The rolling Appalachian foothills east of Birmingham might be the last place you'd expect to find a Grand Prix race course, much less a world-class museum. But local dairy magnate George Barber has a passion and a vision.
His passion is motorsports and his vision was realized in part in 2003 with the opening of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The facility is located on 740 acres that is also home to major racing events at the Barber Motorsports Park. The facility is host to the Honda Indy Grand Prix, the Grand-Am/Porsche 250 and the Triumph Superbike Classic as well as home to one of the largest collections of vintage motorcycles in the Northern Hemisphere.
On a recent trip to see a race at the track -- a birthday gift from my father -- I made my first visit to the museum. The woman who sold us our tickets at the front desk suggested that we start the tour by taking the elevator to the basement, a restoration area normally closed to the public but open on this particular race day. We headed straight to an elevator large enough to hold the family car and inside encountered a friendly, unassuming gray-haired gentleman, wearing a uniform similar to the woman who sold us our tickets. I figured he was an employee or volunteer manning the enormous elevator.
After he greeted us, my father said to him, "You look familiar. Have we met before?"
"I'm George Barber," the elevator man said, extending his hand. Turns out he and our host had met before, years ago at a social gathering in Birmingham.
Barber has been known to hang around his museum in this humble fashion, as if he were just another patron. Stories are told about how he's taken visitors on rides around the 2.38-mile road course and never identified himself beyond his first name.
When asked what inspired him to build the museum and race course, Barber said, "A number of things, really. But the main reason was to bring more people to Birmingham."
Mission accomplished. The Barber Motorsports complex has become one of the Birmingham area's major tourist attractions. Visitors come to tour the museum, take in a race at what has been called "the Augusta of racetracks" and experience the track firsthand as part of the the Porsche Sport Driving School. Even those who aren't racing enthusiasts, myself among them, are impressed by the place, with its finely curated museum and eye-catching grounds adorned by an array of imaginative statues and sculptures.
If you go for a race, don't expect to sit in typical grandstands. None exist. A few big bleachers are located at different points along the circuit, but most spectators sit on grassy hillsides or in shady tree groves overlooking the track.
On non-racing days, the museum itself is worth a visit. The five-story structure overlooking the course contains all manner of vintage vehicles, from the earliest motor bikes made with wood frames, to shiny sports cars that look more like space ships. An exhibit on the short-lived early 20th century sport of board track racing is particularly fascinating.
Motorcycles make up most of the museum's collection, filling out the galleries and stacked atop one another on display racks in the atrium. There's also a large collection of Lotus race cars and if you don't know what a Lotus is, think of Speed Racer in his car and you get the picture. The next racing event at Barber Motorsports Park is the Triumph Superbike Classic, a series of motorcycle races the weekend of June 22.
I-20 between Atlanta and Birmingham also leads to another racing Mecca, the Talladega Superspeedway. This famed track has been home to two major annual NASCAR races since 1969. This season, the Aaron's 499 takes place on May 6 and the Good Sam Club 500 is run on October 7.
Racing history has been made on the Talladega track and it's all commemorated next door at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum. The museum, opened in 1983, focuses mostly on stock car racing, especially NASCAR, offering a nice contrast to the motorcycles and sports cars of the Barber museum further west.
Here you'll find Richard Petty's famous STP Dodge Charger and the father/son tandem of Bobby Allison's Buick and Davey Allison's Ford, along with many other vehicles, including rocket cars and speed boats. During non-race weeks, a guided tour of the superspeedway is available with a museum tour for a few extra dollars.
If you go
From downtown Atlanta, it's a 90-minute drive to Talladega Superspeedway and a little over two hours to Barber Motorsports Park. Both are located just off of I-20. Take Exit 173 for the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Talladega Superspeedway. Take Exit 140 for the Barber Motorsports Park and Vintage Museum.
A number of chain hotels are located along this stretch of I-20. Hampton Inn offers the most convenient accommodations to Barber Motorsports Park, with a location near the parkway entrance. Many campgrounds and RV parks are located at or near the Talladega Superspeedway. For assistance booking hotel rooms for busy race weekends at Talladega, visit the website www.degarooms.com.
Local and national chain restaurants abound at the interstate exits. For finer dining, you'll have to venture into Birmingham. Highlands Bar & Grill and Bottega Restaurant & Cafe are two stalwarts of Birmingham's dining scene. Niki's West is a beloved old-school restaurant serving steak, seafood and veggies. For a meat-'n-three experience, head to the Irondale Cafe, the inspiration for local author Fannie Flagg's novel "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe."
Barber Motorsports Park: www.barbermotorsports.com
Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum: www.barbermuseum.org
International Motorsports Hall of Fame: www.motorsportshalloffame.com
Talladega Superspeedway: www.talladegasuperspeedway.com