2005 Barber Vintage Festival

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Two-time AMA Grand National Champion Gary Nixon showed he hadn't lost his form at AHRMA's 2005 season finale at Barber, winning the Formula Vintage series.
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Not quite ready for prime time: editor Backus stalls Nixon's Triumph befor heading out onto the track.
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Within earshot of the track, the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club put on a fine showing of classic Japanese bikes.
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Gary Nixon and Steel Breeze's Jerry Liggett are all smiles after Nixon's Series win aboard the Steel Breeze Triumph.
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Nicely modified '52 Vincent Black Shadow.

It’s early in the game, but the 2005 Barber Vintage Festival, combined with the season finale of AHRMA’s Historic Cup Roadrace Series, looks set to become the next big happening in the classic bike scene. In three short years Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum has quickly established itself as the ne plus ultra of vintage motorcycles, a Mecca for lovers of classic bikes everywhere.

Founded by businessman George Barber in 1994, and in its current digs since 2003, the museum houses the most amazing collection of classic bikes anywhere, bar none. And the adjoining track, alternately described as heaven on two wheels and as one of the most demanding circuits in the country, has bowled over AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) race fans with its roller coaster runs and spectacular scenery. 

2005 was the third year for AHRMA races at Barber, but the first for the Vintage Festival. The folks at Barber crafted the event in short order and publicized it sparingly, yet it still drew rave reviews. “We were absolutely overwhelmed. We got so much positive feedback. It was an enjoyable experience,” says Barber’s Brian Slark. Slark says he and museum executive director Jeff Ray would have been happy to get 40 vendors on board for the first event. As it was, 150 vendors filled 200 spots on the Barber grounds next to the track. In addition to the vendors, the Confederate Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America held a classic bike show on the grounds, and the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club held a member bike show in the vendor area. The diverse offerings of the two groups (the AMCA leans towards vintage American and British iron, while the VJMC is strictly Japanese bikes) complemented each other well. The VJMC had an estimated 60 bikes, while the AMCA had about double that number; we expect to see even more bikes at the next event. Slark wants to see more club activity, as well. “We want to encourage the clubs to do displays, to have a little area where they can show what they are. The VJMC display proved to be extremely popular.” Slark expects big things for 2006, predicting 400 vendors and promising more events, including AHRMA off-road races, a live auction, and a road run on classic bikes to 29 Dreams, a motorcycle resort situated 12 beautiful, winding miles away from Barber. 

As well as it went, the event wasn’t without some teething problems. “There are a few areas we could improve on,” Slark admits. “We need more toilet facilities, and more variety in food vendors.” Fairly minor issues really, and both easy to address. Slark says an estimated 10,000 enthusiasts were on hand for the AHRMA races and Vintage Festival, and he’s convinced part of the draw is geographical. “It’s a unique event in the South, because for years everyone’s had to go north or down to Daytona. I can see in about three or four years this is going to be a bloody good event.”

Vintage wrenching

That’s what Jerry Liggett, team manager for Steel Breeze Racing, calls AHRMA’s Historic Cup Roadrace Series. “A lot of guys think they’ll get a vintage bike because it’s cheap, easy racing. And it’s the exact opposite of that. I don’t call it vintage racing, I call it vintage wrenching, because you’re wrenching about 100 hours for every one hour on the track.”

Liggett, owner of the ’72 Triumph triple that racing legend Gary Nixon rode to Formula Vintage victory at Barber, got into AHRMA’s racing series in 1992. But it was in 2004 that he scored big and got Nixon, back-to-back winner of the 1967 and 1968 AMA Grand National Championships, as his rider.

“I got a call from (Sandia Classic organizer) Craig Murray, and he said, ‘Hey, would you mind letting Gary ride your bike?’ I said ‘Gary who?’ and he said Gary Nixon! So we went to Sandia in 2004 with the bike and made arrangements.”

That first ride at Sandia set the stage for the next year, with Steel Breeze Racing and Nixon establishing a string of wins in 2005 that led to Nixon’s final win in the series. Their first taste of victory came at Willow Springs in April, where Nixon took first place both days, but Liggett carries stronger memories from their outing at Daytona the month before. “When he rode that bike, he looked like he should be on the cover of GQ. The leathers matched the paint job, and it was a total accident. It was perfect.”

When Nixon swung his leg over Liggett’s bike, it signaled his first competitive run back on the track since the Legend series of the ’90s: Nixon won the series in ’95 and ’97. And make no mistake, it is competitive, with ex-champs like Jay Springsteen and rising contenders like Robert Hurst raising the ante and keeping the pressure on. “You can’t let the fact that it’s vintage take anything away it. It’s an AMA national race, and with the work involved and the speeds involved, the preparation is intense,” says Liggett. And why race with Steel Breeze? “He’s into it, he’s trying to make it good,” Nixon says of LIggett. “If it wasn’t for Jerry, I probably wouldn’t be doing this.”

Watching Nixon, it’s clear he’s in his element at the track, which comes as no surprise when you consider he’s been racing his entire life. His first major race was Daytona in 1960 at the tender age of 19, and he won his first AMA National three years later, in 1963. Now 65 years old, he hasn’t lost any of his affinity for the sport. “The nice thing is meeting the racer dudes, like (Thruxton Cup racer) Steve Atlas. I run into some cool dudes, which is neat.”

Nixon had his share of on track accidents during his heyday, and he built a reputation for toughness, riding for three seasons with a stainless steel rod holding his left leg together after stuffing a Triumph dirt tracker into a post in 1969. “For me, the ankle doesn’t work and the knee doesn’t work. It’s not like it was in 1970. I ain’t going as fast as I did back then, so I’m trying to make it a little more comfortable. But f***, it hurts. At Daytona I was kind of realizing it’s just the legs. The upper body’s okay.”

Watching Nixon race, you’d never suspect he’s ever taken a fall. With precise control, Nixon makes every turn and every pass on the track look easy. “He’s never dropped it,” Liggett says. “He’s slid it around and gotten it a little sideways here and there, but that’s it.”

Nixon didn’t put a wheel wrong at Barber, grabbing first place on Saturday’s race after Springsteen dropped out with ignition problems, and nabbing the series on Sunday following a heated dual with Springsteen. “Springer (Springsteen) was keeping me going that last lap, he wasn’t gonna give it to me,” Nixon says. “He shifted, got ahead of me, I shifted, got ahead of him, and it was just my time. It was good to get number one after all them years.” MC

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