Leeds, Alabama. A suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. It is not a place that I would have . normally come across during my travels whether business or personal. Yet as a fan of vintage cars and motorcycles in particular, I was a couple of years overdue in visiting this location. Overdue because it is the home of the Barber Motorsports Park. It opened for business in 2003 and proceeded to host a number of notable events including rounds of the AMA motorcycle championship, rounds of the IndyCar championship, and product launches for Lotus. However, none of that is what eventually brought me to visit Leeds, Alabama. It was the Barber Vintage Festival which is now in its eight-season.
The Barber Vintage Festival is a weekend of activities that surround vintage motorcycles. It takes place every year in October and has steadily grown into one of the best events of its kind in the nation. Like other vintage weekends such as Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, AMA vintage days, and the Monterey Historics, it has outgrown the actual events to become more of a weeklong destination event. There is great riding in the area, and with a temperate climate at that time of year, it’s a desirable place to get to from the north. As usual, I did not have a week or even the full weekend, but that is another story.
Like every good vintage weekend event, Barber allows camping on the grounds for those who register early, and this can make for an inexpensive weekend as well. They thoughtfully provide shuttles that circulate throughout the complex during the festival. You can ride your bike and find a place to park anywhere, but with the temperature well into the 80s in 2012, leaving your gear behind at the campsite or the parking lot was a good option. This allowed you to visit the track from several vantage points during a race. And of course, there was plenty of racing. The weekend usually coincides with the finale of the AHRMA vintage racing season. As such there was road racing, cross country racing, vintage motocross, and trials events. There is also a unique race that takes place at lunchtime on Saturday called race of the century. This is a race for motorcycles that are at least 100 years old, and this year it was won by Dale Walksler (of wheels through time fame) on his 1911 Indian. These machines are doing anything but gathering dust. Bravo! As usual, I particularly enjoyed walking through the paddock and watching the sidecar races. I had the opportunity to talk with one of the monkeys in the paddock, and he showed me his helmet which had been seriously dented and scuffed from points around the track where he “misjudged” the elevation of the track! Also during lunchtime, was a vintage aircraft acrobatics show overhead. Very cool.
The swap meet represents a rapidly growing area of the vintage weekend and although it cannot match the scale of something like vintage motorcycle days, it was a very good sampling and took a while to stroll through. After all, you never know where that hidden treasure might be found it only takes one stall. I was in search of Albert mirrors and came away empty-handed this time, but an experience in the swap area exemplifies the type of people that you typically find. It was very early in the morning and I was strolling through the area when I came upon the stall that had a variety of different bikes in café racer format. Towards the back was a nicely restored Moto Guzzi, and an old military BMW. I asked if I could come back to take a look at the BMW, and the owner was impressed that I would even ask as opposed to just waltzing through as many had apparently done. We had a brief conversation on the degradation of politeness, but then spent a good deal of time discussing both the Guzzi and the BMW, neither of which were for sale. The owner made me coffee, gave me a seat, and would gladly have let me hang out there for as long as I wanted. All this, for someone that they did not know two minutes earlier.
Then there were the shows and seminars to take in. I enjoyed the Wall of Death show as it was nice to view a show that would have been at home for audiences 90 years ago ! There were seminars throughout the weekend on less entertaining topics as well. And by the way, there was a concours event that had a nice variety of vintages and machines. Not to be outdone by the racing, there were some pushing 100 years of age as well. Added bonuses included a close-up with the Norm Nelson Team HMS BMW R11, fresh off finishing the Cannonball run, and still equipped with fuel rig and “auxillary lighting”.
At this point, you could leave pretty happy with great racing, a great vendor area, good cameraderie, a great airshow, a concours, seminars, classic sideshow, and a good Swapmeet. But wait, there’s more…
Despite all else, there is no question that the crown jewel in the Barber Motorsports Complex is the museum. The collection that is at the very heart of it goes back to 1989 when George Barber started to accumulate motorcycles. However, everything from the architecture of the building to the sculpture on the grounds to the content inside, makes this more than just a museum. You could spend an entire day in this museum (They have a cafeteria, restrooms, and gift shop, so what more would you need?). It is one of those places where pictures cannot fully do it justice, but they probably do a better job than just words, so look through the full album link in this post if the slideshow is not visible, and feast your eyes. But wait, there’s more….It just so happens that the museum was having a special tribute to John Surtees, as well as a special display of Lotus racing history. Even a junkie like me was on overload, and I came back to digest these areas at another time.
cUsually in the museum setting you have to choose between quality and quantity. That is not the case in this instance. Perhaps the only thing more amazing than the layout and the display and the quality of the contents of this museum, is the adjacent warehouse where I was able to glimpse hundreds more machines that are not get ready to take their place in the museum until after restoration. If you enjoy vintage motorcycles and have never been to this museum, then stop reading right now, put your toothbrush and a change of underwear in the tank bag of your machine, and point it towards Leeds Alabama. It is that good.