This was my third visit to Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and I must admit, the place continues to pleasantly surprise me.
The pleasantness began on Thursday, when we had a half-dozen drivers – Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Sarah Fisher, Tony Kanaan and Alex Tagliani – make a visit to Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, about 30 miles up I-20 from the circuit. The turnout for the event was excellent - higher than I expected to be honest - and the enthusiasm of the plant associates really helped to jump-start the weekend.
The fun continued after the plant visit. I knew the Talladega NASCAR track was nearby, but I didn’t realize just how close it was – less than 10 minutes from HMA. Somehow, Tagliani wrangled his way into a track visit, which then turned into a tour, which then morphed into a pace-car ride, which finally evolved into some entertaining/terrifying (“entertaining” for Tags as he blasted around the place at WOT, “terrifying” for his wife, Bronte, and others in the car) laps of the 2.65-mile superspeedway.
Here’s the report he filed on his Facebook page (“Autonet Tag”):
“What a great visit at the Honda plant here outside of Birmingham, Alabama. A great group of people, very welcoming and the tour of the manufacturing plant was unbelievable!
“All I can say is "Shake and Bake baby!" While at the Honda plant, the president of the factory and his associates casually called over to their good buddy - the president of the Talledaga track just a few miles away... and yep! you guessed it, I got to do laps out on the super speedway. What a great way to top off an awesome day! Thanks everyone at Honda.”
Tags is now known as “Ricky Bobby”, and I hear his FAZZT team is making up driver decals for this weekend in Long Beach…
More pleasant surprises from the Barber race weekend:
· As I’ve mentioned in my previous blogs, the facility itself is marvelous, with landscaping and attention to detail that reminds one of Twin Ring Motegi and a fascinating, challenging layout that is both faster and hillier than television can possible depict. You really have to see IndyCars attack the back straight “S” in anger to truly appreciate the speed and commitment of these guys.
· Friday evening, KV Racing held a reception for team sponsors and guests at the Barber museum, which houses the world's largest collection of Lotus race cars and Ducati racing motorcycles. The museum is a must-see, and can even be a destination in itself on non-race weekends.
· With warm, sunny weather, fans covered the hillsides all weekend long and REALLY packed the place on Sunday. I guess-timated 40,000 or so on race day, but track officials later announced an even larger total of just over 53,000, making it the largest crowd to see a race at Barber.
· I’m not entirely sure if former “American Idol” singer Taylor Hicks, who grew up within a rock’s toss of the Barber track, fully understood what he was watching. After singing the National Anthem pre-race, he called it a “Formula One” race during his radio broadcast interview, despite the announcer (gently) trying to correct him. At least he got it right during the following TV interview. Scanners can be fun sometimes….
· It was a pleasant surprise to see Marco Andretti run such a strong race, making a very impressive move inside Helio Castroneves for the race lead and heading the field for a race-high total of 58 laps. Just one mid-race yellow and he’d have won the thing.
· Celebrity Watch II – “Sir” Charles Barkley, another local boy made good, was the Grand Marshal for the race and, I’m told, somehow managed to squeeze his huge self into one of the two-seater cars for a couple of laps driven by Davey Hamilton. I wonder how they found a helmet and suit big enough to fit him?
· High marks for the race itself, which had much more passing that I expected prior to the green flag, thanks at least in part to a variety (three in all) of pit strategies and one car (the driver of which shall remain nameless…) serving as an effective “jam car” as she circulated five-plus seconds off the pace.
· The ‘haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” department: Prior to this weekend, the last time Dario Franchitti raced in Alabama was at Talladega Superspeedway, where he was T-boned during a NASCAR Nationwide race and broke an ankle. Then, during the February IndyCar test session, he crashed early on the second day and took a trip to the Barber medical center for a checkup. The doctor asked Franchitti if he recognized him. "I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘I was the guy that looked after you after your Talladega crash.’"
· In the large rookie field this year, Atlantic graduate Simona de Silvestro continues to impress. The “Swiss Miss” (boy, that one made even ME groan) had a great race going and appeared to be headed for a top-ten finish, until she locked up a rear going into the tight Turn 5 with just a half-dozen laps remaining and spun. Not sure if she had “help” or not, as she was in the middle of a tight, five-car battle for seventh at the time.
· Then, we got to see the new road-course reverse gear in action, as de Silvestro kept the fire lit, backed out of the line, and resumed to an unrepresentative 21st-place finish.
That’s about it this week, as it’s already time to re-pack and head west to the Grand Prix of Long Beach. More after our “home” race next week.