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Long Beach An American Racing Institution

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 14 2012

Mario Andretti competes in first CART Series race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. (Photo courtesy of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Not many people along the Front Range of Colorado seemed to know what to expect when plans came together for a street-circuit event in Denver in the late 1980s. The big question – in the street and in the media – seemed to be, like, “So, 200 mph cars through downtown; Now how is this going to work again?”

The answer turned out to be not very well.

The first race – with the extremely cool CART cars being the main event – attracted the true race cans, the curious and the up-for-any-kind-of-party folks. The second race attracted increased complaints about hassles created by the even and as a result, the event went on an 11-year hiatus. Five years after coming back, it went on permanent hiatus.

So seems to be the pattern when it comes to holding races on street courses; race and fade.

With one notable exception – the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

The Toyota GP of Long Beach is an event that has hosted Formula 1, CART, Champ Car and now, IndyCar and the American Le Mans Series.

It survived the withdrawal of the first three of those series and prospers-on under the fourth and fifth.

This weekend, the event will be held for the 38th consecutive year. And for the 38th time, perhaps a quarter million people will make their way to the event. And for the 38th time, it will be conducted over the same port-city streets which were christened by the best twisty drivers in the world – Nicki Lauda,

Dan Gurney competes in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race. (Photo courtesy of the Toyota)

Mario Andretti and Alan Jones.

There are promoters from a couple dozen other cities who would like to know the secret of Long Beach’s success.

Ask the Long Beach promotors about the secret and you get a promoter’s answer; loaded with chamber of commerce type stats and lists.

Les Unger has been involved with the race since the 1980. As Toyota Motorsports national manager, he has played a major role in developing the event and its format.

He said, just like most other places, it was not an easy sell to city officials and residents of the area in the early days. Many saw unavoidable disruptions of everyday life as counter balancing potential benefits to the community.

Indeed, short-term hassles for the people who lived and worked in the downtown area are one of the reasons the Denver race eventually moved a mile west to to the Pepsi Center and then to the circular file.

But, Unger said, the Long Beach event, which started as a Formula 5000 race, “caught on big, big time during the Formula 1 years.”

And the benefits to the area made it easier and easier to renew contracts with the city. “They went from one year deals, to two-year deals to five-year deals. It’s now accepted because of the overall benefit that over the last 30 years it has brought to the City of Long Beach.”

Unger says that the key to the event’s success can be found in the fact that the event is, in reality, a lot of events.

“It’s, let see, seven events this year,” he said. “You pay your money and there is something going on all the time.

“There’s something there for everyone. There’s some people who just come on Friday and Saturday. They don’t come for the IndyCar race on Sunday. They want to see the sports cars on Saturday and they want to see the Pro/Celebrity race on Saturday and they want to see practice and qualifying on Friday. And there are many other interests fans can avail themselves of. They can walk through the interactive displays and exhibits, do this, do that, talk to drivers.”

And hit the clubs and bistros.

Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, offers similar explanations as to the race’s ability to live long and prosper.

“It starts with the venue itself,” Michaelian said during a telephone conversation earlier this week.

Brian Redman cruises downtown Long Beach. (Photo courtesy of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach)

“When we started this event, the city of Long Beach wasn’t the most attractive destination but that was one of the reasons the race was given a chance to establish itself. The city was looking for something to transform its image.

“Coming (to the race) now, it’s a very attractive and enjoyable experience.”

Mike Harris, now a senior writer for RacinToday.com, covered every Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach from 1980 through 2010; as lead auto racing beat writer for the Associated Press and then, this website.

He said it remains one of his favorite events. He said understands why it remains a favorite of fans.

“One is that the community remains very involved,” Harris said. “When (original promoter) Chris Pook first came up with the idea of a street race in Long Beach, he and the other race founders put together a committee of local volunteers to help get it going. Many of those people, or their children, are still involved and Pook lieutentant Jim Michaelian remains in charge.

“Another reason for its success is the venue itself has only gotten better with time. When it started, the downtown area was a rundown, seedy ghetto of bars and x-rated theaters. Now, the area is clean and safe, with a convention center and aquarium anchoring blocks of highrise hotels and office buildings with upscale restaurants and shops.

“Finally, I think the track, tucked between the harbor and the city, continues to look spectacular on TV. The crowds remain big because it is a SoCal happening and cars are still important there. All of that combines to keep the LBGP fresh, fun and successful.”

