A Day At The Museum
Since the IZOD IndyCar Series held a session of spring training at Barber Motorsports in 2009, I have been going to the scenic track on an annual basis. Until a few hours before last Sunday’s race however, I had never been to what everyone described as a major attraction on the grounds – the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.
Every May, I make it a point to go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. It is a bargain at $5.00 to go gawk at the legendary cars – many of which, I saw race at the historic oval in the years I attended since my first race in 1965. Although they rotate the inventory periodically, I pretty much see the same iconic cars every year – the Marmon Wasp, Ol’ Calhoun, the Boyle Maserati, any of AJ Foyts four winners, the 1968 Rislone Special of Bobby Unser and Mark Donohue’s 1972 Sunoco McLaren, to name just a few. Susan is not big on museums, but she puts up with this annual ritual of mine.
At Barber this past weekend, a friend of mine really wanted to go to the museum. I did as well, but there never seemed to be a convenient time to go. By Saturday night, I had resigned myself to postponing a visit to the museum for another year. At about 10:30 on Sunday morning, my friend texted me as I was writing a post while in the media center. He wanted to go, and I figured it was now or never.
At $15.00 apiece, Susan decided she would sit this one out. If you’re not into museums, that’s a fairly hefty fee.
Before Barber Motorsport Park was completed in 2003, Birmingham native George Barber began collecting vintage motorcycles. He opened up the first Barber Museum in Birmingham in 1994, then moved the entire collection to the permanent location on site next to the track when the track was completed.
I am not really into motorcycles at all. As much as I like speed, I like my speed on four wheels. Through childhood, adolescence and adulthood, I never once had any desire whatsoever to own or even ride a motorcycle. So why would I go to a museum that was billed as the world’s largest collection of vintage motorcycles? Well, because everyone I spoke to last weekend said I should. Besides, I was told that there were many vintage race cars as well – including the largest collection of Lotus racing cars in the world. That got my attention.
So, off we went. I was lucky that my friend had a golf cart and he drove straight to the media center to pick me up. I was surprised that there were plenty of parking places near the front door. We walked in, paid our fee and immediately got on a glass elevator that took us to the top floor. As we got off the elevator, the openness of the museum was startling – and refreshing.
The top floor was nothing but motorcycles. I thought to myself “Uh-oh. I’ve just wasted fifteen dollars”. I’m sure I bypassed some iconic artifacts in the world of motorcycles, but I instead made a bee-line to the large glass windows that faced the track. From there I had a very unique perspective of the IndyCar morning warm-up session. Quite frankly, I was more interested in the camera shots I could get from high atop the museum than I was the vintage motorcycles surrounding me.
I was immediately impressed however, with the layout of the expansive museum. The glass elevator whisks visitors to the top floor, and they are to follow the walkways that have you spiral back down to the bottom floor. Given the small size of the motorcycles, they were able to stack many levels of bikes at a time. You can’t really do that with cars.
As I followed the flowing spiral and visited every level, I did see many fast looking motorcycles from today as well as several vintage looking bikes from yesteryear. Some of the motorcycles there date back to 1902. There were also some very unique designs on diplay. But me not being into motorcycles, it was probably casting pearls before swine – with me being the swine. Many of the spectators there seemed to be as entranced as I’m sure I look when I’m staring at the Fuel Injection Special of Bill Vukovich in the IMS Museum, but I had no real idea what I was looking at.
About halfway through the spirals, was when I saw the first collection of cars. Now I was in my element. And believe me, it was an impressive collection. There were Formula One cars from the seventies and eighties – driven by such names as Nelson Picquet, Nigel Mansell and Mario Andretti. There were also many from the eighties and nineties driven by lesser known names.
The two cars that caught my eye more than any others were two Lotus cars that had been driven at Indianapolis. One was Dan Gurney’s 1963 Lotus 29. This was one of two cars representing the first appearance for Lotus at IMS. Jim Clark drove the other Colin Chapman design that year. Gurney finished seventh in this car, while Clark finished second in his.
The other car that really drew my interest was a team car to the 1969 Lotus 64 that was destroyed in practice by Mario Andretti. A wheel hub had failed due to overheating caused by a design flaw. The other cars were withdrawn and a Lotus car never appeared at the Speedway again. Mario’s team dragged out an old Brawner-Hawk. Andretti qualified in the middle of the front-row and went on to win the race. This is one of the remaining cars. It was restored and mated with its proper Ford engine and raced at Goodwood in 2008. I was lucky enough to see this car turn some laps at Barber in 2010.
One car I was disappointed to not see was the 1968 Lotus 56 turbine powered car. There were three on the grid at Indianapolis that year – two starting on the front row. Joe Leonard was the pole-sitter, while Graham Hill started from the middle of the front row. Art Pollard started in the middle of the fourth row. I know one has been on display for the last few seasons at IMS, but I was hoping one was in the Barber collection.
But there were many other interesting cars on hand not built by Lotus. One was the four-seat family IndyCar that was an old Gerhardt that was heavily modified and built for actor James Garner. There were midgets, sprints, land speed record cars and cars from almost every form of racing represented.
As I stated earlier, I am not into motorcycles at all. They don’t interest me in the least. But after touring this museum, I would highly recommend this facility even if you have only the slightest interest in any form of racing. Not only that, but I was very impressed with the unique layout. There are long-range plans for a new museum someday at IMS. They have certainly outgrown the current structure. I think if they need any type of inspiration on how to build a museum for the future, the folks at IMS would do well to consider the unique spiral layout of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. It’s worth imitating. It’s that good.