Racing, Riding and Building America’s Wheels
by Verna Gates
From the first crank of an engine, America fell in love with the automobile. Throughout Alabama, testimonials to our devotion abound in museums, on racetracks and in manufacturing facilities. Alabama is geared to show you vehicles from early Civil War motorcycles to the next new SUV to come off the assembly line.
Five museums dot the state with displays of vehicles ranging from two-wheelers to race cars. In Alabama, you can find one of the world's largest collections of motorcycles, along with an exhibit of iconic Dodge Chargers. Both collections are privately owned but shared with the public. In Talladega, race fans can see another famed Dodge Charger – the one driven by legendary Richard Petty – along with other racing machines. Birmingham’s Old Car Heaven specializes in the shapely cars from the 1930s and 1940s.
Ranked fifth in automobile production in the nation, Alabama is home to four auto factories. Two of these, Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai, open their doors to show the steps it takes to put a driver behind the wheel.
Tour Bill France Sr.’s masterpiece! Still the undisputed largest and fastest track in NASCAR, the Talladega Superspeedway is the true test of driving skill. On the 2.66-mile track, you can see the steep banking, the unusual start/finish line that hugs turn one, and where “the big ones” – the infamous multicar pileups – have happened. Bus tours of the track are available seven days a week (during nonracing weeks) through the adjoining International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum (3366 Speedway Blvd., Lincoln; 256-362-5002).
To experience the thrill of the track from a driver’s point of view, the Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure (3366 Speedway Blvd., Lincoln; 888-467-2231) will take you full throttle. Choose from three to 100 laps around the famed track at speeds of more than 170 mph – your choice to ride or drive.
Within the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum sits millions of dollars’ worth of race cars and memorabilia. The displays celebrate the greats: Dale Earnhardt, Al Unser Jr., “Fireball” Roberts, Buddy Baker, Richard Petty, Bobby and Davey Allison, Bobby Isaac, Dale Jarrett and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. Along with the stars are the cars and the boats: the Budweiser Rocket Car that broke the sound barrier, and Tom Gentry’s Superboat that set a record speed of 148 miles per hour.
Where To Stay
Few cities can offer the lovely small-town nostalgia that envelops Talladega. Stay a few blocks from the historic square in a 1905 home and rock on its double veranda. Somerset House Bed and Breakfast (701 North St. E.; 256-761-1117) welcomes visitors to rooms with 12-foot ceilings and gas fireplaces. Gourmet breakfasts are served in the dining room in this house that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Where To Eat
Fried chicken and steaks cooked to perfection are customer favorites at Stemley Station Restaurant (7421 Stemley Bridge Rd., Talladega; 256-268-2835), along with a sinful chocolate praline cake. Top off any meal here with locally renowned homemade desserts.
Rick’s Crossroads Grille (48278 U.S. Hwy. 78, Lincoln; 205-763-7266) brings a taste of Louisiana to Alabama. Try the red beans and rice or the prime rib at this Cajun/Creole restaurant.
The historic square leads to a broad avenue of antebellum- to Victorian-era homes beautifully preserved. Along the main street lies the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. Opened in 1858, the historic school has served hundreds of students and adults throughout the state with vision and hearing loss. The Helen Keller School serves students with multiple sensory impairments. As a result of the institute’s strength in the community, Talladega is one of the most advanced cities in the U.S. for handicapped accessibility, with talking street corners, public text phones, and sign language as the city’s second language.
Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
Entrepreneur and former Porsche race car driver George Barber Jr. sped into motor history on two wheels. Noticing that there were no museums dedicated to preserving vintage motorcycles, he began a collection and even formed a team to race the classic bikes. Now his collection is housed in the largest motorcyle musuem in the world, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum (6030 Barber Motorsports Pkwy.; 205-699-7275) located between Birmingham and Leeds.
Showcasing more than 600 motorcycles from the collection of 1,200, the museum displays bikes dating from the Civil War all the way to today’s best designers. More than 200 manufacturers from 20 countries are represented. The museum also holds the largest known collection of Lotus race cars.
The museum is only one of the jewels of Barber Motorsports Park, a beautifully manicured park resting on the banks of the Cahaba River. The technically complex racetrack located at the heart of the site hosts frequent events for both cars and motorcycles.
Located on the park grounds is the Porsche Sport Driving School (6075-B Barber Motorsports Pkwy.; 888-204-7474). Participants live out racing fantasies in a school that teaches behind the wheel. Classes offering instruction on how to handle the car and the course are available throughout the year.
