by bj max
In 1954 one of the better Hollywood monster flicks was released. The story line goes something like this: a peaceful little anthill in Arizona gets nuked during an atomic test, creating a raging horde of gigantic mutant ants. They come roaring out of their underground catacombs fit to be tied. And, as you might guess, a lot of Arizona Citizens bit the dust before this movie was over. Sound familiar? Yeah, I thought it would. “Them” was just one in a long line of nuclear powered monster movies from the 50’s – the only difference being “Them” was a pretty good movie. It had a good story, plenty of nail-biting suspense and an excellent cast that included future stars like James Whitmore and Leonard Nimoy. But it never crossed my mind when I first saw that old film that one day I too would have my own personal encounter with a swarm of giant ants, and in the most unlikely of places.
On a damp, foggy morning last October, the Happy Bottom Riding, Yachting and Snipe Huntin’ Club gathered for our third annual trek to middle Tennessee on what we call our “Blazing Saddles Fall Foliage Tour”. The object of this overnighter is to ride some great roads and eat some great Cajun food at the Foglight Foodhouse, a little Cajun bistro in Walling. In the past we have ridden direct, checked into our motel, went to dinner then got up the next morning and headed home with maybe a side trip to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. This is always our last organized ride of the year and we usually have a pretty good turnout, but to be honest with you, as great as the roads are and as entertaining as a tour of Jack Daniel’s can be, our little excursion was getting a bit tiresome. So this year, to pump up interest, I penciled in a side trip to the recently opened Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama.
After spending the night on the outskirts of Birmingham (Smoke City on the CB) we rode across town. With the help of Interstate signs, we located the Barber facility with ease. The main entrance of the complex is fortified with stone fencing and a glass-smooth twisting driveway complements the perfectly manicured grounds. The sparkling new three-story museum is impressive and I heard a lot of Oooo’s and Ahhhhh’s as we dismounted.
Once inside, you suddenly realize that this is no second-class operation. No skimping here. It’s huge! I don’t think there’s any doubt that all eight hundred motorcycles in the Barber collection could be displayed here, but the curators wanted this to be a pleasant experience for visitors so they only exhibit four hundred or so at any given time. The bikes are mounted on pedestals that resemble shipping crates and are not cordoned off and out of reach either. You can get up close and personal and examine the finest detail. In fact, I couldn’t resist twisting the throttle on a 1920 board racer. But later, when I bragged about it to the group they scolded me like I had looted an ancient Egyptian tomb and pointed to signs that read “Do Not Touch”. Ooops! My apologies, Mr. Barber. I really hadn’t noticed those signs.
Our group kinda’ broke up after entering the building, each with their own agenda as to what bikes or cars piqued their interest. (There’s a smattering of Formula One and Indy Cars on display.) There are no stairs. Instead, a clever spiral walkway gradually climbs from one floor to the next; giving one the impression that Frank Lloyd Wright’s ghost might have influenced its design. And the pitch is slight enough that even the most dedicated couch potato would have no problem negotiating the incline. There is an elevator and it was recommended that we take it to the top floor then work our way down, so we did.
Sugar Booger and I ended up alone and browsed at our leisure. She’s a Jeff Gordon fan and a Jeff Gordon Signature bike caught her fancy. It had a great paint scheme but otherwise was a stock Kawasaki Drifter. Over in the corner were the two BMW’s (’88 R100RT-’89 R80) that were ridden around the world by stockbroker and author Jim Rogers (Investment Biker) and Tabitha Estabrook. They were in the original condition as picked up at the conclusion of their journey. I wondered if that caked mud on the rear wheel was from the Kalahari Desert or maybe the Tibetan Plateau. It sets my wandering soul on fire just thinking about it. And look at this – a perfect 1910 Pierce four cylinder. Over near the window was a flawless Brough Superior. Man, what a collection. And this is only half of it! But surprisingly, out of all these great machines, the bike that impressed me the most was the incredible Honda Valkyrie Rune. This was the first time I’d seen this bike in the flesh and it just knocked me down. Posing is this bike’s only reason for being and it does it so very well. Wanna’ impress the Harley crowd? Show up at the next Veterans Day Thunder ride astride a Rune and watch their tattoos fall off.
