The only thing better than riding your motorcycle (or scooter) is having somewhere great for your destination. For us, Columbus Day weekend means one destination: The Barber Vintage Festival in Birmingham, AL. This year marked the 11th annual gathering of bikes old and new at Barber Motorsports Park, one of the best facilities in the world for any moto fan. Why do we go every year, though? It’s not like it’s our event. Truth is, the reasons are many. There are more great reasons to go to Barber than I care to list, but here are some of my favorites.
Barber serves as the penultimate race of the AHRMA season. After Barber, it’s just Daytona and that’s that. Anyone in the points can make or break their season at Barber. More than that though, Barber is one of the great races of the season, points be damned. It’s the most motorcycle-centric racing circuit, and the rest of the Vintage Festival that serves as background for the racing action has been consistently one of the best motorcycle events I’ve ever attended, even after three years of attending myself.
Motoworks didn’t have an official paddock presence this year, but plenty of our Chicago pals were in attendance. The ChiVinMoto crew was in full force. As I first made my way into the racing paddock on Friday afternoon, seeing the the ChiVinMoto flag flying high above the pits was a wonderful little slice of home. We’re consistently amazed by just how much motorcycle enthusiasm flows from our fair city where, admittedly, it’s not the easiest place to own a motorcycle. Yet perhaps that’s the defining factor. Our love for all things two wheels has been distilled like so much strong vodka by the cold winters, the crowded streets and the midwestern work ethic that keeps us all busy and sharp. We’ve earned our stripes, so the love runs deep.
Several of the Motoworks Chicago crew were also around, whether racing themselves or making the racing happen for other people. I heard an unbelievable true story that Jason even did an emergency round-trip to Chicago and back when one Chicago racer’s bike blew a motor. Not only did he dash the nearly 1,400 mile round trip, but he changed that engine in the van on the way. That, ladies and gentlemen, is enthusiasm. It’s friendship. It’s bad ass.
Beyond the pits to the track itself, both Jonathan and “Little Buddy” Josh Saxe did Motoworks proud on the track, while others in ChiVinMoto group went on to podium and even win races that weekend. I’m told Darren even came down just for Sunday. That’s love. I could feel the energy there in the pits each and every time I swung by, and it was contagious. Even without Johnny, our fearless leader, the Chicago-based paddock still felt like the core of positive energy and hospitality in the pits.
Even if racing isn’t your favorite thing, Barber still has plenty to offer. There are three distinct festival areas at Barber: the Fan Zone, Ace Cafe Corner, and The High Side. For those who haven’t been, you can kind of think of these as three faces of the same event, on three different ends of the track. On the one side you have the Fan Zone, with huge vendor booths and carnival food galore. As title sponsor for the event, Triumph was back this year with a huge booth, every bike they sell (and several they don’t). The only thing missing from last year was the Castrol-sponsored Bonneville Salt Flats racer powered by supercharged twin Triumph Rocket III engines. We can only guess they’re busy getting that machine ready to finally do some work next year when, hopefully, the flats open back up for racing.
The Fan Zone overlooks the track’s back straight, but from that vantage point, you can actually see quite a bit of the track as it folds in over itself. As icing on the cake, both the Globe of Death and the Wall of Death each did death-defying motorcycle shows about once an hour. Like so many aspects of the Barber Vintage Festival, these attractions alone are worth the trip.
Across the track from the Fan Zone lies Ace Cafe Corner. If the Fan Zone is the state fair, then Ace Cafe Corner is a block party. Like last year, there were two levels to the Ace Cafe Corner. In the lower level, a ring of smaller, more independent vendors, and a live music stage. Up the hill, the small lot was overflowing with some of the most interesting, most artfully-crafted custom motorcycles you’ll see anywhere. Like The One Motorcycle Show, the Handbuilt Show, Mama Tried, and others, the bike show at the Ace Cafe Corner has become a destination for custom builders to show off their latest creation. All this, and just over the fence, the final two turns of the race track with a great view up the front stretch to the finish line. You can browse dozens of custom bikes, have a burger, and watch the races all from this single venue.