Where To Stay
Birmingham offers a wide range of accommodations. A favorite is Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa (4000 Grand Ave.; 205-916-7677). The area’s only four-star resort, it offers a full range of amenities from a spa to gourmet restaurants to a bagpiper playing at sunset. Perched on a Robert Trent Jones championship golf course, players can experience the fourth longest course in the world.
Where To Eat
Two James Beard winners call Birmingham home. Highlands Bar and Grill (2011 11th Ave. S.; 205-939-1400) is considered among the finest restaurants in the country. It gained fame for its French twist on Southern ingredients.
Hot and Hot Fish Club’s(2180 11th Court S.; 205-933-5474) owner/chef Chris Hastings beat challenger Bobby Flay in Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” competition. Hastings chooses only the freshest local ingredients for his exquisite cuisine.
Mercedes-Benz U.S. International
In 1886, Carl Benz took the horse away from the carriage, inventing the first automobile that could run on a different type of horsepower. The Mercedes-Benz Museum (11 Mercedes Dr., Vance; 205-507-2252) traces the history of his invention all the way forward to the modern cars issuing daily from the adjoining factory. The exhibit showcases the design and craftsmanship that shaped the iconic cars through the years, making the company a world leader in quality and engineering. From antique “horseless carriages” to modern race cars, this museum displays style, beauty and performance.
Twice weekly, the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant offers two-hour tours that take visitors through the production of the autos here. This insider’s view of the state-of-the art plant shows how Mercedes brought its vision for a new plant in a new country to Alabama.
Where To Eat
John “Big Daddy” Bishop started his business the same year another legend, Paul “Bear” Bryant, came to town. Both of them served football fans, one with victories, the other with barbecued ribs. While Bishop’s Dreamland Bar-B-Que(5535 15th Ave. E., Tuscaloosa; 205-758-8135) has expanded into other menu items such as sausage, chicken and sides, it is the ribs that customers dream about.
Hyundai Motor Manufacturing in Alabama
Watch a Hyundai as it is being made during a tram tour of the company’s production facility in Montgomery. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing in Alabama (700 Hyundai Blvd, Montgomery; 334-387-8019) produces 1,500 cars per day. Tour guides explain how during the 1.5-hour tour that explores every step of the process. Tours leave on scheduled times Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Where To Stay
Located in the heart of downtown Montgomery, the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center (201 Tallapoosa St.; 334-481-5000) is convenient to the Capitol, Old Alabama Town and the riverfront. Enjoy the spa and events at the performing arts center. For a complete list of accommodations, contact the Montgomery Visitors Center (334-261-1100).
Where To Eat
For Southern cooking, the Farmers Market Cafe (315 N. McDonough St., Montgomery; 334-262-1970) serves up authentic country cooking from its meat-and-three steam table. The historic cafe gained fame from its fried chicken.
For fancier fare, The City Grill (5251 Hampstead High St., Unit 112; 334-244-0960) is the premier white tablecloth experience in Montgomery. Choose from rib-eyes to Gulf shrimp in this eclectic continental-style restaurant.
Where To Stay
After your speedy trip through the muscle cars, slow down at the Mistletoe Bough Bed & Breakfast (497 Hillabee St., Alexander City; 256-329-3717). Sit on the broad porch or stroll through the gardens of this charming Queen Anne mansion, complete with a corner turret. Enjoy 1895 elegance with 21st century conveniences.
Where To Eat
Stroll through downtown Alexander City and order a homemade limeade from the historic soda fountain at Carlisle Drug Company (12 Main St.; 256-234-4211). The soda fountain has been serving up drinks continuously since 1914.
For fine dining, SpringHouse (12 Benson Mill Rd., Alexander City; 256-215-7080) brings the farm and sea to the table with fresh ingredients and Southern flair.
Take the family to Sho’Nuff BBQ (256-234-7675), but watch out for the hot sauce! Find this modest place with big flavor at the Alexander City Shopping Center.
Wellborn Musclecar Museum
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the music was rocking and muscle cars were rolling. With light bodies and big engines, these mighty machines gave tire-burning performances. They were the “pony” cars: the Mustangs, Chargers and Challengers, along with the Barracuda, GTO and Camaro. America was young, rebellious and running life at top speed.
Tim and Pam Wellborn fell in love in a Dodge Charger and have celebrated ever since – amassing the country’s largest collections of Chargers, including the original love machine. The Wellborn Musclecar Museum (124 Broad St., Alexander City; 256-329-8474) celebrates the brief and glorious era of fast times and faster cars. The Wellborns’ personal collection can be viewed Monday and Tuesday by appointment and during open hours Wednesday through Saturday.