'Augusta of racetracks' suits Barber
Through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the control/media building parallel to pit lane, George W. Barber surveys the expansive park-like venue that bears his name and points to the larger-than-life metal spider in the infield – among the dozens of whimsical pieces of artwork populating the 740 acres.
“One of my favorites,” he says before motioning to track manager Mark Whitt, who’s quickly on the radio requesting that someone pluck a notebook-size piece of paper from its grassy perch.
There’s not much that escapes Barber’s attention. He’s a personable, frank-speaking Southerner – a lifelong resident and bachelor of Birmingham, Ala., whose 2.38-mile twisting ribbon of asphalt will host the IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights this weekend for the first time.
The racing facility and accompanying Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum are arguably the most popular attractions in the state (maybe with the original Dreamland Bar-B-Q in Tuscaloosa and “Bear” Bryant’s gravesite in Birmingham), which is what Barber set out to accomplish more than a decade ago.
“There’s still a lot of work to do and a lot things we need to do, but people are beginning to call us the Augusta of racetracks because of all the trees and plantings,” he says. “It’s been fun. We’ve had the Daytona Prototypes and motorcycle races, but Indy is a whole ‘nother animal. Everybody knows Indy, and it’s a thrill for us. I’m just pleased to have them here.
“People ask how did you start, how did you do it? I tell them we started off with a little bitty track, and there again I thought a little bitty track nobody’s going to want to come to Birmingham. It’s got to be right, so that’s why we grew and grew and grew. And we’re still growing and trying to improve it.”
From business to philanthropy
Barber drove motorcycles in college and raced Porsches in the 1960s and early ‘70s (co-driving in the Rolex 24 At Daytona with Peter Gregg one year) before his father passed away and “I had to start racing in the milk business, which was a hell of a lot more dangerous.”
He continued to build the family business, Barber Dairies, into one of the largest in the South while also nurturing real estate enterprises. As you might expect, life and business lessons learned in his 20s have been valuable and profitable. An example:
“I bought a 246 Little Dino Ferrari,” he says. “Beautiful. Well, one day I went to see Joe Bruno of the Bruno grocery store chain and a huge customer of ours. I pulled up and parked right in the front of his office window. We chatted awhile and he finally looks up and says, ‘George, you’re not going to be able to sell a lot of milk out of that car.’ Meaning, how am I going to try to cut a deal with this guy and whine about how expensive labor is, and this and that, when I drive up in a Ferrari? So that went in the garage and the next day I came out in a four-door Chevrolet.
“That was constructive criticism and darn smart, too. The Ferrari has 4,000 miles on it, has never been driven in the rain and is sitting in the museum.”
Ah, the museum. The gleaming, airy building is a motorcycle enthusiast’s Mecca (more than 200 manufacturers from 20 countries) that also pays homage to classic racing cars (the largest collection of Lotus cars anywhere). But it wasn’t necessarily an agenda item.
“Through that whole period, when I was taking care of business, I still had this passion for racing in my system,” Barber says. “I love racing. But I was just too busy with my business to do anything. I had a truck rebuild facility and we re-manufactured all our milk and ice cream trucks. We got to the point where we had brand new 1955 trucks but we couldn’t find parts for them, so I began to wind that facility down and in doing so I ran a car through. Well, that didn’t work very well because these were truck guys with big hammers and big screwdrivers and they didn’t really understand perfect. They understood truck rebuild perfect but not restoration car perfect.
“The restoration shop supervisor, Dave Hooper, was a motorcycle guy and he said ‘Let me do a motorcycle or two.’ He did, I bought a few and he gave me a few and we restored a few.”
That was 1989. Over the years, one motorcycle led to another and another until he had more than 800 (the oldest a 1901 Steffey). In 1994, Barber established a 501c3 not-for-profit foundation to maintain the collection, and on March 14, 1995, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum opened at the old dairy truck warehouse on the south side of Birmingham.
The present facility opened in 2003, with the collection currently containing more than 1,200 motorcycles (about 600 displayed at any one time), along with classic cars all in running condition. The racetrack (you have to have somewhere to drive them) opened in January 2003 and the first race followed in May.
“I did my own work on my cars when I was racing and really enjoyed it,” Barber says. “I started to look at the motorcycles and see how they were put together. I looked at the brakes and the chassis and things like that. The engines, too. I liked that you can really follow the engineering on a motorcycle.
“So I got a few more and got up to a 100 bikes and I thought with a little luck I could put together the best motorcycle collection in the world. People tell me I’ve done that. I’ve had a lot of fun doing it and I’ve helped my city and state. The most important reason is to bring people to Birmingham and Alabama that never would come under any other circumstances and to give back a little, too.”
Up next: Increased safety on the roadways
The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum has partnerships with local and national charities, including the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Birmingham Ride for Kids program sponsored by Honda manufacturing of Alabama, Camp Smile-a-Mile’s Camp SAM Motorcycle Ride, and with the Boy Scouts of America Birmingham council.
Next on Barber’s agenda – aside from building a motocross complex on the west end of the property -- is an on-site classroom and training facility for teen drivers. Alabama has the fourth-highest incidence of teenage traffic deaths in the nation (2008 Reader’s Digest study).
“That’s sad and I have to do something about that, and I started talking with the State Highway Patrol, AAA and instructors from the Porsche school here,” Barber says. “I want to put a school (in a current paved parking area overlooking the paddock) and teach these kids how to drive. We have the venue. It’s better than going down to the Piggy Wiggly parking lot and taking lessons. We’re in a position to do something and we darn ought to do it.
“When you’ve been fortunate, as I have been in my life, I think you have an obligation to give some back.” IndyCar.com