Let’s Give Barber A Chance

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With the announcement on Monday that Barber Motorsports Park has now been officially confirmed for the 2010 IndyCar schedule, I have read and heard a lot of mixed reaction regarding the selection of this new venue just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. I will qualify my statements by stating that other than seeing Formula One cars on-track on the road course at Indy, Barber Motorsports Park is the only road course I have ever been to. So my opinion is certainly not that of a veteran spectator of races at Road America, Watkins Glen or Mid-Ohio.

I attended the open test at Barber this past March 21 and was very impressed. The weather was absolutely perfect — clear blue skies and about seventy–two degrees with no wind. That is not typical weather for that time of year. The IRL got lucky because mid to late March can sometimes find the thermometer in the twenties. Holding the race on the weekend of April 10 should be safe in the south weather-wise, but you never know.

The setting is absolutely beautiful at Barber. It is a manicured park-like setting abounding with flowerbeds that give it more of a feel of a golf course than a racetrack. There are many elevation changes on the track and off in the distance there are many rolling hills. You get the idea that you are a million miles from nowhere, but unlike Nashville Superspeedway – you are just minutes away from downtown Birmingham which has a metropolitan area population of over a million and offers fine hotels and restaurants for teams, sponsors and fans alike.

No one is complaining about the location. It is the track itself that has a few fans grumbling. Fans are concerned that there will be very few passing opportunities at the track. When I was there in person, I’ll admit that the entire layout seemed more compact than road courses appeared on television. At 2.3 miles and 16 turns, it is significantly shorter than Road America (4.0 miles) and Watkins Glen (3.4 miles). But surprisingly, it is about the same as Mid-Ohio (2.4 miles) and Infineon (2.5 miles) and actually longer than Laguna Seca (2.2 miles) and Portland (1.9 miles).

After watching the Grand-Am race there a couple of weeks ago, it didn’t seem near as small on television. The track looked wider on-screen than in person and I did see a few passes taking place.

Now, I will never advocate a race that is decided in the pits rather than the track. I don’t think anyone will ever confuse Barber with Michigan’s two-mile oval for passing opportunities. But we’ve had several ovals this season that had histories of providing great races, yet they ended up being parades settled by pit stops. The race this past week in Edmonton offered a wide course with multiple passing opportunities, yet look what happened.

The drivers seem to like Barber. It is a difficult track to drive, with sweeping elevation changes in several of the turns. The drivers are calling it a driver’s track, whatever that means…but I think it’s a compliment.

Although I like the idea of a spring race in Alabama, I’m not crazy about where it falls in the established IRL schedule. The remaining schedule will not be released until this weekend, but the first part is likely to start the season on a street course in Brazil, then another street course in St. Petersburg followed by the road course at Barber. That will be followed by the street course at Long Beach. That will be four races to begin the season before they ever tackle an oval. The first shot at an oval may not come until Indianapolis since the status of Kansas returning seems questionable, at best. I would prefer at least one oval thrown in before Indy, but that’s just me.

Before everyone condemns this track before the IRL has even turned a wheel in real competition, lets give it a chance. I will fully admit that I am totally biased since I live within three hours of the track. Now that the IRL no longer comes to Nashville, I have been adamant that the league should race somewhere in the south (Florida doesn’t count). Before everyone starts crowing that there will be no passing opportunities, let’s see how it plays out. It’s a three-year deal. If the race turns out to be a real stinker every year, the market will dictate whether or not they should return.

An interesting twist is that the track will limit attendance to only thirty thousand each day. It isn’t often that you see those words in an IRL press release. Having been there on a day when they had twenty thousand for a test, I would think they could handle more. Supposedly the access road in and out of the park will not be able to adequately handle more than that. Whatever the case, it has made me make sure to get tickets soon after they go on sale in September. Maybe it’s just a marketing ploy that I just took the bait on, but it worked.

