BIR's New Lease on Life Starts With Early Bird 125 by Mike Twist
Historic Track is on the Fast Track With Improvements
Those heading to this weekend’s Early Bird 125 at Birmingham International Raceway (AL) might be able to sense something else entirely. The track literally has a new lease on life.
BIR has a rich history that goes back 95 years. Just miles from Hueytown, Alabama; the facility served as the homefield for members of the Alabama Gang. Donnie Allison, Bobby Allison, Davey Allison, Neil Bonnett and Red Farmer have all taken plenty of laps there. In more recent years, the late Charlie Bradberry perfected his “victory lane bow” after winning numerous races at the track. Up and comers like JR Norris and Josh Hamner put their laps in at the track, and modern day short track barnstormers Augie Grill and Ken McFarland call the track home.
But while the talent has not been lacking from the racing surface at BIR, a sense of hope has been. The track is located at the Birmingham Fairgrounds and over the past decade or so, the neighborhood surrounding it had not been a place where you would want to walk around at night. The track surface got rough, the amenities became aged and as a result, the number of fans going through the front gate declined year after year.
BIR has some big changes in store. (51 Photos)
When it comes to the good racetracks out there, every time that the gates swing open for the new racing season, there are things that the race fans will find new and improved. It could be a fresh coat of paint, new bleachers or a few new items on the concession stand menu.
In 2005, it was announced that the track would close. Then, it was reopened, but things were tentative at best. As recently as this past off-season, the future looked bleak. Would the track be bulldozed to make way for a fairgrounds expansion, would the track just be padlocked and written off as a money draining proposition for the City of Birmingham? Or would the facility get a shot in the arm from city fathers who would like to see it regain its glory days?
Thankfully for racers and fans, that question had a positive answer.
“We’re here for the future. Mayor Larry Lankford has said that he wants racing to continue at Birmingham,” said BIR’s Ray Tennyson.
Tennyson and BIR promoter Joey Sims met with Lankford in December and the mayor requested that the team present the city with a master plan and list of improvements needed for the facility.
Sims is a former track champion. He won the BIR Late Model championship in 1997 and couldn’t just stand by in 2005 and watch the place close down.
“I told everyone that I would see what I could do,” said Sims. “I don’t have deep pockets, but I want the track to continue. There is so much potential there. It has great grandstand and a tremendous history.”
The management of BIR was able to sell their vision to local government and that was step one in revitalizing the track.
“The track has always had the support of the racers, they have been great,” said Sims. “Racing has been neglected in the past and we had to work extra hard to get that trust back, but I feel that we are a personable to the racers as they are at any track in the country. You don’t just see me up in my office. I’ll spend time on pit road and talk to everyone. That is paying off. Now we just need to get the Birmingham business community to step up and get on board with what we are doing. There are a few new sponsors that we have signed for this year and we’re looking to do more of that in the future.”
“The track, the fairgrounds and the entire area are being revitalized. It’s not just the track, but the whole neighborhood that is changing. Fans will see that there are new
Fans watch Donny Lia time-trial at Twin State. Were the heat races much more exciting? Probably not this time. (51 Photo)
family restaurants coming into the area and there is a brand new Applebee’s that has just opened up across the street from the track. There are some very good things going on.”
Fans and racers will be able to see the improvements more in depth later this season.
“There is a two-year revitalization effort underway for the entire fairgrounds complex,” said Tennyson. “For the track, that means this year we will be putting down new asphalt and taking out the old football field in the infield. That will give teams a front stretch pit road and give fans a chance to watch pit stops in the future. Next year, we’re looking at installing SAFER barriers in the turns.”
Sims said that the first step of the master plan, new asphalt on the race track, should be laid within the next 90 days.
When all is done, the track will really have a new lease on life.
The racers at Birmingham are getting a new track surface (top) and will have a frontstretch pit road, where the edge of a football field currently is. (Bottom)
“There is no doubt in my mind that when this is finished, we will have the nicest short track in the country right here,” said Sims. “We’ve got a five year window to bring back racing like it was to BIR and this is a shot in the arm for that. It’s been tough, and it will still be tough, to have the track survive, but we know that we can do it.”
Part of that survival strategy includes some events that the BIR oval has never seen before.
“We’ve got to look at everything out there,” said Sims. “This facility can’t survive with just stock car racing. With all of the proposed changes, this will become a true multi-venue facility. We would like to have concerts here. We could have drifting events, SCCA events and monster truck events. As far as racing goes, we haven’t been able to bring in major touring series because of our current pit road. With the new pit road, we can really look down the road and see what we can do with maybe
bringing ARCA or Pro Cup to the track. Maybe even [NASCAR] Busch East or the Truck Series.”
The future plans aren’t just big ones too. There are some smaller plans in the works as well.
“There will also be construction of a 1/5th mile oval here that can host go-kart, mini sprint, Legends and Bandolaro races.”
The reaction to the improvements has been very strong.
“There is a lot of excitement around Birmingham International Raceway. We’re getting a lot of fan support and it’s great.”
Fans will get to see the first laps of racing this season at BIR with the running of this weekend’s Early Bird 125. The two-day event will feature several divisions, but will be headlined by a 125 lapper for the Super Late Models on Sunday. Among the expected entries are Grill, Hamner, McFarland, Johnny Brazier and Chris Serio.
“I’m excited about this weekend,” said Sims. “The Early Bird has become a tradition to kick off Super Late Model racing in Alabama.”
“It will be a really good race,” said Tennyson. “This track really lends itself to good racing. Fans have seen some of the best side by side racing around here. Drivers will tell you that you can race anywhere on the track once a car is hooked up. There is only eight degrees of banking.”
And most importantly, it looks like Mother Nature might be a race fan for the Early Bird weekend as well.
“Sunday is looking to be a great day,” said Tennyson. “It is supposed to be sunny and have a high of 67 degrees. That’s great racing weather.”
If you can't make it to the track this weekend for that wonderful weather and great racing, be sure to check out Speed51.com's Trackside Now coverage of the Early Bird 125.
There is already a large grandstand in place at BIR.