By Fergus Ogilvy, October 13, 2014
The interesting thing about racing car people is that thousands of us hold an enduring affection for motorcycles and many, particularly our more mature gents, cherish the machines of yesteryear.
And why not, for vintage racing extravaganzas are a marvelous concept—a prospect where no narrative is necessary: we already have vaults of fond memories stored from our youth and as we grow older we relish the opportunities to relive the moments—but for some, these moments can take a rather bizarre course.
Perhaps three decades ago a young motorcycle sidecar racing team, man and wife, entered the Isle of Man TT, which was televised. At first we didn’t know what to make of them. The prospect of a passenger endowed with shapely slender buttocks clad in black leather and maneuvering with remarkable adeptness was far from conventional. Fascinated, we found we didn’t really care who won the race but instead keenly awaited the next televised event where momentarily we would lose the gift of speech! For such ancient stalwarts, Barber’s annual Vintage Festival is a highlight of our year.
For the 2014 event, their 10th anniversary and presented by the Triumph dealers of North America, Barber Motorsports Park was expecting crowds of around 50,000 and though mixed weather conditions were forecast, nothing seemed to dampen the enthusiasm or attendance. In the end the sun shone as tens of thousands arrived at the parkland from virtually every state in the nation.
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Readied for racing about a decade ago and costing a rumored $60 million at the time, Barber’s venue is set in the rolling hills of Leeds, an area located a few miles east of Birmingham, Alabama. In this park-like setting in a region already noted for its rural beauty, Barber included an important feature at the facility—a museum that holds the world’s largest collection of motorcycles. In fact, the building is now so full planning is underway to extend its southwest end.
For this year’s Festival, seminars held in the museum theatre and in the restoration area on the ground floor proved popular. The topics varied from demonstrating the practices of gas welding, bronze welding, brazing and sheet metal work to grasping a better understanding of motorcycle performance, particularly the tuning of Amal carburetors.
At the base of the museum, former motorcycle racer Chuck Huneycutt runs the restoration shop. For years, Huneycutt, a charming man, campaigned a Matchless G50 with distinction for George Barber and when he retired he assumed the role of chief restorer. In the shop he’s currently restoring 17 Yamaha TD1s and discusses their progress with Aki Goto.
Now retired, Goto, who led Suzuki’s US racing efforts, often assisted Barry Sheene in his American endeavors. Sheene, the 1976-’77 500cc world champion was a notorious chain smoker and often craved a cigarette on the grid before a race started, so Goto drilled a hole in his helmet allowing the Suzuki works rider to smoke until the last moment.
Goto was present when Sheene crashed at 175mph, a victim of tire failure on the banking, during testing for the 1975 Daytona 200. Laying motionless on the track Goto feared the worst: “I thought he was dead and I was reluctant to go to him at first. But I did and as I kneeled to stub my cigarette on the track I slowly looked at him. Though he lay still and silent when I peered through his visor I was amazed to see him smiling!”
Sheene’s spectacular crash threatened his racing career, breaking his left thigh, right arm, collarbone and two ribs, yet he recovered and was racing again seven weeks later. Ironically it was the hole in the helmet that did him in—the cigarettes killed him at age 52. His sister Maggie said, “The irony is, had he not been so bull-headed he could have been saved.”
Outside the museum entrance is a perimeter road that runs around the race track like a belt. On it runs large aluminum passenger transport trams with low platforms and rows of benches drawn by pick-up trucks. Free of charge, visitors avoid fatigue by hopping on and off the trams at designated stations near parking lots, viewing areas, concession stands and the paddock.
Scattered in the parkland, none too far from the perimeter road were dozens of exhibits: around 30 rare Vincent motorcycles; swap meets; vendors selling vintage motorcycle parts and accessories—over 275 presenting their wares this year—and, of course, the Wall-of-Death. Camping sites and RV parking are discretely hidden by groves of trees.
Over in the auction room crowds of bidders jostle as the auctioneer moves his mobile high chair from one machine to the next. Occasionally he expresses moments of ill temper when not reaching his target, but whether real or imagined his good nature returns instantly and the matter forgotten as he moves to the next machine on the docket.
In conclusion, this annual festival presents us with an opportunity to renew friendships, talk motorcycles, and indulge in lore and legends. Bringing together such diverse machines, ranging in age from one year to over 100 years, it’s an event of memorable proportions—just as it should be.