As Sugar Booger and I made our way from one floor to the next, we passed by the facility’s executive offices and suddenly I had me a thought. I told Sugar Booger to hang out for a minute and I’d be right back. I walked the few steps back to those offices with the intention of going in. But, as I approached I noticed an “Employees Only” sign on the door. Well shucks. I’ve already committed one sign crime today so I don’t guess another one will matter. And besides, I could plainly see a lady in there working at her computer. I tried the door. It opened. The lady looked up from her work, smiled and with an accent as slow and sweet as sorghum molasses on a cold morning she asked, “May I help you?” “Well Maa’m,” I said in my best James Stewart voice, “as a matter of fact you can. I’m a big wig writer from Tennessee”……..To make a long story short, this nice lady, who shall remain anonymous for reasons that will soon be obvious, made arrangements for my wife and I to gain entrance to the speedway for a photo opportunity with some very interesting subjects.
I hurried back down to the first floor, motioned with a toss of my head for Sugar Booger to follow and we strolled outside, trying not to hurry. We saddled up and I explained the details on the way to the guard shack. After signing a waiver, the guard waved us through (so that’s what a ‘waver’ is for) and we sped off around the perimeter road.
The road dipped and twisted and we were enjoying our newly acquired VIP status but our subjects were proving to be an elusive target. Then Sugar Booger yelled at me to stop. I grabbed and stomped and we slid to a halt. She pointed to a distant meadow near the track and there they were. Well I’ll be danged, just like in the movie. A swarm of giant ants were crossing the meadow carrying off an innocent rider and his motorcycle. I wonder if he’s from Arizona.
I jumped off and dug my camera from the trunk but as I raised it to my eye we were suddenly enveloped in a cloud of dust as a security truck came sliding up behind us. A uniformed guard and a suit jumped out and I could tell by the way they stomped towards us that they weren’t here to get the big wig writer’s autograph. The suit demanded to know how in the name of Kenny Roberts I managed to gain access to this restricted area. I fell back into my James Stewart impersonation and explained that this nice lady…. he quickly interrupted demanding to know her name. I refused to reveal my sources and told him I would never in a million years violate the journalist code of honor. He mentioned the Birmingham Jail and I immediately morphed from James Stewart into Luciano Pavarotti and sang like a bird. Hey, what else could I do? The Birmingham Jail – I had visions of baloney sandwiches and water three times a day. No thanks.
Thrown out. I was outraged. My credibility as a journalist had been circumcised. But, in all fairness, he did let me take a picture. And later, I received a nice e-mail explaining that construction crews had begun ripping out the racing surface that very day in preparation for re-paving. I’m sure he was concerned about liabilities and probably had nightmares later of a candy red Gold Wing and two rednecks wadded up under a dump truck. Under other circumstances I’m convinced he would have been more obliging.
My shots of the Giant steel and wire ants came out pretty good. There’s also a giant dragonfly on the premises somewhere and who knows what else. I was told that after environmental activists complained, Mr. Barber had these statues erected as a tribute to all the little critters that gave their lives so that this monument to motorsports could be built. My kinda’ guy.
Referred to in some circles as a motorcycle nut, George Barber of Barber Dairies actually founded The Barber Motorcycle Museum in 1994 but it was stuck on an obscure back street in Birmingham and was only open four days a week and never on weekends. So, its popularity was somewhat diminished by the odd hours and unlikely location. Around Birmingham it came to be known as Birmingham’s best kept secret. But with the completion of the new museum and state of the art road course, its not a secret any more and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum becomes a must-do for motorcyclists all over the country, maybe even the world.