|That's me in the No. 11|
Many of our loyal AR1 readers are open wheel racing fans, and know that the IndyCars race at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, just outside Birmingham. But very few have visited this gem of American motorsports facilities, and even fewer have experienced the sweep and flow of its curves at racing speeds.
This past weekend, I had the unique opportunity to drive this pure driver’s track, in a pure driver’s racing vehicle; a 125cc Honda modified-class CRG shifter kart. 6 speeds of dynamite at your toe and fingertips. Certainly not a vehicle to be underestimated.
But let me start with the facility itself. This place is first-class all the way. From the second you make the turn onto the entrance road, it is obvious this place was created with no expense spared. Building a road course in the heart of NASCAR country, means you have to go the extra mile to impress people. They certainly achieved that goal.
Many roads into race tracks are dirt or gravel. Not Barber. The access road is nicer than most roads in the entire state of Alabama. You don’t see a speck of litter anywhere and the grass is perfectly manicured and fresh flowers and landscaping are everywhere. As you reach the end of the access road, the amazing Barber Motorsports Museum shines at you. This is something any motorsports fan simply must see. I will give you all a museum tour in another future article. But it is an amazing collection, and very unique in the fact that everything in museum is ready to run. You even see tags on some of the vehicles with the note “oil in chamber." And the shop has big glass windows so you can see them working on the cars and bikes.
The road around the track winds around and feels like you are in something Walt Disney built. You don’t see anything unpleasant in view. From garbage cans to grandstands, everything is covered and nicely presented and polished. There is some interesting art positioned in interesting places all around the track. Even on the track, you won’t see a tire wall. They are all covered in white vinyl. The attention to detail is amazing.
The Russell Kart Race presented by Russell Kart Specialties and sanctioned and run by the Big South Road Racing Series, is the first event held at Barber as a stand-alone kart race. The karts are among the fastest vehicles that race at Barber, and the racing is close and action packed.
AR1 teamed up with Russell Karting Specialties and Howard Rice’s Star Racing Kart Team and RPM Karts to take a run at the track and experience the kind of racing that this amazing facility has to offer. Howard Rice is a long time competitor in the Big South series and especially enjoys the opportunity to run the full length of America’s most legendary racetracks, and especially Barber. Howard provided AR1 with great equipment and a wealth of experience.
After coming in from the first couple of practice sessions on Friday, Howard said “Wow, now THAT, is a race track. What a ton of fun this place is." His suit entirely soaked with sweat from the blistering July Alabama heat.
After a few “That’s Racin" challenges, I was able to get on the track for one quick session before the Saturday race, and I can personally attest that this track is an amazing example of grand prix course design. Television and photos do not do justice to the elevation changes on this track.
Pulling out onto the track for the first time, the thing I noticed was the pit lane exit. It is a sweeping downhill that quickly ramps uphill into turn two. In a kart, being so low to the ground probably makes it even more so, but you feel like you would pick up speed even without a motor. The elevation changes on this track make it like a roller coaster you get to drive, but hopefully, without the upside-down part!
Pretty much every turn on the track has an elevation or camber element to it. There are no simple corners on this track, as I quickly found out, taking a very fast spin into turn 12 at over 120 mph. Even though the kart comes to a stop pretty quickly, you feel like it’s never going to stop. The corners flow into one another like movements of a symphony, and momentum is key to going fast here. It is easy to over-drive this track as well, and it rewards smooth technique.
Most race fans are familiar with the sprint kart races that take place on much tighter tracks usually much less than 1 mile and rarely reaching the ultimate top speed these karts can attain. This series runs the same tracks as the top racing series, and turn faster lap times than just about any car you could drive on track.
The Big South Road Racing Series is run by Robbie Harper out of Pell City Alabama, “just up the road a spell" from Talladega Super Speedway. They run road racing events for karts of numerous varieties. From Briggs powered lay down karts to the insane 250cc superkarts that can hit speeds over 150 mph. Some of the varieties of karts have the driver in a total lay-down position. Personally, I don’t know how they see and drive, and they are a lot of fun to watch as well.
