The Pits – Part Three

Having finished my walk through the first row of the Paddock at the Barber Vintage Festival, I turned down the hill and into the middle of the three streets inside the pit area.

Being a Vintage Motorcycle Festival, I guess the appearance of a nearly completely vintage motorcycle race team should have been completely unsurprising.

DSCN2640

I mean, I guess if you’re going to campaign two vintage mid 1960s Honda racebikes, I guess you’re pretty much required to have the matching vintage lawnchair and mid 1960s Econoline transporter van.

The only thing missing is a vintage motorcyclist.

I’m available, if these guys are looking to complete their set.

***

Right across the way was a team that seemed to have a thing for Laverdas. They had this lovely Formula 500 Cup race bike.

DSCN2642

And if orange is your thing, why stop at one?

DSCN2641

***

Just down the row, was a team campaigning two of the most beautiful Norton racers I’ve ever seen.

They had this beautiful postwar Norton International.

DSCN2643

DSCN2645

Not being a Norton expert all I have to go on is the Telescopic Fork — the 30’s vintage bikes still had girder front ends. The International, with its shaft driven single overhead cam motor, became the basis for the Manx, a machine purpose-built to dominate the TT at the Isle of Man.

With its uprated double overhead cam 500 cc single, and it twin loop Featherbed frame replacing the International’s single downtube unit, the Manx became one of the more successful racing motorcycles of all time. The Featherbed frame was light, short, and rigid, at least by the standards of its day, and its performance in the 1950 TT, where Maxes swept the first six positions, confirmed the correctness of its design execution. The Manx would remain largely unchanged until the end of production in 1963.

This example is breathtaking. It is classic racebike porn — impossible to stop staring at. It has everything a racebike needs and nothing that it does not.

DSCN2647

DSCN2648

***

My rambles through the pits were interrupted by events taking place on the racecourse. At around lunchtime, The Lap of The Century was scheduled to occur, which features bikes that must be at least 100 years old. I headed towards the race control tower, which has balconies which offer a commanding view of the track.

As I headed for the stairway, these early Harley Davidsons — looks like one 1909 and one 1911 — were picking up some fuel in preparation for their lap.

DSCN2661

I must tell the truth. The Lap of the Century is somewhat less than thrilling.

For motorcycles that, in their prime, were good for a downhill tailwind enabled 65 miles per hour, a complete lap at an average of 45 per is running them at a pretty good clip.

But after watching racing laps that maxed out at around a buck fifty, the old fellers putting around can find you looking at your watch as you’re waiting for the pack to come back into view out of the treeline at the other end of the track. And maybe making a phonecall. And playing a hand of bridge.

Kidding aside, the thrill here is that these motorcycles are alive and running at all.

And the sweet syncopated thumps of all of these VTwins echoing off the forest at the edge of the park, combined with the sight of their muted paintjobs — browns and greys and bungundies — coming through the mist that still hadn’t completely cleared off — made it almost possible to believe you were somehow inexplicably peering back in time.

Reinforcing the illusion was the battle — or lack of it — out on the racecourse. I’ve seen this combustion fueled drama before. Just as at was in 1912, by the end of the run down the main straight, there were Hendersons and Indians battling up front, and Harley Davidsons following them doggedly home.

***

I also have to come clean, that while I wanted to see those century bikes run, it wasn’t the most important reason I’d found my way to the baconies of the Race Control Tower.

After the old ones were flagged in — one old Indian oil smoking impressively from every engine surface — the next scheduled event was ‘The Britten Reunion’.

As the bikes were started, warmed and made ready, my buddies from breakfast appeared against the pit wall.

DSCN2659

Then seven of the ten Britten V1000s even made took to the circuit to put on a little show.

The one thing that sticks out in my head is the sound. The sound of the Britten Vtwin is a flat, fast revving metallic Braaaaap — sounding vaguely like God’s Own Chainsaw.

I wish I understood the engineering enough to know why newer tech engines sound this way — Sweet Doris’ beloved and now gone Nissan 350Z partook of the same metallic sonic palette — but no motorcycle I’ve ever ridden or VTwin I’ve been near ever sounded like these Britten motorcycles sounded that day.

