If it has two wheels and a motor, odds are you’ll find one at Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum—a five star, world–class facility that is truly one of kind.
The best part is that it’s right here in Birmingham!
Written and photographed by Marc Bondarenko
We’ve all heard it:
“ Atlanta’s Got It Goin’ On!” They’ve got their pro ball teams, they’ve got their Aquarium; Atlanta’s a destination. Same with Nashville: The Grand Ole Opry, the NFL team. Even Chatanooga has gotten notoriety for it’s aquarium and the Riverwalk. Sometimes, here in Birmingham, it seems like other Southeastern cities have made the moves and put in the work that has gotten for them the kind of national attention we believe has eluded our beautiful city.
What if I told you that there’s an attraction right here in Birmingham that is the unquestioned best of it’s kind in the entire world? A place that people come here to visit, not just from all over the U.S., but from Europe, Asia, Australia, Central and South America. What if I told you that this attraction is universally respected and admired around the world, but is little known right here in Alabama?
The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum and Barber Motorsports Park are, together, the only facility of their kind in the world. The Museum contains the largest collection of restored and preserved motorcycles in the entire world. The track facility is known as the “Augusta of Race Tracks” because of the aesthetic beauty of the facility, the care and effort that goes into maintaining that beauty. The Barber Motorsports Park and Museum are like nothing else in the entire world— and it’s twenty minutes from downtown.
Most people here in Birmingham are familiar with Barber’s Dairy. As a young man and scion of the Barber family, George Barber got interested in automobile racing. Like most motorsports enthusiasts, Barber appreciated the design, engineering and functional beauty of the cars he raced. That interest led him to acquire a few cars, just for personal satisfaction. Having bought a few cars he liked, soon the Barber Collection—an automobile collection—was born in a Barber’s Dairy warehouse on Southside.
It was Mr. Barber’s friend and co-worker, the late Dave Hooper, who introduced George Barber to motorcycles. Barber says he immediately took a liking to the exposed mechanical components of motorcycles. Engines, drivetrains, brakes, suspension.
All are visible and available for inspection on a motorcycle. As he did with his cars, Barber enjoyed and appreciated the functional beauty of these parts and liked the fact that on a motorcycle, it’s all visible. The Barber motorcycle collection grew to a few bikes, then a few dozen and ultimately filled the Southside warehouse.
Finally, the collection, still housed in it’s non-descript Southside home, employed a staff of expert restorers, painters, a motorcycle historian, a librarian, clerical staff and a museum Director.
The collection continued to grow. New machines were acquired from all over the world.
Most were painstakingly restored to new or better than new condition. Some were put into storage for future restoration and a very few were left in their original condition and put on display substantially as they were found. The Barber’s restoration staff prides itself on being able, in most cases, to put the machines they restore into running, riding condition.
As the collection grew, Barber “ . . . realized I needed to do something a little larger and a little nicer. And, I needed a little test track to test the restorations that we did. So, we came out here (to Leeds) and we looked at this thing . . . . and somebody brought us a little further out and said ‘ . . .I know where there’s some acreage available.’ . . .and I said, ‘I don’t need any acreage. I need a place for a building and just a little track.’ . . and we said well, maybe we need just a little more. And as we were building the racetrack, it became very obvious that it needed to be bigger than just a test track. And, realizing that, we realized it needed to be a little better than just a bigger test track.” “And then, you sit down, and you say to get people to Birmingham, you’re going to have to do something that’s really first class.’ And I thought: ‘well, okay we’ll do that. We’ll do this now, and as the need arises, we’ll add to it and improve it over the years.’ Well, it became very obvious that it was going to be twice as expensive—four times as expensive, to do that than to do it right the first time.”
In contrast to most motor racing facilities, the Barber Motorsports Park was designed from the outset to be aesthetically pleasing and in harmony with its surroundings. Most race tracks are built as just that —race tracks. The Barber Motorsports Park is actually a park. A park that just happens to surround a world class race track and just happens to have the largest motorsports museum in the world as it’s centerpiece. “So we did it. And we grew this thing into what is now known as the ‘Augusta of Racetracks’.” “We have 450,000 bulbs in the ground. 16,000 azaleas, 15,000 crepe myrtles,” says Barber.
In fact, the Audobon Society is planning on designating the Park as a bird sanctuary! How many race tracks, or sports facilities of any kind, can say that?
Fans who come to watch the races at Barber’s won’t see the rows of grandstands one sees at tracks like Talladega and Indy (though the Park did put up some temporary grand stand seating to accommodate the overflow crowds at the IRL (Indy car) race earlier this year). Instead, spectators can bring their blankets or lawn chairs and relax on the grassy hillsides that surround the track. If one wants to see the race from a different vantage point, the Park runs a fleet of free passenger trams that circulate constantly on the service road that encircles the track. Just hop on at one of the designated tram stops and ride to another part of the track. Or, visit the pits or one of the Expo areas. Or, visit the Museum.
