They had been to the United States several times, checking out circuits for a U.S. Grand Prix such as Road America (which came close before being abandoned), Road Atlanta and Homestead-Miami Speedway. They sent Mick Doohan to look at Watkins Glen. Daytona International Speedway was considered for all of a few seconds. Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca had scheduling conflicts. Then they heard of a new facility in Leeds, Alabama.
Soon Danis and Uncini were in a rental car driving along the roadbed of what was to become Barber Motorsports Park. Also in the car were a pair of motorcycle enthusiasts: track owner George Barber-whose namesake museum houses one of the world's greatest collections of motorcycles-and Alan Wilson, a prolific racetrack designer whose imprint is on tracks the world over.
The Barber track had been rough-graded, with no gravel or asphalt put down, but already the inspectors knew this was something special. At one point (now Turn 12), the future racetrack dove downhill into a vast hole where a tunnel was being built. Seeing the layout stirred powerful emotions in Danis. Turning to Barber, he said, "This is like Eau Rouge." Coming from a Belgian, this was high praise indeed. Eau Rouge is the signature corner of the great Spa-Francorchamps Circuit in Belgium, possibly the most challenging and intimidating turn in racing. It's an e-ticket ride, the equivalent of mating a downhill ski run to a hillclimb and running it all in a few seconds. When they got back to the proposed start/finish line, Danis said, "You want to go MotoGP, you have MotoGP." All this largely due to the efforts of Wilson.
If you've raced motorcycles in America, you owe a debt of gratitude to Wilson. He has improved the safety of Daytona International Speedway, Road Atlanta and Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca; has done consulting work at Infineon Raceway, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and California Speedway; and has designed the road courses of Barber Motorsports Park and Pikes Peak International Raceway, along with numerous others. He has become the "go-to guy," not only for racetrack design, but also for improving the safety of existing facilities.
"I'm sort of anal about safety. I know that at some stage someone is going to get killed at one of my racetracks. [But] I've been extremely fortunate," the South African designer says. A year ago, Wilson received a call from the proprietor of GingerMan Raceway, a 1.9-mile road course in South Haven, Michigan, that Wilson designed. Since the track's opening in 1996, the owner told Wilson that "as of now, we've never fired up the engine of the ambulance."
Wilson's love affair with motorcycles began in his native South Africa. Wilson put himself through college by selling Yamahas for future World Champion Jim Redman at Redman's distributorship in Durban. Mike Hailwood was living in South Africa at the time, and the shop would shut down whenever Hailwood arrived, he and Redman swapping tales of the Isle of Man, Dundrod, Spa-Francorchamps, et al. Wilson soon embarked on his own racing career, pitting early two-stroke Yamaha twins against the Nortons and AJSs of the day. In his very first race Wilson faced two future world champions, Kork Ballington and Jon Ekerold.
In time he would move to the U.K., where he managed the Brands Hatch Leisure Group, coordinating and running 200 events at the organization's four racetracks each year. In '83, he moved to the U.S., where he was put in charge of organizing a Grand Prix in Flushing Meadows, New York. Various roadblocks made sure the race didn't happen, but he's been here ever since, living and working in various parts of the country before settling in the Denver area with his wife, Desiree (who is generally considered the greatest female open-wheel racecar driver ever, and the only woman to have won an FIA World Championship race), to run the Denver (CART) Grand Prix in '90 and '91. Still, there's more than a hint of the South African accent in his soft-spoken voice, which rises only slightly when discussing his passion: safe racetracks.
"I go to the most extreme position I can to try to find the most safety, knowing you can never be 100 percent safe," Wilson says.
