Fans crowd the trees lining the track of Barber Motorsports Park for the 2013 Honda Grand Prix of Alabama, track officials said more than 55,000 people attended the race. Photo: Matt Schafer

Honda GP of Alabama: View from the not-so-cheap seats

Going to Barber Motorsport Park sort of feels like going to family reunion at your rich, and eccentric, uncle’s backyard, because that is sort of what Barber is. George Barber spent reportedly $80 million of his own money could have a place to display and race his extensive motorcycle collection. I’ve camped at every Honda Grand Prix of Alabama, and I don’t know if was ever meant to be more than a club track, but it has grown into a nearly first-class racing facility.

Bruno Event Team,through their Zoom Motorsports LLC, has built an event that consistently draws 50,000-plus crowds to watch Indycar. That’s all the more impressive when you consider that New Hampshire Motor Speedway failed  to do the same thing. They’ve done a very good job of converting their Porsche and motorcycle following into a successful event. Hopefully Gene Hallman and his team have provided blueprint on how to go from club circuit to successful Indycar event that other tracks can follow.

The “FanVillage” has grown every year. The first year I think it was just a Target Chip Ganassi trailer and a funnel cake stand. It’s grown, they’ve added cement paths, there’s more merchandise, more to do, they host autograph sessions and driver Q&As. I think it gets a little bit bigger every year, and I think that reflects the health of the series. There’s more corporate involvement, both for the fans and more corporate hospitality. Still, I’ve been to a lot of NASCAR races, and the Indycar Fan Village pales in comparison to NASCAR’s road show.

They do a lot of things right. I love that paddock access is fairly cheap. There’s nothing to bar the spectators from walking around and getting up close to the drivers and cars. Every year it seems like I have a great conversation with a driver or a crewmember by hanging out in the paddock.

The problem is, and it probably doesn’t show on television, but if you’ve spent a good bit of time at Barber you can tell it wasn’t built as spectator facility. There is only one way in and out of the track, there are trees everywhere that obscure sight lines and there isn’t any signage or printed materials in Spanish. Given that Indycar has an international following it would just seem to be common sense to me to have bi-lingual signage.

The biggest complaint I have is that it’s hard to camp at Barber. They have a really nice campsite but every year it seems like there are less and less campers. This year the sites on either side of my Dad’s fifth wheel were empty.

I think there are two reasons for that that they keep increasing the price, and the start of the race is so late. The price of camping has increased every year. The premium Hill Top camping sites that offer a spectacular, if distant, view of the track were half empty. At the initial GP they were $500 for the weekend, and has doubled in four years. Not surprisingly those premium sites were half vacant this year and at least a few of them were being used for corporate hospitality.

While the crowd was up the campground was down, it seems a little much to keep charging more for the same campsite each year with no additional services, and arguably less racing. It also rubs me the wrong way that they now limit access to the preseason testing. It used to be open to the public, now it’s just the track’s “Season Ticket” holders who can watch spring training.

The start time is another thing that frustrates me. There are a lot of families, a lot of kids who have to be at school and parents who have to be at work on Monday. Starting a two-hour race at 2:40 p.m. means the race ends around 5 p.m. and given that there is one way in and one way out of Barber you’re lucky to be on the I-20 by 6 p.m. If you’re driving east, you lose an hour because of the time zone change. It’s hard to watch the race and make it to work or school the next morning and not feel exhausted.

I’d also like to see them bring Pro Mazda. Last year’s Star Mazda races were two of the best in the weekend. I’d love to see them return, maybe staging a race between the Firestone Indy Lights race and the big show.

All that said, Barber is a great track and Zoom Motorsports hosts a great show, but there is still some room for improvement.

Tags: Barber Motorsports Park Honda Grand Prix Of Alabama IZOD IndyCar Series

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