The adventure started in Traverse City, Michigan, when I pulled tight the straps holding four motorcycles in a 32-foot trailer and hitched it up to a Ford F-350. My destination was almost directly south, and I’d pass through the racing capital of the U.S. and the country music capital before arriving in Leeds, Alabama. A mere 17 miles from the heart of Birmingham, Leeds is home to Barber Motorsports Park, a dreamland for any motorcycle enthusiast.
The early October chill of northern Michigan eventually gave way to the muggy heat of Alabama as I drove through the night. The trailer carried two motorcycles of mine, the Hagerty Redline Rebuild 1957 Harley-Davidson Sportster, a co-worker’s retro-modern Kawasaki Z900, and an assortment of Hagerty promotional paraphernalia. I wasn’t headed there to work, though. I was meeting friends to go racing.
The first weekend of October is the Barber Vintage Festival, a celebration of all things two-(and sometimes three-) wheeled. The facility offers a gargantuan museum with hundreds of pristine motorcycles, a 2.38-mile road course, off-road racing in the surrounding woods, two massive swap-meet lots, test rides provided by multiple manufacturers, and numerous shows hosted by national motorcycle clubs. In other words, a moto-utopia.
Two close friends from college, Casey Maxon and Evan Clary, met me there. I drove all night from Michigan with trailer in tow, and they did the same from Pennsylvania, eating up highway in a rental Penske box truck loaded with a dozen motorcycles—some to sell, some to ride, some simply because there was space left over in the truck after the necessities were packed. It was a reunion a year in the making, as we had all spent the previous year at the festival trying to both work and have fun. We set a pact to return without the burden of work and to just do the fun stuff. The racing stuff. All three of us hail from Kansas; we jokingly call ourselves The Flatlanders.
There is no shortage of ways to get involved at the Barber festival, with multiple disciplines of racing vying for spectator eyeballs and entrant time. We chose to race the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association’s vintage enduro, a one-hour-plus-one-lap race through the woods on vintage dirt bikes. As abrasively awesome as dragging knee on the road course sounded, the small-displacement motorcycles used in the woods meant racing could be done without big-bore bank accounts. Just the gear required for road course racing would have set me back more than the bike I acquired to race for the weekend.
That bike was a 1979 Yamaha YZ125, a yappy two-stroke smoker that demands attention to be kept in the power-band. The other Flatlanders were astride a dependable, if boring, Honda XR350, and a cannon-to-a-knife-fight Yamaha IT465. The 2.5-mile trail laid by the AHRMA staff was a sinewy blast through tight woods connected by wide-open runs on short two-tracks. Well, they would have been wide-open rips if we weren’t all so mentally overloaded that the open sections served as recovery time.
We spent Friday riding around the huge event, cruising and taking note of each bike that sounded better than it looked (and vice versa). The swap meet was well stocked and there were deals to be had, so we took them. Hey, a Husqvarna dirt bike that received a Honda heart transplant decades ago is too cool to leave for someone else.
The first race was on Saturday. We were all nervous at the start despite being in the first of the two heats, thanks to our novice status. Alabama in October means even in the shade it can be triple digits, with a thick curtain of humidity on top. The race was an hour plus one lap, standard length for events like this, but slipping on our full-face helmets and other gear forced us to question if a couple of days of fast food and beer had remotely prepared us to sweat through a lengthy wrestling match with a vintage machine.
The course was fast, but often loose and dusty, offering scarce traction even for the meager 22 hp of my YZ. Casey on the big IT465 spent the day puttering around, each crack of the throttle effectively digging a trench in the earth as the two-stroke hammered out power through a fresh tire, seemingly not even trying to grab the earth. Evan’s XR350 lived up to its sturdy reputation and tractored about the course without incident, allowing him to best Casey and me and become the fastest Flatlander of the day.
We retired to the box truck sweaty, tired, and oddly relieved. No one got hurt—at least, no bodily harm. I got hasty on the throttle at a water crossing about a quarter of the way through my final lap of the course, a stunt that ended with me and my Yamaha on the ground after some light tree contact. This mishap broke the shift lever off and I continued on in a heroic move of riding the last lap locked in second gear. Meh, it’s repairable. Sadly, it wasn’t repairable overnight though so I sat out Sunday’s race and just enjoyed the shade and watching my friends rip through the woods.
The day only got better as the sun set and the temperatures mellowed. We alternated between water and beer, started some slow races (where two riders compete to traverse a distance as slowly as possibly without putting a foot down) and drew a large, jovial crowd. We skipped tents and slept in the welcome shelter of the rental truck when rain arrived and shut the party down. Just three guys and an immaculate race-prepped YZ465 in a giant yellow box truck. Nothing to see here.
Did we win anything? Actually, yes—one second-place and two first-place plaques got packed into our luggage at the end of the weekend. But the racing was secondary to the fact that three friends got together and made memories. We came, we rode motorcycles, we bought motorcycles, we failed at selling motorcycles, we drank some beer, we grilled brats, and we made new friends. Along the way, we indulged our love of all things two wheels. It was an adventure bigger than any tweet, status update, or carefully cropped photo could contain, which made it perfect.