He was the person Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca designated to redesign the infamous Corkscrew after Akira Yanagawa was injured during the '98 WSB event, and Gonzalo Rodriguez was killed in a practice crash at the '99 CART auto race. "They had struggled for years to find a smoother way around," Wilson says. "It took less than five minutes standing there to see the solution. It cost a fair amount of money, but in terms of construction, ultimately the solution was fairly simple. [The problem] was there was a tree there. It was their signature. Once they understood that if that came out, the problem goes away, the tree came out." After the cypress tree disappeared, the whole bank to the rider's right was smoothed out.
At Daytona, Wilson was brought in to find a way to alleviate the multibike accidents that plagued the chicane exit in '01 and '02. With help from AMA roadrace manager Ron Barrick and Daytona's director of operations, Gary van Voorhis, Wilson designed a new chicane that sent riders toward the Turn Three banking at a more gradual angle, though at greater speeds.
"The whole goal there was to reduce the impact angle at the top of the banking. We knew going in it was going to add five to seven mph to the top speed. My feeling was that the tire companies have the capability [to] meet that extra speed. They've got engineers that know what they're doing. The danger of coming off five mph faster when you're doing 190 mph is not going to make a hell of a lot of difference. You get there sooner, but [you're] eliminating that huge danger of slamming into that outside wall."
The new corner was 50 feet wide at the apex, giving the AMA the flexibility to widen or narrow it if problems arose. At the December Dunlop tire test, however, the Superbike riders were almost universally against it, while the Supersport and supporting riders were less vocal. But during the AMA Bike Week races, the tires performed flawlessly, better than they had the previous year, and there were no catastrophic events in the chicane.
Wilson ran Road Atlanta for the '93 season, brought in by Roger Werner, founder of ESPN and SpeedTV, when the racetrack emerged from bankruptcy. They spent a million dollars on safety, including removing the Turn One bridge, widening the runoff area and adding runoffs to Turns Five and Seven. But they failed in their attempt to buy the facility, which they knew needed more work. The final turn at Road Atlanta, Turn 12, was recently described by Bruce Transportation Group's Marty Craggill as the "worst corner in the world." Taken in fourth gear at more than 100 mph on a Formula Xtreme bike, the corner has minimal runoff in front of the air fence.
"I had a plan to basically cut that whole area outside of Turn 12 to the back of the control tower by about 50 feet. Even then that wouldn't have been sufficient, but it would've been a hell of a lot more than they have [now]," Wilson recalled. He wants his racetracks designed to compensate for catastrophic problems, such as "total brake failure, total steering failure, stuck throttle...as much as I possibly can."
Because he doesn't want to rely on barriers, Wilson is against using them. "I want to have as much open space as I possibly can. I work on the theory that if you're going 160 mph, you'll want to bring the bike back under control without hitting something. And the same thing with a Porsche. I want the guy to be able to spin the Porsche, go home, change his underwear and carry on driving, not change the bodywork."
Over a period of 36 years, Wilson has worked on 160 racetracks in 16 countries, but the crown jewel is the Barber project. Wilson's brief was as simple as it was daunting: Build the best racetrack in America. "My intent is to make this the Augusta of racetracks," Barber said, referring to the Georgian home of the Masters golf tournament.
Barber, the former dairy owner who conceived the track as a place to run his world-class collection of vintage motorcycles, made certain Wilson had the tools to do the job. "From day one, that was my objective, to have the best motorcycle racetrack in the world," Barber says, "and a feather in the cap for Birmingham." To that end, no expense has been spared.
"When I was brought in, it was basically a test track for the museum," Wilson says, "and they said, 'Can we run club races on it?' and I said, 'No, not on a test track. We'll have to build it a bit bigger.' Then we did quite a lot of work and [it now meets AMA approval]. And they'd settled for AMA [standards] for a long time."