I have been less than kind about some of the decision making of the IRL, but I will give the league credit for this. They have taken a chance and chosen a venue not owned by ISC or SMI, which is hard to find these days. It is a new facility that opened in 2003 that looks upon hosting the IRL as an opportunity rather than a burden. The quality of racing remains to be seen, but let’s give it a chance. After all, just remember which race that Barber Motorsports Park is ultimately replacing — Belle Isle in Detroit.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Let’s Give Barber A Chance”

  1. The problem with barber is that it proves they are thinking short term rather than long term. They are going there for only one reason… Guaranteed fans. That is good in the short run, but terrible in the long run if the racing is bad. The upside is fixe at 30k fans per day. The downside is alienating them when they are bored or the series leaves town, not to mention losing other valuable fans who tire of watching parades on tv.

    You mention Edmonton wasn’t condusive to passing despite being wide. Well Edmonton is another track that shouldn’t be on the schedule, at least not in the current configuration. A wide track does nothing if there aren’t hard braking zones and technical low speed turns to bring he cars close enough together to actually use the extra width.

    The decision to run at barber screams ‘we are desperate and have no where else to run!’. This desperation will only encourage ISC and others to either push the league out or to drive a much harder bargain in future negotiations.

    If nobody expects any passing already, how many casual race fans are going to plan their Sunday around watching the event? Pretty flower beds won’t make anyone tune in.

    • Don’t forget the lawn sculptures… The friction between the series and SMI and ISC/France is a cryin’ shame. You’re right in that the hostility and rivalry between ISC and IndyCar is one of the reasons for IndyCar to look elsewhere for venues, such as Barber M.P. and Andretti-promoted streets and Lanigan-promoted streets…
      I like downtown street racing and I love natural-terrain road course racing in Champ Car, IndyCar, ALMS, Grand-Am, SCCA Trans-Am – and on television, AMA Superbike, F1, FIA GT, LeMans series, WTCC, DTM, F2, F3000, A1GP, etcetera.
      I’ve watched, in-person and on TV, Grand-Am cars bang fenders at Barber Motrorsports Park. So I’ll be optimistic and hope that IndyCar drivers will pass, with or without track widening. I don’t have any affinity for Birmingham, but I will drive to Barber again from Panama City. I’ll also drive to Saint Petersburg and Road Atlanta and Daytona…

  2. John McLallen Says:

    Barber will be terrific and has every chance of becoming a part of the ICS long term schedule as any other track. This is an excellent facility with a ownership that will make improvements for IndyCar . It also has the city of Birmingham lit up like a pinball machine. The area is excited about it and will get squarely behind it. This race has all of the earmarkings of a win-win for all concerned and I look forward to being there.

  3. Where did you come up with 4 miles for Road Atlanta? It’s 2.5 miles with 12 turns. Barber provides ample opportunities for passing with 4 straights and 16 turns as long as you’re faster and aren’t getting blocked and know how to take a trun better than your competitor. You guys sound like armchair quarterbacks. Have you ever tried to rent Barber? Good luck. It’s sold out just about every usable day of the year. Porsche Sport Driving School, PCA, SCCA, Chin, PBOC, vintage series, Grand-Am DP, GT, GS & ST, etc. Lots of bike activity too, Kevin Schwantz school, AMA, WERA and more. So it’s obviously a track that has demand. I’ve spoken to European drivers and drivers in just about every series that has Barber on it’s schedule. Many drivers like it and consider it a challenge. The facility is top class. Forget about the lawns, flower beds, shrubs, water and sculpture beatifully spread over the rolling hills. Consider the public restrooms. I’ve been to tracks coast to coast. I’ve taken my wife, children and grandchild. I’m sure you know the nasty and difficulties that’s presented. Not at Barber. Track people and racers are a fine group of people, quality folks. And I enjoy associating with them very much. But add the hospitality of Barber staff, volunteers, corners workers and spectators from Alabama and surrounding areas and you’ve got it made. I could care less why IRL made the decision to put Barber on their schedule. I’m just glad they did. People from all over the world come to enjoy the experience that is Barber. I hope you do, too.

  4. It’ll be most interesting to see how Birmingham as a city supports the race. My bet is they will go all out. In all the years the IRL ran here in Nashville I saw very little city and community support other than the fans in the stands. If you didn’t know the race was in town you wouldn’t know it by looking around town. Even the evening news casts barely mentioned the race. As much as I want Indy cars in my hometown the indifference this NASCAR market showed them probably made it an easy decision when faced with the question of leaving.

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