The various racers that piloted them took about 7 laps of fun — doing some good hearted dicing — snapping in and out of corners — and some bikey showing off. Although not being run in anger, the sight of one of them pulling a long, effortless fourth gear power wheelie coming down the main straight is one that’s likely to stick with me for quite some time.

The magic was too soon over as the Brittens were flagged off the track.

The track announcer did us all the favor of directing us to the Team Britten New Zealand tent, where all the motorcycles and the team would be gathered to meet with their fans.

He didn’t have to tell me twice.

***

The Britten pit was right to the left of the Control Tower, so I actually got there as the last several bikes rolled up and were placed on their stands.

DSCN2667

DSCN2666

I’ll spare people the endless spiel on the engineering on display on the bike — the Hossack front end, the underseat radiator, the carbon fiber, well, everything. The intent was so max out chassis rigidity, reduce mass to an absolute minimum, and centralize everything that was left. The radiator placement and narrowness of the machine minimized frontal area and drag.

DSCN2664

Watching them ridden one could directly observe the effortless, crisp handling that results — The Britten is the kind of motorcycle where if one can visualize your line, you’ve already ridden it.

I’ll admit I spent a lot of time just drinking the appearance of theses machines in. The more one looks the more one sees. I did what I could to make sure my mouth stayed mostly closed.

WP_20151010_12_08_23_Pro

If you owned one of these, people would have to have your meals brought to the garage.

***

Swag is just not my thing.

One of the joys of motorcycle travel is that in its most extreme form, you don’t have any room for swag, so temptation is futile.

I will admit that I have some simple grey jersey T-shirts with just the Barber’s logo on the chest, but nothing they sell is that elegant any more. The museum shop’s selection is awash in old iron and wind and complex graphics and is altogether too visually busy for my tastes.

No matter, I figured that Team Britten might have something worthy, so I ventured inside their pretty substantial tent.

Andrew Stroud — who had ridden Brittens for years — had been provided with a place of honor for his bike inside the tent. You can make of Andrew’s carbon fiber cane what you will. That’s racing.

WP_20151010_12_15_14_Pro

With Andrew’s bike was, well, Andrew. Along with this enthusiast fan, who, being at the racetrack was involved in the great fun of telling lies, which, judging from the gestures, were subject to getting continually larger the longer they were told.

WP_20151010_12_08_43_Pro

As I worked my way around to the front of the tent, the swag was on full display. Most of it was of minimal interest, but they did have some polo shirts which struck me as perfect. While appearing to be black, on closer inspection the weave was meant to resemble carbon fiber, and the shirt had a “Team Britten New Zealand” logo on the chest, and the Barber Museum’s Checkered Flag logo on the right sleeve.

Perfect.

So I got into line and readied my wallet for action.

When I got to the front of the line I my order was taken by a nice lady with an obvious New Zealand accent who, upon very brief reflection, turned out to be John Britten’s wife, Kirsteen, who then passed me off to another nice young lady to fill my order, who turned out to be Jess Britten, their youngest daughter.

I thought it was pretty cool to obtain my swag right from the source, in this way.

It’s also a pretty cool shirt.

WP_20151012_14_20_05_Pro

 

***

 

The previous section of The Barber Tales can be read here. The story continues here.

Advertisements

The Promised Land – Part 2

Is it possible that too much utter perfection can become boring?

I suppose it’s theoretically possible.

In my case, bliss was indeed fleeting.

After about an hour of watching boxers and Guzzis and TZs oh my, I though that it might be tad too cool and cloudy to be exactly perfect to watch racing. Since my compulsive weather watching showed warmer and sunnier times ahead, I figured that visiting the museum was as well done now as any other time I could think of.

So, I galumphed my way back down the hill, extricated my LT from it’s Grom and Scooter neighbors, and headed back around the perimeter road until I hit the entrance to the museum parking lot. A nice gentleman directing traffic waved me in, and I crossed in front of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. I loved the sculptures out in front of the building — just the largest examples of metal sculptures to be found in every wood and clearing of the entire Park.

DSCN2464

The Barber

DSCN2465

The Wheelie Dudes

Yeah, we had come a long way from the original Dairy.

roadtrip_0003

The Old Sign from back at The Dairy

Funny thing, was when I was rambling around another area of the racetrack, later, I looked up unexpectedly, and I’m pretty sure it was this AJS that I saw fastened to the top of fairly tall tree trunk.

