Flat Spot On
By Jonathan Ingram
LONG BEACH JUBILEE
The Long Beach race weekend began with a reunion, which fit just right. A birthday party and tribute to Dan Gurney, attended by his many longtime friends and colleagues, launched the weekend like a proverbial champagne cork. It was Dan, of course, who spontaneously introduced the champagne shower to victory ceremonies 42 years ago at Le Mans.
Such is his ongoing popularity; Gurney remains many veteran racing fans' candidate of choice for president, a groundswell that began when David E. Davis, editor of Car and Driver Magazine, nominated him in 1964. The campaign consisted almost entirely of bumper stickers and buttons that proudly proclaimed "DAN GURNEY FOR PRESIDENT" in red, white and blue.
Gurney not only won a Formula One points race at Spa in an Eagle chassis of his own design, becoming the only American driver to win a Grand Prix in an American chassis. He won in all manner of cars at a time when all racing was truly dangerous, including four straight victories in NASCAR at nearby Riverside's now defunct circuit. And among many other accomplishments, Gurney was instrumental in bringing Colin Chapman and rear-engined cars to the Indy 500.
It was only later that Gurney actually turned to politics, in this case those associated with the conduct of motor racing. Gurney's famous white paper in 1978 led to the creation of CART, which saved the Indy 500 itself, among other accomplishments.
Lo, these many years later, the worm has turned and the Indy Racing League has officially regained control of open-wheel racing in America in the name of the Hulman-George family empire that owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The evidence from the weekend, i.e. the vote, is in: reunification has re-built both Long Beach's Grand Prix and IndyCar racing. Ticket sales and the buzz were both up one year after the great schism that lasted three decades ended with one final Champ Car race on these same streets.
While this may not be earthshaking news, it's a step in the right direction for American open-wheel racing at a time when the economy is down and market shares are up for grabs.
They had plenty of fendered cars at this one, too, including the celeb confab that masquerades as a race. Instead of free NBA tickets like the Lakers once doled out to Hollywood's finest, the Grand Prix Association gives selected stars their own Toyotas to race in order to bump-start the crowd.
Once again sportscars brought fendered appeal to the freeway-happy, car-crazed Los Angelinos. The American Le Mans Series ran a caution-free race for 95 of 100 minutes, but had already been slowed by a penalty in the pits against Highcroft's Acura team that ruined the race. The hot rumor has either Lola or Aston Martin Racing bringing prototypes to the ALMS to boost the competition for Acura after Le Mans.
The ALMS race was a reminder that in Gurney's day everybody drove everything that had a chance to win and racing was a cornucopia of car types and driver types.
For those inclined to think the good ol' days are behind us, Dario Franchitti's IndyCar victory on Sunday underscored the fact more drivers are moving around more often in the present. After winning, the Scotsman was happier than Jack Nicholson clinching an Oscar. Last year he was a "banger," which is Scottish for wanker, in NASCAR. His last previous appearance at Long Beach two years ago was in an LMP-2 Acura of Andretti Green Racing that shoulda won, but didn't.
It's unlikely you'll ever see happier second, fourth or seventh-place finishers than at LA's satellite glamour capitol. (The Lakers were in on Sunday, too, at the Staples Center.)
Runner-up Will Power exonerated himself as Helio Castroneves' part-time replacement and as a team player at Penske Racing by jumping in an untried chassis to make room for the team leader, exonerated by a jury in his federal tax evasion trial the day before qualifying.
For his part, Castroneves was happier than, well, anybody's ever seen the always exuberant Brazilian after finishing seventh. Free from the threat of jail and a $2.5-million tax bill, Castroneves slept like a baby, he said, the night before returning to the circuit where he won in his last appearance in 2001 while driving for Penske in CART.
Danica Patrick's fourth place, in her eyes as well as those of any unbiased observer, demonstrated she could hang with the lap times of Franchitti while she was running second in the late stages. It's qualifying on road or street circuits that gets her down, she said, because she can't seem to turn up the volume for the magic lap. Nor, it must also be pointed out, could she turn up the volume on Franchitti.
Because of its understudy status, the least glamorous race of them all was the Indy Lights contest, which fell on Sunday morning. 'Twas a truly gloomy session for Paul Diatlovich Motorsports despite the almost clairvoyant sunshine. An electrical fire sidelined driver Junior Strous at the start. This after PDM and Strous had begun the season with two victories in St. Petersburg.
I dropped by PDM's hauler to offer some consolation and found the owner of the eponymous team and his engineer, Tim Waldrop, sitting in the shadows of the hauler's cavernous interior. They looked like they had just dropped an eight-figure bundle at a hedge fund that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme -- even though they were still leading the points.
"If racing was easy," I said, shamelessly schlepping a cliche after seeing the spiraling depth of the moment, "anybody could do it."
Once back in the welcoming warmth of the sunshine, I was reminded of a story about a visit to Italy that Gurney told during Thursday's dinner thrown for him by the Road Racing Drivers Club.
Gurney had been invited by Enzo Ferrari to test some of his Ferraris at Fiorano. When he asked a confidant who was familiar with Ferrari for some advice, Gurney was told: "Drive as fast as you can and don't crash."
No sweat, eh?
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.