CHAMPCAR/CART: Long Beach circuit tour

1996 PPG INDY CAR WORLD SERIES Race No. 4 TOYOTA GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH Long Beach, California, April 12-14, 1996 A CIRCUIT TOUR by Robert Heathcote Last Thursday (4/4) I visited the area surrounding the Long Beach Arena and Convention...

1996 PPG INDY CAR WORLD SERIES Race No. 4 TOYOTA GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH Long Beach, California, April 12-14, 1996

A CIRCUIT TOUR by Robert Heathcote

Last Thursday (4/4) I visited the area surrounding the Long Beach Arena and Convention Center -- along the Pacific coastline of the city of Long Beach, California -- site of this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. What follows are some notes and thoughts from my "circuit tour"; and, a general description of the race track.

(For reference, a map of the Grand Prix of Long Beach circuit can be downloaded from AUTOSPORTS BBS (310-641-9627), though a newer and more colorful version can be found on the WWW at http://www.longbeachgp.com)

My first stop was to the finally completed "Circle of Champions," a permanent public monument and winner's podium for the Grand Prix Prix of Long Beach. Located at the corner of Linden Avenue and Shoreline Drive and funded in part by title-sponsor Toyota, The Circle of Champions is open to the public year-round, except during the Grand Prix weekend.

There you will find a nice tribute to all the Grand Prix of Long Beach winners, dating back to Brian Redman's F5000 win in 1975. Indeed, for all 21 races, there is a bronze likeness of each winning driver fixed in the concrete floor, orientated like a checkered flag, just beneath the small three-tier permanent podium.

Of course, the likeness of Al Unser Jr. dominates, with six "faces". Al is to be on-hand Tuesday for a special dedication and will sign his name in concrete, as will all future race winners.

I must admit it was pretty neat to stand atop the podium. For race fans, I suppose it is equivalent to occupying the footprints at Mann's Chinese Theatre. A tip of the hat and a "Well Done" to Toyota, the Long Beach Grand Prix Association and its Committee of 300 volunteers.

Unfortunately, like any tribute, there is bound to be an omission or error, and one from the latter category was immediately noticeable: A nice plaque describes what you are looking at, but says the driver's helmets are depicted. An annoying goof, but certainly not reason enough to skip this impressive landmark of Southern California motorsports if you are visiting Los Angeles.

Now to the 8-turn clockwise circuit and its front straightaway, the aptly named, "Shoreline Drive". One of the cross-over bridges was still under construction (and the tv people were none too pleased as they had to reschedule related rigging duties). But this appears to be the last major installation before the gates open next Friday to accept over 200,000 fans over the weekend.

High above the grandstands directly opposite pit road is now the home of Race Control. In previous years the Race Control trailer has been located at ground level just before the pitlane entrance, and with little or no view out its windows. The view is now much better, but it is quite a hike from pit road.

Those familiar with the circuit know the Shoreline Drive Start/Finish straightaway is not straight at all, but that its gentle 90-degree clockwise bend over an approximate half-mile distance assures full-throttle speeds all the way down to Turn One.

Turn One (also known as Toyota Turn), is a sharp 90-degree right. If anything, it is a true test of car/driver out-braking ability and is where most of the overtaking will take place. Compared to most braking areas of its type on the IndyCar circuit, this bit of road is very smooth, owing much to Shoreline Drive's freeway-like concrete construction. At this point the Indy car drivers will have shifted down three or four gears from 190 mph to about 60 mph to begin a series of slow corners and short straights, through which most drivers will hold the same gear all the way to the exit of Turn Four. Though the track is plenty wide enough for three cars as you approach T1, only one can fit through the corner unless the other car is obliging.

Turn One is also interesting because this is where the pitlane rejoins the circuit proper. Merging drivers must yield the corner, and, usually they do. Timing the merge is a tricky thing, and in the practice sessions you're sure to see someone jump on the binders just short of a wing-clipping and stall the car at the concrete-wall apex. With the aforementioned speeds, this is when the SCCA Cal-Club volunteer corner workers really earn those box lunches, so give them a thankful applause when you see them clear a car from such a hazardous position.

Immediately leaving T1 the road changes to asphalt and just about 50 yards further you'll find Turn Two, a 110-degree left taken at about 50 mph. Drivers will carefully apply the power on exit because it is always a little slick here. The correct line is probably more like 120-degrees because of the wide approach needed for Turn Three. Through T2 the road is also very tight and going two-abreast is foolish at best, as Al Unser Jr., learned in 1993 when would-be Indycar champion Nigel Mansell held his line. Improved last year with the removal of the concrete-wall apex, Turn Two features a steep-angled curb like you might see at a permanent road course.

