.
We might be several hundred miles away from Rahal's home state of Ohio, but you couldn't tell judging from the fan support for Rahal in the crowd. He's by far the most popular driver amongst the locals. Is it his family lineage? Is it his dramatic last-lap charges? Is it his sponsorship from the very delicious Steak 'n Shake restaurants?
The last few laps see Pagenaud held up by lapped traffic, allowing Rahal to close the distance and attempt to pass his rival. It's now come down to Penske vs Rahal, Chevrolet vs Honda, France versus the Good Ole' U.S. of A, Hewlett Packard computers vs Steak 'n Shake burgers, scarves vs bow ties and aprons. These two young men have a history dating back to the 2006 Atlantic Championship. It is, as the kids say these days, lit.
Out of the frantic battle for the lead over the last fifteen or so laps, Rahal loses most of his front wing, and almost limps home to finish second. Pagenaud finishes the deal and wins his second race in a row to stretch out his championship lead going into the month of May at Indianapolis. I think to myself after the race, "Maybe Graham could have waited another lap to make his move." Looking back over the fight between Pagenaud and Rahal again, several times, I've concluded that it was nothing, more or less, than hard racing between two great drivers.
My father and I are huge fans of Juan Pablo Montoya, have been for several years through many series of competition. From 21st and last on the grid, on a track that was not conducive to overtaking - at least in theory - we both agreed that he could still carve his way to a top ten finish with cunning strategy. Turns out, he finished fifth - better than we'd expected. Montoya dodged two opening-lap kerfuffles, made several bold passes at the hairpin and elsewhere, and the team made all the right strategy calls to ensure a top five finish.
Somewhere between winner Pagenaud and fifth place Montoya, Josef Newgarden, a native of nearby Hendersonville, Tennessee, picks up his second straight podium finish at this event. One year ago, he won his very first Indycar race here, and in cheering him on to that win, I'd never gotten louder or more rambunctious at a race that I'd ever attended in my still-young life. Newgarden has one hell of an effervescent personality, and he can drive the wheels off his car - just as he did to swipe third place from former champion Will Power with two laps to go.
I thought last year's race at Barber was the best pure race of the 2015 Indycar season, even above the Indianapolis 500 itself. Early into 2016, this was by far the race of the year yet again. Two strongly-supported, exhilarating races, coming down to the very last handful of laps, that defy both Barber's unfounded aura of being "a bad place for a car race", and Indycar's growing worries over manufacturer inequality and aero-dependency ruining the on-track action and hurting the prospects of overtaking.
It defies logic, then, to try and figure out why series like the IMSA SportsCar Championship have left it off the calendar, or why the Champ Car World Series of yesteryear never even gave it a chance in its last years. It would also be a waste of negative energy.
Barber Motorsports Park is not one of the first names that comes to mind when one thinks of America's great road courses and racing venues. But it absolutely should be. On its grounds, there is a fantastic museum, a tribute to the history of the motorcycle with something for the car fan as well. There is a top-of-the-line circuit that has genuinely exciting, compelling, and spell-binding racing.
It is something spectacular, situated amongst a wasteland of the lackluster and regressive. It seems almost forgotten to many, and yet, it is all so wonderful.
For more information about the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum and its exhibits and events, visit the museum's official web page.
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Photo Credit: Indycar Series Media