The Jet Set
Hurley Haywood has been racing automobiles, namely Porsches, for more than 30 years. Having won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times and the 24 Hours of Daytona five times, Haywood is revered as one of the greatest endurance racing champions ever. “Because I’ve won Le Mans so many times, when I walk down the street [in Europe], people come up and ask me for my autograph,” says Haywood. “Whereas in the States, nobody knows me unless I’m in a racetrack environment.” The racing champion’s cool, professional demeanor doesn’t mask his excitement as he preps his Brumos Porsche Daytona Prototype for the Rolex 250 Grand American race on Sunday, May 18, the first public event at the new Barber Motorsports Park racetrack.
“It’s a fantastic facility,” gushes Haywood, who also serves as chief instructor at the track’s Porsche Driving Experience, a driving school that leases the track several days each week (after moving from the world-renowned Sebring and Road Atlanta racetracks). “We haven’t had a brand new [road racing] facility built in the United States in probably 20 years. And when I first laid my eyes on that racetrack I knew it was going to be a special place. . . . Technically, it is one of the most difficult racetracks I’ve ever been on anywhere in the world.” The 2.3-mile road course has been compared to Europe’s finest road tracks, and it has sports-car aficionados salivating.
Haywood won his first 24 Hours of Daytona race in 1973, when he teamed with Brumos Porsche racing team founder Peter Gregg. “Peter Perfect,” Haywood recalls with a laugh. “He was a real detail-oriented person. Every single bit was planned and practiced. Nothing was left to chance. He was better prepared than everybody else . . . he set the standard.” Gregg purchased Brumos Motors in 1965 and built it into the top Porsche dealership in the nation. An eye injury later eroded his driving skills and he took his own life in 1980. Before Haywood, the legendary Gregg briefly teamed up with another co-driver, a Birmingham dairy and real estate tycoon named George Barber who is, by all accounts, as much a perfectionist as Peter Gregg was. Barber co-drove a Porsche 904 with Gregg at the 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Daytona races in the late 1960s. The number 59 white Brumos Porsche is as familiar to road-racing fans as the late Dale Earnhardt’s black number 3 Chevrolet is to NASCAR devotees. Barber later met Haywood when he purchased a couple of motorcycles from the Le Mans racing legend. Barber is also the high-rolling businessman who shelled out $54 million to build the Barber Motorsports Park.
Chauffeuring a reporter around his new facility as the driving school’s silver Porsche 911 sports cars zip around the track, George Barber laughs at how he has been portrayed in the press. “For so long, I was a magnate, a mogul, a king, a baron . . . now I’m a magnate again.” Barber invited AMA Superbike champion Aaron Yates to test the track’s surface with his racing motorcycle. Yates told Barber that the track was better than 90 percent of the tracks he had driven on, and the racer pointed out a couple of minor flaws in the surface. Rather than repair the blemishes, Barber the perfectionist had the entire 2.3 miles repaved. After another test run, Yates pronounced it the best surface he had ever raced on.
In 1989, Barber began collecting and restoring classic sports cars. Motorcycles soon followed. “Cars are a beautiful paint job with hubcaps, but you can’t easily see the engine, the suspension,” he says, explaining his fascination with motorcycles. The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum has the largest collection of motorcycles in the world, showcasing over 850 motorcycles and race cars. It first opened in 1995 near the Lakeview district in downtown Birmingham, drawing 10,000 visitors yearly (despite being open only two days a week). The new four-story, 141,000-square-foot facility includes a 72-seat theater, a machine shop, and a restoration shop with observation areas. Any motorcycle in the museum can be run on the track with a couple of hours preparation time, and a bike can almost be built from scratch at the shop. Barber was the largest contributor of motorcycles to the Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in 1998. “The main purpose of the track is to feed the museum,” which Barber expects to draw 250,000 visitors annually.
The racetrack grounds reflect the reportedly $2 million spent on landscaping. Rhododendrons, azaleas, dogwoods, and magnolia trees share the grounds with giant spider and ant sculptures that are eerily reminiscent of creatures from a sci-fi film. One gargantuan insect clutches a mannequin in a racing uniform. Perhaps it’s Barber’s dig at environmentalists who protested runoff into Cahaba River tributaries during construction. Or maybe it’s just a little dark humor from a wealthy, idiosyncratic man who enthuses over his racetrack as if he was a kid with the world’s greatest slot car set. The natural amphitheater setting offers a Sunday afternoon picnic atmosphere for race patrons, who are encouraged to bring folding chairs and blankets. Barber frowns on notions of building a permanent grandstand. “I don’t want people confined to 18 inches of concrete.” The track layout was designed by preeminent racetrack designer Alan Wilson, who notes that the Barber facility has “a British garden party sort of atmosphere.”
