"We cannot make good news out of bad practice." - Edward R Murrow
All this week it seems we've read nothing but glowing reports about Barber Motorsports Park (BMP), with ESPN.com's John Oreovicz, among others, suggesting this is just a few fixes from being added to the IndyCar docket.
As is stands, Barber is an outstanding venue for motorcycle racing, but it does not feature the combination of a long straight followed by a tight turn necessary to create passing in an Indy car road race.Well, it turns out there should be considerable reason to doubt Mr Barber, because "everything the man has done to date" includes a very astonishing series of actions that includes the loss of an almost certain MotoGP event a few years ago. As you'll see, Barber's "whatever it takes" isn't as all-inclusive as it sounds.
The good news in that regard is that George Barber has a "whatever it takes" attitude and says he is ready to write a check to make whatever changes are necessary to bring the track up to a raceable standard for IndyCars.
Based on everything the man has done to date, we have no reason to doubt him.
Set the WABAC machine to 2000, where George Barber engaged in a deal with the City of Birmingham. Reports are fuzzy on the details, but it appears Barber received what is commonly referred to as a "sweetheart deal" from the city of Birmingham. Not only did the city front the $55 million to build the track, but they also leased the land for his park and museum for the grand sum of $1 per year.
There were, of course, requirements on Barber as compensation for this deal, one of which allegedly included the renovation of the dilapidated Sears Building in downtown Birmingham which one of Barber's companies owned. This is important as we fast forward to 2004.
That year BMP was on the verge of securing it's first major event, a MotoGP race. To accommodate the possible race, Barber went back to the city to request a $250,000 per year over three years, as well as $80,000 worth of law enforcement for the event. The Birmingham Mayor at the time, Bernard Kinkaid, said the city wasn't going to give a dime until Barber did something with the Sears Building, which had gone untouched for the four years.
Long story short, Barber offered to tear it down and build a park, but city officials said that wasn't what they had in mind. This showdown over the downtown structure resulted in a stalemate that effectively killed any chances of the MotoGP event (which went to Laguna Seca). In 2005 the city ended up buying the building from Barber for $3M and renovating it themselves for use by the University of Alabama - Birmingham.
As several of the above articles state, BMP contended that fixing the Sears Building wasn't part of the original deal. Without access to the original contract we'll never know, but the bottom line on this affair is that despite touting it as an opportunity to raise international exposure of Birmingham and bring the city over $200 million in additional revenue, Barber chose to hit up the city for around a million bucks, and when rebuffed didn't see enough value to open his own wallet to pay for it. Remember, this is the "Whatever it takes" attitude.
Also disconcerting is the fact that BMP also ran into issues with another motorcycle series - World Superbike (WSBK). In April of 2007 BMP was in negotiations to host an event, with WSBK officials discussing the possibility of lengthening part of the track to help the bikes get up to full speed. Sound familiar? If not, read the above quote from Oreo again.
Changes were made to course, including runoffs and other safety improvements. However the lengthening wasn't part of the plan, and by September BMP incredibly withdrew themselves for consideration, saying there were too many WSBK events in the US. Does this sound like "Whatever it takes" yet?
Clearly there are more than a few things in Mr Barber's past that would give pause to the idea of rushing in to consummating a deal - and probably a multi-year one at that - with BMP. Perhaps these issues can be explained, but for that to happen we need someone to start asking questions of the parties mentioned.
I realize it's a gorgeous facility, but let's hope that doesn't render it immune to a little inquiry. If some anonymous word butcher like yours truly can use Google to find all of this out, I'm sure someone else with a massive Rolodex full of contacts could discover even more about all of this. Heck, there might even be a real story there of interest to teams, fans, and most importantly members of the Indy Racing League.
Look, the goal here isn't to demean reporters who are all excited by the good time they had in Alabama. Those were nice reports they provided from BMP, but what would be more helpful is if they could use a few of their words to bring these above issues to light to their wider audiences. Then IRL officials can discuss them publicly, lay out the requirements for Mr Barber should they still be amenable to holding an event at his facility, and - most importantly - hold him accountable to any contractual promises he makes, because ultimately that's "Whatever it takes".