The Museum. It is unique, encompassing about 141,000 square feet of space on five levels. Most of which (about 95,000 sq. ft.) is devoted to the display of the Barber Collection. At any given time there are over 600 of the more than 1,200 machines in the collection on display. The ground level, which is usually open to the public only during special events, holds the museum’s restoration departments, machine and fabrication shops, meeting rooms and warehouse space. The other four levels contain the displays, a gift shop, an extensive research library and the museum’s administrative offices.
Upon entering the museum, one is struck by the space and openness of the building.
At the center of the building is a glass elevator large enough to carry an automobile.
Surrounding the elevator shaft is a spiral walkway that allows visitors to move from one display level to another. The entire western side of the building is glass and overlooks a portion of the racetrack. The concept for the building’s layout came from the design of a parking deck. Barber liked the idea of the spiral ramp at the building center that is so widely used in parking facilities. In addition, the utilitarian simplicity of the parking deck appealed to Barber. “I don’t like museums where the building is more spectacular than the collection it houses,” he says. Each machine is displayed on its own pedestal and accessible for close inspection by visitors.
Many visitors will spend an entire day going through the museum. With 600 machines on display, devoting only a minute to viewing each one still means a 10–hour visit.
Many of the machines will require much more than a minute to appreciate.
For example, the 1920 Harley-Davidson Factory Board Track Racer. This low, narrow machine was created as a purpose built racer by H-D to run on the banked wooden tracks that were popular during the first part of the 20th century. If one stops to look carefully, one notices that the machine is a 999cc V-Twin using four valves per cylinder, not unlike modern engines.
One might also notice that this racer has no exhaust pipes—exhaust gas vents directly out of the motor. Look a bit closer and you’ll see this bike has no throttle, no clutch, no gearbox. And no brakes! When the engine is running, it’s running wide open with a direct drive to the rear wheel. The only way for the rider to control engine speed and forward motion is via an ignition interruption switch —a kill switch—on the handlebar. If the rider wanted to slow down, they would depress the kill switch to turn off the engine. As soon a they released the kill switch, the engine would come back to life at full throttle. One more detail a careful observer may notice about this factory race bike: It uses what is known as a “total loss” lubrication system in the engine. In this kind of system, lubrication oil for the engine is contained in a tank next to the fuel tank on the bike. As the engine runs, the oil in the tank drains down over the internal moving parts of the engine and out onto the ground. Hence, the name “total loss lubrication.”
Now, imagine the scene at a board track race: Several riders on machines that only run wide open, can reach close to 100 mph, have no brakes and as the race progresses, cover the wooden racing surface with used oil! Sound exciting? Perhaps it’s not surprising that board track racing was a very short-lived sport.
There are literally hundreds of machines in the museum, both antique and modern, with equally exciting or unusual stories.
If Barber’s vision drives the museum and the park, the staff are the people who turn that vision into reality every day. The museum director, Jeff Ray, has worked with Barber for over twenty years. His passion for the collection, knowledge of the machines and his practical ability to manage the whole enterprise; keep the lights on and the doors open at the museum 358 days a year. Ray relies on a team of experienced and talented specialists. Brian Slark is the resident expert on vintage and historic motorcycles. Slark’s list of friends and professional contacts reads like a who’s who of motorcycle sport, industry and media. Lee Woehle oversees the extensive research library at the museum. As the motorcycle collection has grown over the years, so too has the library.
Woehle regularly fields calls from authors and experts working on projects of their own. Woehle also oversees marketing for the museum and manages the museum store. Chuck Huneycutt oversees the motorcycle restoration department, Lee Clark oversees the automobile restoration. Darrell McCalla manages the facility. There are 34 fulltime employees, 15 part–time employees and literally hundreds of volunteers who keep the museum and park going each day.
The Barber Motorsports Park first opened in March 2003. The Museum opened to the public in September of that same year. The park has become home to the only North American location of the Porsche Sport Driving School. The American Motorcyclist Association(AMA), the Rolex Grand-Am series and last year, for the first time, the Indy Racing League (IRL) have all held races in their championship series at Barber’s.
The Park has also hosted the North American launch of the Porsche Cayenne- twice—first, in 2003 and just this year for the launch of the updated Cayenne.
This year, the State of Alabama hosted the annual Southern Governor’s Conference. Governor Riley himself chose Barber’s as the site of that meeting.
Between the racing events, the driving schools and the special and club events, the track is booked about 280 days each year. The result is a huge positive economic impact for the Birmingham area and the State of Alabama. This is a source of joy and pride for Mr. Barber. Even though Barber does not personally profit from the operation of the Museum and the Park—they are not-for-profit organizations—he recognizes that the Park is “a tool to help this city and help this state” prosper.
Notwithstanding his personal love of machines and racing, George Barber views the park as a means of fulfilling his civic responsibility to help his—our—community.