We Travel to the 15th Annual Barber Vintage Festival in Birmingham, Alabama

The 15th Annual Barber Motorsports Vintage Festival kicked off in a heat wave, but concluded with a cool change. Here in the Deep South, we had experienced unseasonably hot and dry conditions to kick off our Fall, with temps tapping the triple digits, accompanied by drought. Yet the enthusiasm for this annual gathering was neither diminished nor decreased, as record crowds were still predicted based on ticket sales, we were told. I had wanted to attend this massive event for years, and this was the year I cleared the calendar to make it happen.

I was still in possession of the Indian FTR 1200S for our review article, so I kitted it up for the long weekend, and set out for Barber Motorsports Park. In it’s 15th year, Vintage Fest draws enthusiasts from across the continent, for AHRMA sponsored vintage motorcycle racing on the world renowned track, antique and unique motorcycle shows, tours of America’s largest motorsports museum, as well as concerts, swap meets, stunt shows, and vendors across the park grounds all weekend. This year’s event drew close to 80,000 attendees, according to Jacqui Van Ham, moto media personality who worked the museum events for BMW Motorrad.

Upon arrival, I found my friend Mike Boyd, who had made camp with his “toy hauler” up in Lot D above the track. Mike would help me shoot footage across the weekend, and he put me up nightly for the event. Mike is a veteran of Vintage Fest, always bringing a couple of classics from his own collection each year.

Friday temps were hovering around 96 degrees, and when I arrived, AHRMA vintage racing was already underway on the racetrack. Mike and I set out across the grounds, he in the direction of the exclusive Ace Corner bike show where he had a bike entered, me off to shoot racing around the track. Barber’s world famous track boasts 16 turns in 2.38 miles of asphalt, and there is no bad place around it to view racing. The roar of old 2-strokes, and the smoke they exude is thrilling, intoxicating. Friday was filled with qualifying and practice sessions for the many classes AHRMA hosts.

By Saturday morning the 880-acre complex was rapidly filling with fans, setting up in the campgrounds, visiting the huge museum, staking their claims trackside, wandering the various fan zones and swap meets, or slowly circling the park’s outer road on motorcycles, pit bikes, and the multiple trams running every few minutes. Mike and I spent the morning roaming the swap meets and bike shows, enjoying the eclectic atmosphere and exotic old machines. Confederate Motorcycles brought several of their models to the Ace Corner event, over by turn 14, their “steampunk” yet futuristic looking designs set in sharp contrast to the antiques that surrounded them.

I was eagerly anticipating the sidecar races, with their low-slung construction and aerodynamic bodywork, straddled by their “wrist jockeys” at the throttle, and “monkeys” tossing their weight back and forth across the contraptions through each turn. When they finally ran early afternoon, I was positioned trackside between turns 9 and 10, and they did not disappoint. If you’ve never seen motorcycle sidecar racing, especially vintage, do a web search, and you’ll witness why they are so much fun to watch. Many of these teams were husband and wife, so I texted my wife Lisa one of the photos and inquired, “Would you ever do this with me?” After a few moments she replied simply, “Not.A.Chance.”

By Saturday mid-afternoon, the Barber Motorsports Museum pulled back the veil on two original Britten race bikes, and ran them out on the track for several demonstration laps. To see those rare, historic, and most unique New Zealand race bikes up close and roaring around the track, was a sight to behold. Mike and I also toured the incredible cache of moto-history within the museum, a collection chronicling every facet, every brand, and every time period of motorcycle development. Their collection of Lotus F1 racing history is staggering as well, on the main entrance floor of the museum, at least for Vintage Fest.

Bonhams hosted a live motorcycle auction within the museum facilities as well, auctioning off over 200 classic, rare, one-off, and collectable motorcycles to the highest bidders. Mike and I wandered among the aisle upon aisle of motorcycles up for bidding, amazed at the array displayed on the floor. And looking out beyond the rows of 2-wheeled iron towards the track below, lines of vintage racers streaked past, their 2-stroke roars reverberating through the glass windows. I was at home there, in that moment, surrounded by hundreds of classic motorcycles, among fellow enthusiasts, with restored old race bikes out on the track beneath.

The Saturday early evening temps cooled somewhat as clouds rolled in, and while Mike hung out at the Ace Corner festivities, I roamed the aisles of one of the swap meets, as crowds began to thin out for the night. Tents full of every motorcycle part imaginable could be found somewhere among the hundreds of vendors, and old bikes everywhere up for sale- some fully restored, many DIY. One of the coolest items I found was a mint condition or fully restored 1978 (I think) Yamaha YZ80, exactly like one we had as kids back in our childhood. I couldn’t believe my eyes- I had to chat the vendor up about it, had to straddle it, had to snap a few pics of it to send to my brothers. The owner was asking a pretty decent price for it, and had I been in possession of the quid, and the way to get it home, I’d have bought it. I’ve heard of “buyer’s regret”, but is there such a thing as “walking-away regret”? I’m experiencing it now…

Sunday saw cooler temps finally, as here in the South we seemed to immediately transition from July that had lingered into October, to Fall in one overnight. Mike needed to get on the road for his home, so I helped him button up his bikes and camper, then I decided to wander the AHRMA team paddocks for some final photos of bikes and racers off the track. I chatted up several riders who came from across the US of A, privateers who trailer their bikes and gear hundreds, even thousands of miles yearly during race season, criss-crossing the country, spending untold $$ to pursue their love of old motorcycles and speed, to share the competition on the track and the camaraderie of the pits. They are a unique breed. I even got to behold one of the Brittons up close, in the paddock camp of Kiwi owner Bob Robbins. The 10 hand-built Brittons have to be among the most beautiful race bikes ever conceived and constructed.

As I hit the road for home myself, I reflected upon the weekend. Vintage motorcycles, vintage racing, and many vintage riders. The park was also full of young people as well, there to enjoy the history and nostalgia themselves. I have hope for the future of motorcycling in America, when I look at the younger generations coming up. Sure, they are into their technology and social media quite excessively. But I also see a growing interest and passion that they have for history, for earlier times they’ve only heard, read about, or seen in photos and film. I’m thankful for Barber Vintage Fest, not only because I love old motorcycles and racing, but also because they are carrying the torch of moto tradition into this new millennium, and preparing the next generations for taking it up one day themselves.
Long Live Vintage Fest.