What to expect at Long Beach this year?
There are just a few days before noise erupts in the city of Long Beach as the Verizon IndyCar Series takes to the 11-turn, 1.968-mile street course next to the Pacific Ocean. There’s more to Long Beach, CA than racing - and we’ll talk about the racing part and the visiting aspect of the weekend here.
This is a track that rewards a tidy driver who doesn’t get too out-of-shape as walls are its primary features, both inside and out. There’s precious few runoff areas for those that make mistakes, so it’s best to drive smart over 80 laps come Sunday.
Even so, an “attacking” driver like Takuma Sato can find success here, as the Japanese pilot of AJ Foyt’s No. 14 ABC Supply Dallara/Honda/Firestone Indy car is the defending champion of this race. Taku drove a heads-up race last year to take the win and is hoping to repeat, this time with the boss in the house.
In his stead, best friend Tony Kanaan has finally made his way to Ganassi’s winning stable as reigning champion Scott Dixon’s teammate. He joins two other race winners on Chip’s victory farm, Charlie Kimball and Ryan Briscoe. Don’t ever count out that quartet!
Neither can one dismiss Team Penske, particularly with Will Power showing that his early 2013 showing (or lack of same) was an aberration. The Aussie dynamo has won Houston 2, Fontana (likely his most impressive victory ever) and this year’s season opener in St Petersburg. Guy’s on a roll - and wasn’t he great in that little sketch with David Letterman’s intern Todd? Such a dry, wry sense of humor.
Will’s teammates are no slouches: Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya have both won in Long Beach and know how to work these city streets to their advantage. Montoya’s having a rough return but nobody ever thought it would be easy for him; the scenery has changed immensely since this Colombian left after winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, a year after taking the CART title.
Andretti Autsoport always seems to be on a roller coaster ride with 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and newcomer Carlos Munoz. They’re all either hot or not, particularly Hinch, who seems to win to be nowhere. Hunter-Reay drove a great race at St Pete, Marco’s had some good runs (and bad luck) at The Beach and Munoz raced here in Indy Lights. Now that they’ve swapped engines from Chevrolet to Honda - even as Ganassi went the opposite direction - we’ll have to see how their fortunes fare.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLLR) will be a two-car team this weekend as Graham Rahal is joined by Oriol Servia, who was his squad mate with Newman/Haas Racing back in the day. Servia’s setup abilities and his race-worthiness are both traits that should help second generation shoe Rahal find his way; while Graham’s always been quick here, his only good result was last year’s second place result. He’s hoping for one better in 2014.
Sato returns to AJ Foyt Racing in hopes of back-to-back winning results; Josef Newgarden, now in his third season with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing is looking more mature by the minute, Schmidt-Peterson-Hamilton Racing has the flying Frenchman Simon Pagenaud and Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin in their corner, while two-time LB winner (and four-time champion) Sebastien Bourdais has brought his very large bag of tricks to KVSH Racing, together with his last-year teammate Sebastian Saavedra. Also never count out Justin Wilson, the lanky Briton driving for Dale Coyne - if you do, he’s bound to surprise you.
For fans heading to The Beach, which is what we who live here call it - or The LBC, as Snoop does - there’s plenty to take in when the Indy cars, Indy Lights, Toyota Pro/Celebrity, TUDOR United Sports Car Series, Pirelli World Challenge and Robby Gordon’s Super-Trucks aren’t providing a grand show.
There are Tecate concerts, people watching and the Expo inside the convention center adjacent to the racetrack to take in. The latter offers a 40-year retrospective of this race that is bound to be interesting and informative. This is my 40th time working this race and I intend to find my way to the exhibit as it’s close to the World Challenge garages, always a special treat in itself.
For foodies, there’s plenty to eat in downtown, starting on Pine Avenue and The Promenade, which are the city’s main gustatory treats. The Federal, Alegria, Cafe Sevilla, Octopus, King’s Fish House, George’s Greek, Congregation Ale House and L’Opera, to name just a few, will quench both hunger and thirst.
In the East Village (just a couple of blocks from the circuit) there are some fabulous places to dine and wine, once you’re finished listening to drivers whine. Special props to District Wine, Asha (Mediterranean/Moroccan), James Republic (attached to the Courtyard by Marriott), 555 The Steakhouse, Utopia, The Green House and Crepe de la Creme. There’s also the new, and very popular The Breakfast Bar on Atlantic Avenue and Pepper Corner across from the Vons supermarket.
If there’s time, take in Second Street about 3 miles from downtown; it’s filled with shops and eateries. There are many locally-owned shopping choices in addition to chains on Second Street and it’s fun to walk and people-watch.
The 40th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is more than a race - it’s an event - and just coming in for the noise, vibration and harshness of motor sport will stop you from getting the most from the three-day soiree. Plan to take it all in and don’t forget sunscreen as it’s always bright on race day.