Riding to the Barber Vintage Festival

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THE BARBER VINTAGE MOTORSPORTS MUSEUM is one of the world’s foremost collections of historic, meticulously restored vehicles—nearly 700 of them motorcycles, on five floors. While Hurricane Matthew battered the southeastern coast on the weekend of Oct. 7, 2016, central Alabama enjoyed absolutely sublime weather—dry, mild and sunny, with gusty breezes merely hinting at the storm raging farther east. This idyllic atmosphere welcomed throngs of motorcycle enthusiasts (73,541, to be exact) gathering for the 12th Annual Vintage Festival at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.

It’s hard to imagine a more diverse crowd or a more eclectic event. Certainly, the festival attracts a multitude of fans and machines you’d expect at a celebration of vintage motorcycling. But all ages of people and bikes were well represented, and anyone interested in motorcycles and their history—if only their very recent history—would find plenty to intrigue and entertain them. Warning: middle-aged folks who reflexively dismiss such fare as “old” and personally irrelevant will have to confront the reality that the bikes they rode as teenagers are currently—gasp!—antiques. So, take a deep breath, relax into this fact, and enjoy a broader swath of motorcycle-related pleasures.

Unfortunately, circumstances conspired to limit my sampling of this year’s Vintage Festival activities to Saturday only. My hurried tour hit just some of the high points, but it would actually be impossible for anyone to see everything offered, even if attending all three days; there is so much going on simultaneously. Study the facility map and attraction schedules in advance, then prioritize and plan your days accordingly. Although the sprawling 830-acre layout is well designed and free trams run continuously around the perimeter to make foot travel more efficient, events are widely spaced on the grounds and closely on the clock. The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum greets visitors near the park’s entrance. It is a hulking structure, where about half the world’s largest motorcycle collection is on display at any given time. Some gorgeous old racecars, including a special set of Lotuses, round out the assortment. The museum is truly an event in itself, and would have completely justified the trip to Birmingham, even without the Vintage Festival going on behind it.

While it is open year-round, the museum can be accessed only by ticket- holders during events. For a mere $15, museum visitors can feast for hours, perhaps days, on a staggering array of motorcycles. From century-old treasures to modern masterpieces of every conceivable stripe, most look more pristine than the new machines on your local dealership’s floor. I had seen lots of pictures and heard people rave about Barber museum for years, but I was still astonished at the spectacle of nearly 700 motorcycles spread over five floors, hanging from walls, and stacked on towering shelves that stretched the height of the central atrium. Nothing could have prepared me for my first live viewing of the Grand Canyon; the same was true of this place. Really. It was exhilarating to see hardware in real life that, for me, had previously existed only in book or magazine photos.

There were also countless fascinating bikes I’d never before encountered, or even imagined. There was also something very special about walking up to showroom-condition examples of bikes I’d previously owned and loved. I found most of the 25 motorcycles that have passed through my garage since the early 1970s, along with many I lusted after but couldn’t acquire. It was a surprisingly emotional ride down memory lane. My cheeks actually ached from constant grinning by the time I tore myself away to explore elsewhere. Barber’s roadrace course is a 2.38- mile, 17-turn beauty, with lots of natural elevation changes and great viewing options.

Opened for business in 2003, it is home to North America’s only official Porsche Sport Driving School and the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Motorsport enthusiast website Jalopnik counted this facility among the “10 Prettiest Racetracks in the World” in 2013, and it’s easy to see why as you survey the manicured lawns and spy the tasteful artwork in unexpected places. Throughout this three-day weekend, the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) conducts more than 30 road racing classes, so the sweet music of internal combustion is almost always playing in the background as you move around the park. Given the tremendous variety of engine designs in operation (often in a single race), it’s great fun trying to identify the configurations responsible for various roars, drones and whines; listening to their glorious cacophony all together is simply mesmerizing.

And, even if you’re not following a particular race, being able to watch the competition while traveling between other events is a big visual bonus. This year, two-time World Superbike champion Colin Edwards II served as the Grand Marshal and ran exhibition laps daily during the lunch break. And, each year, the track hosts the Century Parade, wherein bikes at least 100 years old circulate “at speed.” As if there wasn’t enough racing happening on the tarmac, Barber’s offroad courses were active, too. AHRMA ran numerous classes of competition in observed trials, outdoor motocross and cross country, mostly for vintage machines (and plenty of vintage riders). I’ll bet you’ve forgotten how loud the two-strokes of your youth actually were! Strolling through the dirt bike paddock provided myriad nostalgia-laden treats for eyes, ears—and noses.

