2006 Barber Vintage Festival

Southern comfort

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John Surtees signing autographs at the museum under the watchful eye of an MV Agusta.

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For the past two years, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Alabama, home of what’s arguably the largest and most important collection of classic and vintage motorcycles in the world, has been moving into hosting classic events. 2005 witnessed the museum’s first Barber Vintage Festival, and with the second festival now under its belt, held Oct. 20-22, 2006, it’s clear that a new, “must see” vintage event has been created.

Quickly emerging as one of the most important classic motorcycle events of the year, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Barber and the AMA’s Vintage Motorcycle Days, which for the past 12 years has been the largest and most successful vintage motorcycle gathering in the country. Like Vintage Motorcycle Days, the 2006 Barber Vintage Festival was a mix of vintage racing, a motorcycle swap meet, classic bike shows, an auction, seminars hosted by motorcycling legends and numerous special events held throughout the weekend.

But what really sets the Barber event apart is the accessibility attendees have to the pieces that make up the whole. The track, arguably one of the most beautiful in the country, is also one of the easiest to see, with track-side viewing points liberally spaced around its perimeter. The museum, overlooking the back of the track, can be reached from the pits by bike in minutes. The various classic bike shows, held in the Expo area, overlook the track and share line of sight with the museum. And the swap area, while hardly as large as VMD, is itself a one-minute walk from the track and only a few more minutes from the museum, and all of it is accessible by foot, motorcycle or shuttle.

Pulling it togetherThe 2005 event was pulled together in short order, but following the interest shown then, the Barber folks started planning immediately for 2006, and it showed. While 2005 was limited mostly to AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) vintage racing, a swap meet and a few small shows, for 2006 the schedule of events tripled. The AHRMA races are still the anchor, but for 2006 the swap meet more than doubled to an estimated 350 vendors. The museum, oddly quiet during 2005’s event, scheduled an array of events, from seminars presented by motorcycle stylist Craig Vetter to an auction of classic bikes held in the museum basement on Saturday night.

The unquestionable star of the weekend was John Surtees, the only man ever to win world championships on two wheels and four. The museum dedicated a special exhibit to Surtees on Friday night, and the star also took laps of the track both Friday and Saturday, driving the Ferrari 158 F1 he took to a world championship in 1964 and one of the MV Agustas he rode to victory in the late 1950s.

Attendees had the rare opportunity to speak with Surtees, who earnestly greeted fans as they filed into the museum. And whether he was signing autographs or recounting old experiences, Surtees was engaging and at ease, clearly enjoying the opportunity to mix with the crowd. Recalling his racing days and speaking to the importance of the festival, Surtees said, “It was an affair of the heart, and none of it could be justified on a financial term, and that’s here. Today is all the better because of the past, and the past is here with us today.”

Also new for 2006 were vintage motocross races (see sidebar), factory Triumph demo rides, and a classic motorcycle charity ride sponsored by Motorcycle Classics that took riders on a breathtaking tour of the Alabama countryside. As with last year the Antique Motorcycle Club of America held a show in the Expo area, but this year they were joined by the Motorcycle Classics Concours d’Elegance, the Penton Owners Group, the Bridgestone Owners Club, the BMW Veteran Motorcycle Club of America, the Time Warp Vintage Motorcycle Club and the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club.

Barber’s Brian Slark (whose titles include parts manager and restorer), pegged attendance at 12,000, almost double 2005, and while rain on Friday turned the swap area into a bog in places, he looked at it as just a part of the learning curve. “We’ll have to put some gravel down or something for next year,” Slark says, “but despite the weather it was huge growth in one year.” The growth was large enough, Slark says, they’re considering limiting the swap. “We might limit it to 400, and try to be selective, keep it vintage and not let it overrun the rest of the activities.”

Looking forward
For 2007, Slark’s looking forward to more club displays (he’d like to see the Expo area evolve into a club village of sorts) and rides. “I like Motorcycle Classics’ concept of a ride, because there are some good roads here and I think it’s good for the community,” Slark says.

The museum’s also working on its celebrity lineup for 2007, and for his money Slark says he’d like to get dirt and road bike champion Dick Mann on board. “He’s one of my all-time heroes, everyone loves him, and he’s always ridden alone, kind of a David and Goliath figure. I think it’s just important to get motorcycle celebrities here on an informal basis and make them approachable.” Amen to that, and judging by the crowd’s pleasure at meeting Surtees this year, Slark’s absolutely right.

In fact, just about everything at the Barber Vintage Festival is right: A stunning museum, vintage racing, classic bike shows, motorcycle celebrities and scenic countryside. And, most importantly, it’s all been created by passion. “We love doing this,” Slark says, “because it’s our passion.”

After 2006’s showing, the festival has become an event not to be missed. Motorcycle Classics will be there again this year for what’s sure to be another bang-up weekend of motorcycling heaven, so make plans now to join us at the 3rd Annual Barber Vintage Festival, Oct. 19-21, 2007. MC

Diggin' the dirt at Barber
Motorcyclists have a new reason to head south in the fall, thanks to the Barber Vintage Festival.

New to the program for 2006 was a full complement of dirt events, including cross-country, observed trials and the ever-popular vintage motocross.

If you have never visited the Barber Museum, it would be difficult to appreciate the idea of turning over their pristinely manicured grounds to a boat-load of dirt bikers: It would be like handing over the keys to a golf course for the weekend to a herd of hungry knobbies. Not likely to happen many places on the planet other than the Barber Museum. Even though they have invested tens of millions into their state-of-the-art facility, the core group at Barber remains motorcyclists first and administrators second. Too bad the whole world doesn’t run like that.

The Mother Nature factor is always a consideration in scheduling events during the fall, and Alabama is no exception. The traditionally dry end of October weather decided to turn untraditional on Friday and again on Saturday night prior to the motocross, turning the grass-covered course into the world’s largest green and brown “slip-n-slide.” The early morning practice sessions saw more riders practicing their crashing and restarting skills than developing racing lines around the one-mile circuit. Although the rain never made an encore appearance, the damage was done for the racers, covering their prized machines in a coat of brown goo. Czs, Huskys, Maicos, Hondas and Yamahas became indistinguishable from each other, covered in mud and freshly un-rooted grass. The riders were no cleaner.

While the conditions may have proved to be somewhat grueling for the competitors, it proved to be highly entertaining for the hillside full of spectators. Mud-induced front-end wash outs, inadvertent donuts and group ground-hugs were the order of the day. The assembled crowd ooed, aahed and gasped with every racer’s folly, thoroughly enjoying the spectacle as if it was a clumsy ballet performed on a grease covered stage.

Although this was the first outing for motocross at the festival, the folks at Barber have a vision for the future that should make this a permanent fixture in the annual calendar of “must do” events for anyone east of the Mississippi and a “you gotta go at least once” event for anyone from the west. The management at Barber has taken a measured approach to growing the event with experiments like adding the dirt disciplines. They plan to refine and improve the overall program each year, until they find the magic balance of activity and quality.

Given the increased costs in travel, the concept of multifaceted events not only makes good economic sense but creates more of a family reunion atmosphere than the average race meeting. Camaraderie and personal connections are a big part of the vintage racing experience, and the Barber Vintage Festival caters to that spirit. — Ricky Doughty