Looks like everybody had made the trip, though.

***

After parking Darkside out in the furthest reaches of the museum parking lot — flatter ground and less likely to squish nearby Groms and Z50s — I saw yet another impromptu bike show happening in the circle right in front of the Barber’s front door. These were stock motorcycles in Concours shape, and even in a brief circuit there were clearly some beauties.

There was a beautiful small bore twin Honda Scrambler. It was tagged and looked as nice as the day it rolled off the line. My new rider son, Finn, would be beside himself with glee if we could find one like this for him to buy.

cl175

Sweet CL175

Next to that was a Harley-Davidson badged Aermacci Sprint.

Its hovering owner emerged smiling, as I sucked a little whistle at the sight of it.

DSCN2467

A Sweeter Sprint

“Maaaan, that’s pretty, ” I told him. “These things were really the best handling things ever made with Harley badges, even if it was kind of a fib.”

“Sweet, right? I bought this bike when I was in High School. Can you believe my girlfriend at the time left me for a guy with a bigger bike?”

“Dude, I’m thinking you ducked a bullet with that one. You’re likely much better off with this sweet bike than you would have been with any girlfriend with that kind of decision-making criteria.”

“Yeah, hadn’t thought of it that way before.”

Widespread chuckling ensued.

***

I’d been on a trip to get back to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum since 2002.

Finally, in October of 2015, after one more swipe of a credit card, I was standing inside the front door and drinking in the amazing vista that spreads out from there.

I’ve been to a fair share of motorcycle museums and car museums. Most of them try to create the impression that you’ve gone to that great garage in the sky.

The Barber, however, is different. Rather than cling to an ‘oily rag and rusty wrench’ aesthetic, The Barber takes a decidedly different tack.

Every visible inch of the Barber facility, whether inside the museum, out on the racecourse, in the many wooded and grassy areas scattered around the Motorsports Park, wants to treat motorcycles and the entire motorcycling experience as if it was a beautiful work of art.

Something as simple as the road into the facility — Barber Motorsports Parkway — which, with its wooded areas, hill and corners, wants to stand in the place of every beautiful winding county road that you’ve ever ridden — is an unmistakable statement about the beauty of motorcycles and the motorcycling experience.

Go just a few miles up the road to Talledega Superspeedway, and look at their entrance drive. At Talledega, the road into the track is arrow straight, ten lanes wide with white lane dotted lines and fluttering flags that line the edges. It’s a paene to just dropping the hammer and taking the pedal straight to the floor.

Talledega is an engineer’s solution.

The Barber is the artist’s.

And Motorsports Parkway is just the beginning. From the sculptures that adorn every area of the park, to the landscaping, the lighting, the architecture of the facility’s buildings and the curation of display areas and organization of the collection, the vision of the Barber Collection is a total reverence for the art of these elemental machines and the passion they inspire.

In a museum continuum that has the scorched and shattered fragments of one of the Wright Brother’s early failed engines at one end, and Michelangelo’s David on the other, The Barber Vintage motorsport collection’s subjects feel a great deal closer to the master’s marble than to the fractured alloy.

***

Right inside the door of the museum are a cluster of various Triumph motorcycles — a road racing Trident, a Trackmaster-framed dirttrack Bonneville, and a bone stock Trident. Like almost every bike in the Museum — with certain deliberate and notable exceptions — the Trident looks like the day it rolled off the line (maybe better), and like it had never turned a wheel on the street.

The Museum building has a central core with a very large elevator to take visitors and both cars and motorcycles to the various levels of the facility. The elevator shaft has storage racks that run up and down the full height of the shaft which contain many more motorcycles than will fit in the display areas. Do not for a second assume that the motorcycles in the storage racks are any less interesting than the ones which are on formal display.

DSCN2521

Going Up

DSCN2522

The First of Many Such Orange Motorcycles

DSCN2520

The Vetter Kawasaki Mystery Ship

Each side of the museum has a spiral ramp that allows pedestrians to walk between the five levels of the facility. Each of these ramps — like the Parkway — manage to suggest a winding country road without actually trying to represent one.

