Coming next month, April 16 through 19, the 36th Annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach takes to its street course under the auspices of IndyCar, which now combines the Champ Car and Indy Racing League series for the first time in a dozen years.
The race is the biggest-single sporting event in California, drawing several hundred thousand fans during its four-day run. In American auto racing, only the Indy 500 draws more fans and has more TV viewers for an “open-wheel” event (the race cars, unlike stock cars, have no fenders, hence the term open-wheel).
I’ve attended every Long Beach Grand Prix since its first running in 1975. Brian Redman won that race, which was open to Formula 5000 cars, a truly crazy, whacked-out race series using 5-liter American-made engine blocks and the most outrageous aerodynamics ever seen on any race car, from huge wings and engine air intakes to cars with something of a working vacuum-cleaner under them to keep them stuck to the ground.
After that first event, the promoter turned to Formula 1, the world’s most-expensive racing series, and stuck with that format from 1976 through 1983. In those years, I noted Beatle George Harrison and Rod and Alana Stewart in the pits; perhaps not what you’d see at California Speedway in Fontana, about 75 miles east.
In those early days, the race used Ocean Boulevard for the main straight and the pit area. Two short connector roads, each highly-inclined, got the drivers up to Ocean, then back down to the Shoreline Drive area. When the cars went up to Ocean, they almost always went airborne, then on the down side, more than one driver lost control under the hard braking and the “Bang!” felt as their suspension bottomed-out at the bottom of the hill. It made for great photos!
For me, the most emotional win in the F1 era at Long Beach came in 1977, when Mario Andretti became the first American driver to win an F1 race in this country. In 1978, Andretti took the F1 world championship.
Long Beach was a far different place in those days, and I still remember the Grand Prix people covering the marquee of the Mitchell Bros. porno theater on Ocean with black tarp so visitors wouldn’t be shocked. Parts of the old Long Beach Pike amusement park were still in use, and the dive bars and low-end tattoo shops which had served generations of sailors welcomed the business brought by the race.
Today’s downtown Long Beach is a showcase of high-rises, classy condos, the Long Beach Convention Center and nearby aquarium. Pine Avenue, the street F1 drivers used to get up to Ocean, is now full of expensive restaurants and clubs, and Long Beach hotels are often full with conventioneers.
Since 1984, the feature race at Long Beach has been with open-wheel American race series, first with Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and then with Champ Car, an off-shoot of CART and now with IndyCar.
Mario Andretti, Alex Zanardi, Al Unser, Jr. and Michael Andretti were all winners at Long Beach, as well as Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Paul Tracy and Nigel Mansell.
There are several other fun events, on-track and off, during Long Beach’s four-day run, including the popular Celebrity Race, Firestone Indy Lights (a step-up training series for IndyCar), the American LeMans Series endurance cars, the Speed GT Challenge and drifting.
Ticket prices are all over the map, from $20 for a three-day garage pass to $795 for the full hospitality treatment. Reserved parking is a must.
Bring your hats, sunshade and cold beverages, and for more information visit www.LBGP.com.
Steve Parker has covered the world’s auto industry for over 35 years. He’s a two-time Emmy Award-winner who reported on cars for almost a decade at both KTLA/TV5 and KCBS/TV2. He is a consultant to the NBC-TV show Whipnotic and the show’s companion website, www.Whipnotic.com. He created, writes and moderates the only all-automotive blog on The Huffington Post at www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-parker. Contact Steve through his own automotive issues Web site at www.SteveParker.com.