There are a lot of great events in the Motoworks yearly calendar, but the jewel of them all is the Barber Vintage Festival. This year marked the 10th time that bikes old and new have gathered at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, AL for a long weekend of everything one of the world’s largest motorcycle festivals has to offer.
For the Motoworks crew, Barber is the climax of the season. Just like Rockerbox at Road America earlier in the summer, we pitted up with our pals in the ChiVinMoto crew. The sharing of space, gear, tools and grub makes the paddock our home away from home. Yet the scale of Barber is something to behold. More racers, more vendors and a huge presence from Triumph make the Barber Vintage Festival something you kind of have to see to believe.
There are two optimal ways to get to Barber from Chicago. The first is to take 2-3 days and ride a motorcycle down through some of the country’s most scenic roads. The second is to bomb down in a straight, 10 hour shot. Last year I rode down, but the trade off was seeing less of the festival. This year I wanted to take in the full, multi-day Barber experience so I loaded the #SalzmotoBonny up in the back of my Ridgeline and rolled out before dawn on Friday, Alabama-bound. Most of the rest of the Motoworks and ChiVinMoto crew had assembled the night before and were spending Friday taking much-needed practice laps before the long weekend’s rounds of AHRMA racing.
Saturday arrived and both the racing and the festival got going in earnest. The thing about Barber is that it isn’t just one thing. It’s not just the penultimate stop on the AHRMA road racing schedule. The festival is a handful of festivals all rolled into one. There’s the acres-large swap meet. There’s vintage motocross racing through the woods. There’s the Ace Cafe Corner with its expo of vendors and custom bikes. There’s the Fan Zone — a carnival of vendors, food and attractions like the Wall of Death. Last, but certainly not least, there’s the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, which is the motorcycle museum to end all motorcycle museums. Any one of these aspects would make Barber worth attending, and the thing is, I’m confident there are half a dozen other things going on at Barber that I wasn’t aware of.
Yet for me, the greatest thing about Barber is the turn out. The crowd this year was immense. Thousands upon thousands of people turned up on every type of motorcycle you’ve ever heard of, both old and new. Forget the IMS. If you want to see every motorcycle on the road today, go to Barber. The access roads around the track were littered with bikes of every size and vintage. From adventure-laden BMW GS touring machines down to rockabilly-inspired custom Honda 50 Monkey bikes. If it’s got two wheels and a motor, it was on the grounds at Barber somewhere.
I kept wondering in and out of the Motoworks / ChiVinMoto paddock between seeing different aspects of the festival. As races came and went, I’d catch up with Johnny, Josh (LB!), Craig, Bob or any of the 20 or so of us that’d come down from Chicago. What struck me the most was how much enthusiasm everybody had for their on-track time. Nobody in our pit was winning any of the races, yet everybody was having a great time. At one point Johnny came back in from racing his Triumph Thruxton, having finished in the top 10. He was thrilled with the result, as well he should be. With no purse on the line, no series points to worry about and no professional position to defend, everybody was just out there having fun.
That said, the races were no less thrilling to watch. From various vantage points around the facility, we watched as men and women on motorcycles hurled themselves around the track as fast as they dared. The race course at Barber folds in on itself in a couple different ways. Several straights are connected by a series of pretty sharp corners, each with significant changes in elevation. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. From the sidelines, we all watched as each class took the track in turn.
The roar of the racing was the perfect backdrop for the festival’s other activities. As I wondered around the Fan Zone and vendor’s row up above the paddock, bikes would go whirling by on the track. As atmosphere’s go, it just couldn’t be beat.
Up in the Ace Cafe Corner, the the view of the track was second only to the press box. With food and beverage for sale, one could watch the action on the track, but also look over a huge gathering of custom motorcycles vying for a handful of show trophies. Being a builder and bike nerd myself, my favorite part was encountering bike after bike that I recognized from my Instagram feed or sites like BikeEXIF. Better still was actually meeting people I’d only otherwise connected with online. You gotta get off the internet and out the world from time to time, kids.
If there’s one thing you couldn’t fail to notice in the Fan Zone, it was Triumph’s massive booth. Triumph set up a giant tent lounge for moto fans complete with seating space and up-close access to the Triumph / Castrol salt flat racer. Best part? Right on the corner of the booth was parked Johnny’s Alcan 5005 race bike.
Barber is unlike any other motorcycle event I’ve ever been to. As I met with old friends deep in the camping area overlooking Barber’s new Autocross course, the scale of the event really struck more. Yet there are other big motorcycle events out there. There’s Daytona Bike Week, then obviously there’s Sturgis. Yet Barber has something special. I heard someone say it best that “Barber is Sturgis for people who don’t go to Sturgis.”
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Sturgis. I’d like to go at some point, actually. Yet what I think is so great about that statement is what it says about the people who come to Barber. Barber is an eclectic event for people who like all kinds of motorcycles. Many of the more established events are really Harley-centric, which is fine, but that makes for a particular kind of event. There were plenty of Harleys at Barber too, but the distinct lack of any single majority of bikes (except maybe vintage Hondas) is part of what makes the event so charming. Every size, shape, age, make and model of bike is in attendance at Barber. With that, a crowd of people who simply love bikes. There’s a pluralism to it that I just couldn’t get enough of.
As I looked out over the facility there at Barber and saw it absolutely overflowing with motorcycle fans, it gave me hope for the future of bike culture. In fact, I felt like I was looking at that future right there in Birmingham. Each year the Barber Vintage Festival gets bigger and bigger. I think that’s a good thing because it speaks to a growing new culture in motorcycling. It’s a culture grounded firmly in the past, but embracing a more diverse future of motorcycle enthusiasm. In a word, it’s an inclusive future, and that future looks really bright.
Did you miss it? Don’t worry. Just start planning for next year. We are.