DSCN2477 DSCN2474

Despite the fact the Barber is primarily a motorcycle museum, my eye caught sight of some Lotus race cars off to the right on the entrance floor — there were F1 and Indianapolis open wheeled racers, and sports racing cars from the 50s that just drew that eye, and so the rest of me followed.

Mr. Barber apparently loves Lotus automobiles. Given Lotus’ engineering principles — weld up triangulated space frames and skin with hand-made aluminum bodies — an approach not far removed from motorcycles — I can see how one enthusiasm led to another.

His collection, were that all there was — and it by no means isn’t — is nothing short of spectacular. The Lotus Mark VIII — clearly the inspiration for Speed Racer’s Mach Five — except that the British have always preferred bare aluminum over paint, and that preference was at work here. The John Player Special F1 car — one of my favorite racing cars. The Camel-sponsored winner of the 1989 Indianapolis 500. Mario Andretti’s Ford V8 powered 1969 Indy Racer — built after USAC outlawed the Lotus Turbine car.

DSCN2493

The Lotus Mark VIII

DSCN2486

The JPS F1 Car

DSCN2485

An Indy Winner

DSCN2488

Mario!

DSCN2490

1969 Indy Car

Ok, I’ll cede that having car reverie in the midst of the world’s foremost motorcycle museum is a tad perverse. I’ve comfortable with that, though.

All that was swept aside as soon as I looked up, though.

DSCN2494

Oh yeah, that’s why we’re here.

For some reason, I felt another perverse urge. As always, I went with it. I took the elevator down to the museum’s basement.

There was more cool stuff down there, unsurprisingly. There were the maintenance and restoration shops. A collection of lovingly restored Johnson outboard motors dating back into the 1920s. One of Don Vesco’s Land Speed Record Bonneville Streamliners.

DSCN2589

Don’t You Wish This Was Your Basement?

DSCN2590

Vesco’s Yamaha

As I headed towards the rear of the building, I instantly realized what had been drawing me down there. There is a race maintenance shop that opens out onto the track. It’s a sweet facility, with proper tool drawer equipped workbenches, fantastic task lighting, and lots of metal signage of historic racing motorcycle marques.

But it wasn’t the shop, it was what was in it.

I had heard some talk in advance of my trip of a planned New Zealand invasion of Alabama. Those rumors were true. Set up on the workbenches and being readied for combat were six of the ten Britten Motorcycles even made. Thrown in just for flavor was a Britten engine powered Bonneville Land Speed Record Streamliner. The underside of the canopy had been signed by all of the Pilots who had aimed her down the Black Stripe.

DSCN2593

Britten Number One with George Barber’s Speedster

DSCN2598

Britten Streamliner Autographs

Six out of Ten in One Room

Six out of Ten in One Room

The story of John Britten, the New Zealand born engineer who decided that in a world filled with 70 years of winning Japanese, Italian, British and German road racing motorcycles, that he could do better, is well known. That after deciding this, he promptly went into the shed behind his house with a few mates and did, is one of those stories that is a proper testament to the strength and determination of the human spirit.

Add John’s story to that of Burt Monroe, and New Zealanders clearly can lay at  least some claim to being the perpetual World Champions of Motorcycling.

If you don’t know the story of John Britten and the motorcycles he created, you owe it to yourself to find out. The bikes were a clean sheet of paper design that took almost nothing from what came before. Carbon fiber monocoque construction, including the front suspension and wheels, that led to overall machine weight and power to weight ratios that were unheard of at the time of their construction. Shock absorbers that worked in extension — later adopted by Eric Buell. Extreme mass centralization to aide directional changes. John Britten’s motorcycles looked like nothing else, and went and sounded like nothing else, too.

That, in another one of nature’s little surprises, that John would be taken from us by an extremely aggressive form of cancer at age 45 before ever having the opportunity to build version 2.0, is one of the great tragedies of our enthusiasm.

The majority of his motorcycling children were here, and I spent more than a few minutes trying to drink it all in, the echos of that metallic bark of an exhaust note ringing inside my head.

 

***

 

Part Two of The Barber Tales can be read here. Part 4 of the story is here.