Hello from beautiful Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama, near Birmingham. I’ve been spectating here at sports car, IndyCar, and motorcycle races since 2007, and I’ll chime-in with my agreement that this is a “gorgeous facility.” Unlike Sebring International Raceway and other race tracks you can easily call to mind, this is repeatedly referred to, year after year, as a ‘beautiful, park-like setting.’
I rolled in mid-day Thursday, a day or two after race teams, and found Parking Lot C already nine-tenths full. I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been, as the Grand-Am Rolex Series racers, IndyCar racers, and more are here this week (and lot C isn’t large anyway).
Parking Lot B is a large, quite level grass field, large enough to play the Super Bowl on, and I saw pairs of migratory geese waddling across it, pecking at the turf, looking for munchies (I suppose). Each year I see geese flying to- or from the lake whose western end somewhat wraps around Parking Lot B.
Barber Motorsports Park is obviously not all paved-over land with a few token storm-water runoff retention ponds. Parts of Mr. Barber’s land are effectively nature preserves, notably the wild-land between the eastern drive and Bass Pro Shops. Throughout the Park are many stands of trees, which include some man-made birdhouses, and many places no man walks or drives. As I suggested, the land includes more than the raceway, the museum, and the surrounding roads. And where a race course and supporting facilities have been laid out, nature has been respected and accommodated where possible.
For this who don’t know, George Barber, of Barber Dairy fame and fortune, built Barber Motorsports Park as a playground for himself. Mr. Barber raced Porsche 911s in the 1970s, and since then has amassed a huge collection of vintage race cars and motorcycles (plus street cars and street bikes), which are housed in Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, adjoining the race track. Anyone coming here ought to budget time to explore the treasures of this museum. It’s breathtaking if you’re a petrolhead. The track was built for shake-downs, and perhaps club-racing, of restored racers. The track was later widened to meet specifications for top-tier motor racing, and it has been acclaimed as superb by several national and international motorcycle racing champions.
When Grand-Am was casting about for tracks for the France family’s series to race on (other than International Speedway Corporation ovals), it found Barber and raced in 2007. INDYCAR tested in Autumn 2007 then again in Spring 2009, and it began racing here in April 2010.
The race course was laid out as a compact, an out-and-back, folded-in-on itself 2.38-mile track. It has unique, long turns with elevation changes. That’s right; it not only has elevation changes on straightaways, but in its turns.
I walked the track with Indy Lights racer Peter Dempsey, who explained how to enter, negotiate, and exit each turn. He agreed with other racers’ assessments that B.M.P. is a challenging, thinking-man’s track and that passing can be difficult. A disparity in cars’ horsepower or tire grip, or racers’ intelligence or bravery, can facilitate passing.
For instance, after the green flag waves, drivers race down ‘blind’ Turn 1 (they can’t see the apex of the turn), compress the suspensions at the bottom, maybe dragging with a full fuel load, then they climb up and right into cambered Turn 2 which dumps them steeply downhill into Turn 3. At the bottom, the lowest elevation on the race course, they begin a steep climb up to a crest before a slop down to the slowest turn of the track, infamous Turn 5. Turn 5 is where we’ll see passes, so many spectators take lawn blankets, chairs, and picnic baskets to the tree-shaded embankment which overlooks four straightaways.
Unlike other natural-terrain road courses in which one might feel ‘cheated‘ by being able to see only one turn of a race track, the spectating hillside, Billy’s Sports Grill Club, and corporate chalets south of the straightaway between Turns 11 and 12, allow one to see almost 3/4 of the race track. That’s right; I had read that one could see something like 72% of the race track, so I went out last year to verify it, and … we can’t see turns 2, 3, 8, 9, 14, and 15, but we can see three-fourths of the track if standing on a high vantage and swiveling left to right.
Spectators know this forested hillside offers panoramic views, so many they stake their claims on territory which affords them a vantage of Turns 5, 6, 7, 11, and the straightway after 11 on which Helio Castroneves climbed a fence after winning in 2010. The wide and tall lawn which wraps around turns 2 and 3 is also very popular for general-admission spectators. Been there, done that. Seated high, on one’s own lawn chair, perhaps under an umbrella or pop-up awning, spectators can watch drivers race uphill from Turn 1 to 2 the enjoy a panoramic parade of cars sweeping around that stand of old-growth trees to Turn 3 (sorry; passing isn’t prevalent in Turns 2 and 3).
Each year I see more hospitality pavilions overlooking Turns 10 and 11, and the exhibitions, fun activities, and number of vendors has grown in the Red Diamond Fan Village. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by Legacy has no shortage of sponsors and vendors, and has attracted ever more spectators each year as people spread the word that the IndyCar practice, qualifying, and racing weekend provides some fun in the sun for Alabamans and those willing to travel to get their ‘IndyCar fix.’