Monday, May 24, 2010

Legends of Motorsports Weekend in Birmingham

While I was watching the IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park the network cut away to do an interview with Bobby Rahal. Expecting another filler piece, I half listened until I heard him mention a new historic race series that was going to debut there in Birmingham. I paid attention then.

Called Legends of Motorsports, the series begins this year with four dates - two of them here in the South. Richard Cunningham and I ordered our tickets for the May event.

We arrived at the track on the Friday of the event with rain coming down - at times in buckets - but the forecast was for clearing skies in the afternoon. We picked up our passes for the weekend and used our paddock parking credential to snag a prime spot near the tower building. The paddock was very busy with the teams using the rain delay to prepare the cars for shortened practice session in the afternoon.

The paddock area was a wonderland for anyone who followed road racing in the sixties and seve
nties. All the famous names were represented from powerhouses like Lotus and Lola to the numerous cottage industries that may have turned out a handful of cars before passing into oblivion. The sounds of engines being run up stirred the blood in a way that non-gearheads could not understand.

We met and chatted with the track and museum founder, George Barber, who spent more conversation time making sure we were happy with the facility and arrangements for the event. This attitud
e was evident in everyone we dealt with at track. There were smiles everywhere and people seemed to want to go out of their way to be hospitable.

The track began to dry off and several practice sessions began with the cars being driven in a very tentative manner. The session gave Richard and I an opportunity to move about the beautiful Barber site and take in the stunning beauty of it all. Since our 'first class' tickets didn't kick in until Saturday, we found a shady spot along the straight between turns 11 and 12 to watch the action. As the track dried further, the laps got more aggressive until we started to see some interesting action in front of us - especially in the 2-liter class.

We ended the day at the track and headed off to our lodging in Chelsea, courtesy of a good friend and co-worker. We found the seclusion of Pumpkin Swamp Road well secluded.

We arrived at the track early on Saturday and watched the teams come to life. They were all busy setting up cars for the days events - especially the open wheel teams who had the prime spot of the paddock. We enjoyed breakfast in the tower and watched the different classes qualify. The air conditioned comfort of the tower building on this hot, humid day was well worth the extra cost of the tickets.

We spent the day chatting with team mechanics and owners who could not have been more friendly and open to questions about the cars. The team pride was evident at every garage large or small. The atmosphere was certainly more relaxed than that of a real money-paying race. As the day (and the action) heated up we retired again to the tower to watch the racing on the track below. The Barber track is designed so that the four major straights are visible from the tower and the tiered paddock behind it.
The qualifying was slightly out of sync with the schedule due to the rain the day before, but it was still big fun.

While I wandered the paddock parking lot, I came across a British racing green Lotus Elan with Wisconsin plates and a media pass. I wondered out loud if it could possibly be Peter Egan, columnist for Cycle World and Road & Track magazines.

We ended the day with dinner and a return to the Pumpkin Swamp cabin.

Sunday was packing day. We gathered all our gear and loaded the SUV for the evening's return home and set out for the last day of our adventure at Barbers. We arrived early enough to grab another great parking spot and made our way around the paddock. We once again found the teams working furiously to prepare cars for the races scheduled for the day - it was for all the marbles, today. We managed to snap some more great shots and headed back to the tower for breakfast.

Sunday was celebrity day at Barbers. While we had breakfast in the tower, we saw or chatted with America's last Formula 1 World Champion Mario Andretti, racing legend Bobby Rahal, SPEED TV racing host Bob Varsha and, sure enough, writer Peter Egan. Richard and I went into full geek mode and got our photos made with Andretti and Rahal.

The racing action got underway and it was very obvious that the Legends of Motorsports group expected more cars to participate. Some of the classes consisted of only five cars with a number of classes a mix of various performance potentials which made for very little true racing. Some races were slightly more than a handful of cars touring at high speed. The exceptions were the Historic Grand Prix and 2-liter
classes. They put on a pretty good show.

The last race was the USRRC event that started with five cars and ended with only two. It underscored the Legends of Motorsports event in that it was not a disappointment, but certainly didn't come
across quite as promised. I truly wish the Legends group all the best in the future. It is not an easy task to launch a new historic racing series and I expect that they will have a few more bumps in the road before they find their place in the racing world.

I wish them all success and I hope to attend again next year. In the meantime, check this Birmingham News article.

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