The series runs their races a bit differently as well. They start with a pseudo-LeMans style start with the karts backed up against the pit wall at an angle. Then they drop the flag and everyone is off. Let’s say that this was not detailed to me.
|Hanging the tail out|
So there I am on the grid, and I needed to get the rest of my gear on and pull-start the kart. I get situated and notice that everyone is in a big rush and the flag man is standing there with the flag in the air. Everyone’s karts are already started and revving by the time I get mine ready to start, I am feeling as if something isn’t right. I get someone to give me a push and bump the kart, and in the rush I tap the gas just a bit. Well, with these hot tuned modified motors with carburetors that are twice as big as they should be, they flood and load up easily. Suffice to say I could not get the kart started and the race went on without me. It didn’t even want to start back at the trailer.
Let’s call that a lesson learned. Howard. said that it was a common mistake, especially in the excitement of a start and said he was willing to place a sizeable wager that I would not do that again! He was right. I didn’t do that again, but I did figure out some other mistakes to make!
Still, I realized that even if my kart had started, I would have been left wondering why everyone was going so fast on, what I thought, was the formation lap. So that was another lesson learned for Sunday. They start from the pit lane and race out of pit exit, which can get interesting when the pit lane exit is so narrow.
So on we went to Sunday, determined to have a better day. And it was, though not without its challenges. The kart stalled on the grid, and I had to restart it, and then a second time. But I got off the line with the pack and made my way down the track, in the chase.
With all of about a dozen laps under my belt going into Sunday’s 30 minute race, I realized that I would be learning something every lap. So I set my expectations fairly low, despite having won my share of kart races in the past in other (non-shifter) classes.
Glancing down at the dash, I could see I was clipping about a second off my lap time every lap. Then, in turn 5 I nailed it and pegged my braking point and was hard on the gas on the exit and could feel the kart load and lift the inside rear wheel and accelerate hard off the corner. Then, all of a sudden, it felt like someone jabbed a pocket knife into my right side. I continued at full pace, until the next hard left hander turn 17. I just couldn’t keep that up and slowed dramatically in those corners.
Still I had a couple of karts I was racing with and enjoyed the challenge of the race. But my rib pain only allowed me small shallow breaths, and I was entirely spent by the end of the race. I am sure this was partly due to the 98 degree temperatures and over 140 degrees on the track surface. I could hardly stand up to get out of the kart and I felt like I could not breath. It seemed entirely odd to think that a 30 minute race was so tough to finish, and I consider myself to be in decent physical shape.
Howard had run at the front of the field the day before, but suffered a punctured tire. The other karters in our part of the paddock also suffered some bad luck. The irony of it, was that I finished ahead of them all, reminding us of the famous racing saying “To finish first, first you must finish!" So I chalked it up to a good day and a great learning experience, and look forward to stepping up my performance the next time.
The group of people with the Big South series have to be some of the most accommodating and welcoming people I have ever been around in a racing paddock. Everyone was there to lend a hand and advice to help me get up to speed, and Howard worked like a dog overcoming mechanical challenges for the whole weekend, and showed me what was going on the entire time. He even answered the dumbest of questions with respectful patience. The sportsmanship on and off the track was impressive and refreshing.
It was an amazing experience to run this amazing track at speeds that the top racers in the professional ranks experience. It is an amazing track to experience and visit, and certainly puts a different perspective on watching and attending events here in the future. It truly is a point of pride for our sport.
Barber Motorsports Park has said they would like to hold this event annually, but have not yet decided. It certainly has my vote, and for those AR1 readers that are kart racers, we invite everyone to write or email Barber and encourage them to do so…and then show up to race with us next year!
AR1 also would like to thank Russell Karting Specialties for their help in arranging this experience. Be sure and click on their banner ad above this article and check them out. They are the household name in the karting business!
And of course, special thanks to Howard Rice and the Star Racing kart team for working so hard for us all weekend long. We look forward to doing this again soon and continuing to bring you an on-track perspective on the great race tracks of America.