BIRMIINGHAM — The first time I saw the Indianapolis Motor Speedway I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never seen such a mammoth place or witnessed such startling speed. It was 1967 and my Sunday School class went on a one day trip to a place that I’d only heard about on the radio. We didn’t go to the race but to qualifying, probably in the middle of May. Drivers then included A.J. Foyt, brothers Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Mario Andretti. Drivers then would turn laps around 165 mph. It would be years later before I attended my first Indy 500 and over the years I’ve probably been to a dozen Indy 500 races. I’ve taken my boys a couple of times. I want them to enjoy memories of such an exciting place where Jim Nabors sings “Back Home Again in Indiana”. A place where thousands of balloons are released as the race begins, and powerful fighter jets do a flyover just before the race.
When George Barber first started moving dirt to build a race track out in Leeds I didn’t give much thought to Indy car racing. I’d heard that Mr. Barber was a big motorcycle guy and that he planned to have motorcycle racing there. Sounded cool, but I’d never been to a motorcycle race before and didn’t know if I’d like watching one or not. They had motorcycle racing, then some special kind of auto racing, then came word that Indy cars would come to test at Barber Motorsports Park — that got my attention.
Indy car owners and Indy car drivers don’t just jump around the country testing cars and testing tracks for the fun of it. And, sure enough, I heard rumors of a race coming here and then came the official word that Barber Motorsports Park would indeed host an Indy race in 2010. It was a great event last year and even better this past weekend. With Honda coming on board as the primary sponsor of the event, the Indy Racing League is committed for several years to bring the race back.
Both years my wife and I said to each other and to others, “I just can’t believe this event is right here in Birmingham. We didn’t fly or drive to Indianapolis or some other city for a big time sports event. We drove nine miles from our house both Saturday and Sunday and we, as a family, had as good of a time as anything or anywhere we’ve been.
I’ve included a picture of my boys Jack and Will with this year’s winner Will Power. Power lead from start to finish and we were rooting for him. He’s soft spoken, mild mannered and drives like a wild man. All of the drivers from Power to whoever finished last are hard working professionals who have that ability to drive and live on the edge, and relish the excitement of speed. Those of us who don’t have those qualities love to watch it happen, and wish we had the ability and opportunity and nerve to do what they do. They make it look easy — it is not.
George Barber isn’t looking for credit or a pat on the back, but those of us who live here and love living here ought to appreciate what he’s done out in Leeds to put such a positive face on Birmingham and on Alabama. The races this weekend were seen around the world and that is good for all of us who take pride in where we work and live. A tip of the hat to the Bruno’s Event Team, Zoom Motorsports and all the folks who work so hard so the rest of us can enjoy a first class event.
I can take you to the exact spot where I was driving a John Deere 4010 tractor late in the afternoon on Memorial Day 1969. Listening to a red radio bolted on the fender I heard the excitement of Mario Andretti winning his only Indianapolis 500. I was hooked on Indy racing then and still am today. I’m so glad I can stay in the state I love and enjoy with other Alabamians.
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