Enjoyed a cloud of burned premix lately? While many of the old machines in view were working race bikes, with all the associated grunge and scars, there were lots of impeccably restored/preserved examples of classic off-roaders sitting out, too. For those craving even more opportunities to examine the handiwork of restoration masters, the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club and the Antique Motorcycle Club of America had their respective wide-ranging collections on display in adjacent fields. Whereas the VJMC’s show contained mostly familiar hardware in very unfamiliar (extraordinarily good) condition, the AMCA featured bikes of exquisitely rare pedigree that would have been at home among the more exotic relics in Barber’s museum. Personally, I found both sets of motorcycles enthralling for different reasons. The Japanese bikes evoked sentimental memories of riding and reading about the machines I’d grown up with, while the older motorcycles captured my imagination with their shockingly diverse approaches to mechanical challenges—I might as well have been sifting through evidence of “ancient astronauts.”

Resources for those breathing life back into vintage equipment were present in several forms. For starters (pun intended), the Vintage Festival is home to a huge swap meet. About 500 spaces— the majority of which appeared to be occupied—were nestled in a large section of the park crisscrossed by paved lanes. Sellers and traders set up shop with their wares spread out in the grass, under pop-up canopies and on trailers. From complete motorcycles that appeared to have just been uncrated to individual parts that looked every bit their age, vintage hardware was available from a mind-boggling smorgasbord of categories. A determined shopper might well find the most obscure piece required for his restoration project back home. However, in the absence of any system of organization for the conglomeration of stuff available, that happy purchase could take many hours of rummaging. Of course, the hunt is part of the fun, and has no doubt produced delightful discoveries. For every person taking home a part for a bike they were already putting together, there may be another person taking home the first piece of a bike they hadn’t known would be in their future. Parts are not much good without the knowledge required to assemble them. Motorcycle Classics magazine put on a series of seminars (in addition to its own vintage motorcycle show) designed to educate would-be restorers in the technology and dark arts of such endeavors. The VJMC held a couple of educational workshops, as well.

For those in search of professional assistance, a number of suspension experts, fabricators, metal specialists and the like had their services featured in the park section devoted to vendors. This little tent city also gave event-goers a chance to check out the latest helmets, gear, tools, accessories and motorcycles from an assortment of well-known manufacturers, along with others that are far from mainstream. Sure, you’re familiar with the Vintage Festival’s “presenter,” Triumph, but you may have never seen a magnificent Motus in real life. The latter is built right there in Birmingham, so it got a prime spot. Janus motorcycles presented modern interpretations of vintage classics, while Confederate Motors displayed otherworldly visions from the opposite end of the hand-crafted spectrum.

Speaking of opposite ends, the Vintage Festival even had disparate extremes from the world of stunt riding. Monster Energy sponsored frequent shows by Keith Sayers Freestyle Motocross, with riders on modern freestyle bikes launching themselves up to 70 feet into the sky, where they amazed spectators with incredible aerial acrobatics. Nearby, daredevils from a bygone era thrilled audiences on the Wall of Death, a wood-slat “bowl” with 15-foot high vertical walls. Onlookers lined the top, peering down on helmetless riders tearing around the inside on antique Indian and Harley Davidson motorcycles. If you think operating an ancient hand-shift bike would be daunting, consider doing it at speeds sufficient to hold you perpendicular to a (trembling) vertical surface. Now take your hands off the bars and stand up. Now sit sidesaddle. Once you’ve warmed up with the KSFMX and Wall of Death, you’re ready for the even more aptly named Globe of Death. Operated by the Urias family since 1912, this 16-foot-diameter spherical steel cage showcases the talent/ insanity of riders racing around its interior on mid-sized dirt bikes in every direction, including upside down while traversing its uppermost arc. One rider doing this is impressive. Two at the same time is astounding, and three is unbelievable. To have a fourth person standing in the middle of all this action defies superlatives. At least these riders wore helmets, though I’m not sure I’d really want to survive a crash in that thing. The Globe of Death was the perfect finale for my whirlwind day at Barber.

I never made it to the road course paddock or Ace Corner ($10 access fee)—a special hilltop vantage point above the track’s final turn that has custom bike shows, live music, beer and burgers. Ace Cafe is sort of a Hard Rock Cafe, but for cafe racers. I didn’t take advantage of the test rides available from KTM, or check the water temperature in the campground showers or rent a golf cart. I did enjoy some excellent barbecue from Rusty’s, and appreciated the numerous other concession stands set up around the park (I may or may not have consumed a deep-fried Snickers bar and a local pale ale called Naked Pig). I’ve been to events at a dozen other racetracks, but I’m hard-pressed to recall any as comprehensive or as well run as this one. I recommend it highly. Make arrangements for lodging as early as possible.

On-site camping and RV spaces can fill up months in advance, and local hotels don’t lag far behind. Limited car parking is available within the facility for additional fees, but also disappears quickly (free car parking is available off-site, with free shuttle service into the park). Motorcycles get to enter, roam and park in many areas for free throughout the event. Buying admission tickets (wristbands, actually) and having them sent to you ahead of time will let you skip lines at the gate. This year, general admission pricing was $35 per day or $60 for a three-day pass, with kids 15 years old and younger admitted free when accompanied by a ticketed adult. Go to barbermuseum. org and barbermotorsports. com for more information about this and other upcoming events.