RacinToday.com’s Jonathan Ingram, too, is a long time veteran of Long Beach.

“It would be nice to wax poetic about the racing and the setting at Long Beach,” Ingram said in analyzing

Long Beach is more than a race.

its success, “but I think the Grand Prix’s longevity has a lot to do with great execution by the organizers, starting with Chris Pook and now CEO Jim Michaelian, who was part of the Long Beach Grand Prix Association from the beginning in 1975. They always kept the fans, the city and their participating series happy with hard work on organizing the event and putting on a good show, including wacky and shameless promotional gigs like the Toyota Celebrity Race.

“If there’s any luck involved, it’s the fact the Long Beach course was not ever needed for development, which all took place across the street. By contrast, downtown Miami was revitalized by Ralph Sanchez’s street race, but that process eventually overtook the race circuit and forced a move to a new location, which turned out to be Homestead.”

But most, if not all, of the other attempts at building successful street races have had similar assets. Ocean views, ancillary activities, vibrant restaurant and entertainment scenes, great weather, nice hotels and easy access.

But Long Beach breezes along.

The thought here is that the in Long Beach has a couple things most of the other venues do not/did not have.

One is good racing. The on-track product in the streets of Long Beach is high in quality – for a street race. Manhole covers and concrete barriers and all.

Michaelian gave a nod to that.

“Every good circuit needs to have at least one good passing zone,” he said. “Preferably, have two. But that’s a challenge because you don’t want to have just two long straightaways because there’s no character to that. So if you can find at least one long passing point that is wide enough, it needs to have speed differentiation to be a braking zone and that is a prerequisite.

“We were able to create that on shoreline drive and into Turn 1 and, to a lesser degree, back on Seaside Way.”

Long Beach seems to have the approval of drivers. Most look forward to racing there, some say they actually like the course.

And some will get their first taste this weekend.

“Well Long Beach is brand new to me,” said IndyCar rookie but F1 veteran Rubens Barrichello. “I have seen the race on the DVD and it looks fantastic from the driver perspective and from the outside. I am happy to be going there and hopefully I will have the maximum time on the track so I can learn it quickly in order to have a good and competitive weekend.”

But what most separates the Long Beach race from other street races – both alive and deceased – seems to be that it has crossed over the line between an event and institution.

It has been around long enough to generate its own history, its own legends and its own momentum. Unger says it has become an “ingrained” part of racing culture.

Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing said, “Long Beach is a real street race – in fact it’s the oldest major one in North America. Southern Californians simply call it “The Race.” That defines equity.”

Driver Graham Rahal says,  ”It’s one of the most iconic races around the world.”

What it has, obviously, is something dozens of other events have tried to capture but have not been able to.

The following list of American street events comes courtesy of racing guys John Procida and Tom Blattler:

California

1. Del Mar (IMSA)

2. Los Angeles (NASCAR)

3. San Jose (Champ Car)

Arizona

4. Phoenix (F1)

Nevada

5. Las Vegas (F1/CART) – actually two Las Vegas attempts

6. Reno (SCCA)

Colorado

7. Denver GP (CART) – another city with two attempts

Texas

8. Houston (CART/Champ Car) – another city with two attempts

9. San Antonio (IMSA)

10. Dallas (F1/CART)

11. Addison (Trans-Am)

Iowa

12. Des Moines (Trans-Am)

Louisiana

13. New Orleans (IMSA)

Georgia

14. Savannah (Indy Lights)

Florida

15. Miami (IMSA and CART)

16. Tampa (IMSA)

17. St. Petersburg (Trans-Am/IRL) – 3 tries here

18. West Palm Beach (IMSA)

District of Columbia

19. Washington (ALMS)

Maryland

20. Baltimore (IRL)

New Jersey

21. Meadowlands (CART)

New York

22. Niagara Falls (Trans-Am)

Ohio

23. Cleveland (CART)

24. Columbus (IMSA)

Michigan

25. Detroit (F1/CART/IRL) – Yes, 3 strikes and you should be out – God Bless Roger Penske

26. Grand Rapids (Trans-Am)

And the list doesn’t even include the legendary….Hawaii Super Grand Prix that was supposed to take place in 1995!

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 14 2012
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