Last but certainly not least, our friends at Vanson Leathers hosted The High Side: a sort of builder’s row on the upper deck of the racing paddock. If Ace Cafe Corner is a block party, The High Side was the underground rave for those in the know. (Well, those who signed the paddock waiver and got their free wrist band, but talking about it like it’s Fight Club just sounds cooler). Chicago was once again well represented on The High Side by Tony Proust and Analog Cycles. Every time I see Tony he’s got a new, spectacular bike project completed. This time, it was a customer-requested build — a part modern, part vintage Husqvarna that you have to see to believe. Unfortunately, it’s not quite ready for public consumption. Tony’s asked everybody not to share it online yet, but keep an eye out, ’cause it’ll show up soon.
Riding in Alabama
There’s plenty of fun to be had outside the bounds of Barber Motorsports Park as well. My moto wingman, and fellow BTM contributor, Juan Hernandez and I did a loop through Talladega National Forest. It was just a couple hundred miles, but those miles were potent. Between the lazy sweepers, the deep forest, and the occasional mountain view, it was easily the best riding I’ve had in years. Each mile we rode through that forest was sweet, refreshing and rejuvenating. As if the rest of Barber weren’t reminder enough, our jaunt through that lonely, wonderful road was a potent reminder of just why I love motorcycles so much. It was the sweet freedom of two wheels and nothing else but a wonderful road and a solid wingman. Like everything else, that ride alone was reason to travel to Birmingham.
The personal connections
For me, the brightest highlight of this year’s Barber Vintage Festival was connecting the digital dots. This year I got to connect in person with about a dozen people who I previously only knew online via Facebook and Instagram. I got to put faces with names, but best of all I got to actually spend time talking, hanging out, and sharing our mutual love of two wheels. Turns out, I liked these people just as much in real life as I did online. Don’t let anybody tell you that the social connections we make online aren’t substantive. Those connections drew us all together and we became the very definition of fast friends. That was unexpected, and delightful.
My personal highlight of highlights was the Saturday evening parade lap on the track at Barber Motorsports park. Because Triumph was the title sponsor, anyone riding a Triumph could do the parade laps for free instead of ponying up $30 or so. This was too good to pass up, so my Bonneville and I lined up with about 200 other bikes along The High Side. Quite accidentally, I found myself in a group of my newly-minted, yet seemingly old friends — those same folks who just days before were only Facebook acquaintances and @usernames. Yet there we were, just a day later, ready to ride together and we already had half a dozen inside jokes. (We also had something like three-quarters-of-a-million Instagram followers in that little group, if you care about that kind of thing.)
We were the last parade lap group, and we took the track just as the sun was shining its golden last. We only did about three laps before they called us back in, but those laps were kind of magical. As we all got more and more comfortable and familiar with the track’s winding circuit, we got faster and braver. The whole thing was downright giggle-inducing. Like everything else that weekend, it was yet another celebration of the joy of two wheels. It was a golden moment shared with new friends.
So much more
I could go on and on about all the reasons Barber was special this year. There was vintage motocross and trials racing. There was the enormous swap meet. There was the annual meeting of the vintage Japanese motorcycle club. Then obviously, there’s the museum. I could do another whole post on all of that, but I’ll end with the single biggest thing that made this year’s Barber Vintage Festival one for the history books: Britten. The whole weekend was extremely Britten-centric in the best possible way. There was a gala dinner with the Britten family and current owners as guests of honor, all to celebrate the legacy of one brilliant man and everything that he gave to motorcycling. I didn’t attend that event myself, but speaking with those who did, it sounds like it was pretty special.
Meanwhile nine of the ten surviving Britten bikes were there at Barber this year, and we saw five of them do an exhibition on the track Saturday. There’s something priceless (pun intended) about seeing someone do power wheelies on an irreplaceable, million-dollar motorcycle in the middle of a pack of similarly irreplaceable, million-dollar motorcycles. I think you just had to be there.
As if that weren’t enough, two of the Britten bikes were were raced in a couple of live AHRMA races. If that doesn’t put the “historic” in AHRMA, I don’t know what would. I can recall being in the Ace Cafe Corner during one of the races, seeing a bright bike go by and turning to Juan to ask “Was that one of the Brittens?” Sure enough, it was, and there were actually two of them in that race.
Barber was great this year, in case you didn’t catch my drift. If you’ve never been, just go. If you’ve been before, go back. I had an amazing time, and after three years, I still haven’t managed to see everything the event has to offer. If you want to rediscover the center of your enthusiasm, you’ll find it at Barber next year, I guarantee it.
Special thanks to Stephanie Floyd and Juan Hernandez for providing additional photos for this post.