The 2.3-mile, 16-turn track has been lauded for using natural terrain, which isn't exactly the case. "We moved 1.6 million cubic yards of dirt," Barber says. "Nature dictated a lot of that. Alan (Wilson) designed it to fit in with what we had." "There was so much earth moved, you just wouldn't recognize the two sites," Wilson says, crediting former Pro Thunder competitor Bill St. John for making it work. "[He] gets a huge amount of credit," Wilson says, adding that the track uses approximately 25-30 percent natural terrain. "I'm not an engineer. Bill and his people did an incredible job on the sheer engineering quality of that facility. I did the layout and the details of the track, the technical side of how the track should flow and runoff areas. But I couldn't have done anything without the engineering."
The track was locked into AMA standards when Barber decided to aim higher-for MotoGP. "It was too late to go back and re-engineer to bring the access roads to the site, which is why it doesn't have [them]," Wilson says. "Claude (Danis) understands it. He's been back there. It's probably going to be the last new track to be accepted without the ambulance roads. It doesn't mean that there isn't access, it's just that...there's a fair amount of work to be done to clean up the access zones to get there, but it won't be an asphalt road like you've got at many tracks. Which is a pity, because we could have designed it in had we realized very early on that it was going to be a MotoGP track."
With the increased speed of the machinery, there's a chance that the original safety margins will be slightly inadequate. "The second time (Uncini) came, when the gravel traps and guardrails were in, George asked him how much air fence we would need. And he said, 'Why do you need air fence?'
"I guarantee that in 18 months we'll be requiring air fence, and I'm fine with that. It just shows how quickly things change and how difficult it must be for existing tracks to meet those standards. I think for MotoGP purposes, air fence will be required. In any track, you always look back and say, 'I wish I could have done....' The biggest thing here is that the track wasn't started as a MotoGP track. Having said that, it meets higher standards than probably any other track in America."
Barber designed a track in Beijing, which will likely host a round of the World Superbike championship next year. The China track was originally conceived and approved as a Formula One circuit, but F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone then decided to go to Shanghai. "We kept the basic shape of the track, but I softened the corners away from Formula One, because Formula One is point and squirt, and it's just exactly the opposite of what bikes need. Bikes need to have a nice flowing track. I call it exhilarating when you come out of a corner with a smile on your face," Wilson says.
"I don't think there's a racetrack-and I'm not going to say in the world because I haven't been to every racetrack-but I'd be surprised if there's any racetrack where the sheer quality is more than Barber," Wilson says. "Whether it's the quality of how they put up the barriers or how they poured the curbs or how they built the tunnel or how they built the infrastructure. Because there was never any, 'We've got to save money on this.' It was, 'Are you sure that's what you do? Do you need any more? What else do you need?' That's extremely unusual."
When Yoshimura Suzuki's Aaron Yates tested at the track, he was extremely complimentary, but noted a few track surface imperfections despite great care being taken to lay the asphalt-three paving machines were run side by side for 18 hours to avoid seams on the track. Barber was more critical and asked for a repave, which ended up bumpier than the original surface. "It's rough. In some spots on the straight it's very difficult to control a car," Barber said. The resurfacing was done by a single paving machine, creating seams in the track that were soon torn up. And the quality of the asphalt, a crucial component, wasn't the standard of the original. "[Strangely] enough, the superbike can be very damaging because you're putting all that power through a tiny contact patch," Wilson says. "If a superbike goes into that patch, it can unravel a strip of asphalt in three laps."
"We've had a terrible time with paving," Barber said after two complete pavings, with a third planned for October. "We're faced with paving again. It's very disappointing to me."
The AMA ran its inaugural Superbike event on the second surface, one that had been patched by specialists, a stop-gap until the October repave. Still, the surface was among the best the AMA riders experienced all season.
"With respect to anyone who races at Mid-Ohio," a track with concrete pads in the corners that's been inadequately maintained in recent years, "what right do they have to complain if they ride anywhere else?" Wilson asks. "(The riders are) running to the highest possible standards that they can compete at. They have the right to expect that of everyone around.
"I don't hold it against the rider who accepts the lowest end at one track because that's where he has to race. It requires a higher standard. That's fine. Ultimately all the tracks need to be like Barber."