Let’s Give Barber A Chance
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.