But Porsche is the million-dollar name here (the Porsche Driving Experience school costs $1,600 per day). The German sports car has long been a badge of wealth and adventure for automobile enthusiasts. For example, one of Porsche’s latest models is a Carrera GT (Grand Touring) car that may be purchased off the showroom floor, ready-to-race, for $350,000—$400,000. According to Porsche officials, the sports car’s aim is to “bring the driver of the Carrera GT as close as possible to a full-blown racetrack experience on the road [zero-to-62 mph in 3.9 seconds, zero-to-124 mph in 9.9 seconds].” The Barber facility is where Porsche unveiled its Cayenne sport utility vehicle ($55,000 to $88,000, depending on whether one desires a turbo engine) and every Porsche dealer in the country has visited the park.
The Barber 250 race will be the feature event at the park the weekend of May 16 through 18. The Grand Am race includes the Daytona Prototype racers sharing the track with two classes of Grand Touring cars in the weekend’s feature event. The Prototypes are futuristic, closed-cockpit, tube-framed coupes that have engines built by Porsche, Ford, Toyota, and Chevrolet. The Grand Touring sports cars include BMWs, Ferraris, and Corvettes. The Barber Park Twin 250s in the Grand Am Cup series, featuring two Grand Sport and two Sport Touring classes, will also be staged. Other races in the weekend schedule include a FranAm event, a developmental league for drivers trying to make it to the Indy Racing League, and the CART champ car series. FranAm features Formula Renault open-wheel race cars that look similar to Indy cars.
The Saturday race feature at Barber will be of particular interest to NASCAR fans. It’s the Stock Car Championship Series (SCCS), a racing league “that combines the excitement of stock car racing with the driving challenge of world class road course venues,” according to SCCS officials. The goal is to bring new fans to road racing, and the SCCS has joined the Grand American circuit as a support race during the 2003 season in order to reach a larger audience. SCCS cars include the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Ford Taurus, and the Dodge Intrepid, the same late model racers found on small speedways across the country on any Saturday night.
Hurley Haywood admits that the success of NASCAR is a template of sorts for making Grand Am racing more popular. “Everybody wants to duplicate what NASCAR is doing as far as making the cars very equal, and making the drivers of those cars into stars and household names . . . I think curiosity is gonna bring people out to a new facility. If you go back over the last 50 years, the core group in sports car racing has remained pretty much the same. It’s not the kind of sport that really is able to grow. There’s sort of a base group that follows sports car racing and that remains pretty much the same number from year to year. Where we’re having a problem right now is that there’s so much other stuff out there that the core group has got other things to do. So we’re trying, with the new Grand Am set of rules, to bring this group back to us with good kind of racing and interesting cars to watch. And drivers who people recognize. Unfortunately—or fortunately—I’m one of the few recognizable names in sports car racing that’s still racing. And that comes from the days when Camel cigarettes were supporting our sport and spending tons of money on the advertising side, and they really made me a star.”
Haywood predicts that despite slower speeds, the racing at Barber will be more exciting than at other road tracks. “The actual overall speed of the racetrack, what we do in a straight line, is a little slower than most tracks. Most tracks have longer straightaways. But this has basically four straightaways that you get up to a pretty good clip on, and I would imagine that the cars that we’re gonna be driving in May will go maybe 140 miles an hour tops . . . but that bunches the cars up [for close racing]. It’s an extremely busy racetrack. And I have not been on many racetracks that require the kind of absolute total concentration that this place does. If you have a little lapse of concentration, you’re off in the bushes. That’s how precise you have to be. With a lot of other tracks that have long straightaways, you get a little bit of time to rest and relax, but not so with Birmingham. You’re working your ass off every moment.” &
Several races are scheduled at the Barber Motorsports Park for the weekend of May 16 through 18. Call 967-4745 for details or visit www.barbermotorsports.com.