At Turn Three it is a bit more possible to complete a pass, but still, only if the other car gives way. As previously noted, the setup for entry to T3 is taken very wide, as the circuit allows, because the exit is probably the tightest of the course. If you like to see close calls, bent wings and broken dreams, this is your corner; where Unser Jr., did the latter to Mario Andretti in 1989 and where Paul Tracy made a London Bridge of Gil de Ferran in 1995. The apex here was also changed last year from concrete wall to curbing in order to enhance driver visibility. Turn Three is the first of now three corners to feature four inch-high rumble strips.

Turn Four (also known as Budweiser Turn) represents the first of two significant changes of 1996 as Grand Prix of Long Beach circuit designer/developer Dwight Tanaka has replaced yet another apex of concrete wall with curb and rumble strips and T4 is perhaps where it was most needed. While it is another slow corner, taken at about 70 mph, there is absolutely zero allowance for error as there is zero escape road. So the improvement to enhance visibility across its cannot be understated.

The exit of Turn Four represents the end of what is generally known as the front-side of the circuit and where the drivers will begin another trip up through the gears to top speed.

Turn Five (also known as Texaco Bend), just 100 yards from T4, is really a left-right S-bend of two corners and it is one of the few places you will ever see cars up-shifting while cornering (albeit gently).

The relatively long backstraight -- just a bit shorter and a lot straighter than the front -- is known to every-day traffic as Seaside Way. Seaside has some very rough spots, partially due to the fact that it serves up tracker-trailer trucks to the back entrance of the newly expanded Long Beach Convention Center. On the plus side, Seaside Way is just as wide as the frontstraight so it is possible to find a relatively smooth line to help keep constant power to the ground. Of course, this is easily done in practice and qualifying but not so easy in the race with a whole field of cars in your mirrors. Side-by-side-by-side can get very interesting when the cars are momentarily launched towards the sky.

Turn Six (formerly known as Goodyear Turn and now named after Firestone), where Seaside meets Linden Ave., is the fastest corner of the Grand Prix of Long Beach and it is here that I found the biggest circuit change for 1996: Like at Turn Four, curbing and rumble strips replace the concrete wall apex here for the first time.

Standing at about the turn-in point, the view across the apex of T6 was absolutely wonderful and I can't wait to see how much faster this corner will be just because of improved visibility. I suspect it will tempt drivers to carry more speed. Maybe too much speed.

Probably to be taken in fourth gear by brave Indy car pilots, the road surface changes from asphalt to concrete-patch to asphalt again. The concrete wall at the exit of T6 is lined with tires two-deep, but this will do little to safely stop an Indy car from an out-of-control 100+ mph, as Andre Ribeiro discovered in practice here last year. There is still a very generous run-off area and the wiser of the over-committed do not even attempt a turn-in.

Passing here is just as common as at Turn One, but it is a little tougher to make pass into Turn Six because it is a medium-speed corner. The best place to watch the action here is in grandstand #19, but only if you can sit at the very north-most end of the bleachers so you can see the cars on the backstraight as they approach the corner.

>From T6 to Turn Seven (also known as Havoline Turn) the road is straight for about 200 yards, and it's this stretch I call "bill-board row," because looking from T7 head-on at the on-coming traffic is, in the background, the largest wall of advertisements and banners I have seen anywhere: about 150' wide and 50' tall. The sponsors are not dumb: Not only is this where a television camera is smartly located, but it is also the best location for fans to take pictures of the cars as they come right at them.

But besides being a good photo opportunity, Turn Seven's long 160-degree bend to the left, probably taken in 3rd gear at about 80 mph, is nothing to get excited about -- no passing opportunities -- but it is important because from this corner a driver could setup a passing attempt at the final corner, the right-hand hairpin at Turn Eight.

Hairpin corners like this can be a messy thing, and this one is about as tight as they come, even for a street circuit. But it is possible to place your car inside a rival and steal the corner, if given a chance. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, both cars get stuck and the rest of the field will go by, if the road isn't completely blocked. The hairpin, while nostalgic, is well past its prime and Mr. Tanaka's circuit already has enough single-file corners, in my opinion. To his credit, Tanaka's hands are tied and Founding Grand Prix Promoter Chris Pook has run out of available real estate. As Pook will tell you, the course is a best compromise of many things.

But by itself, the hairpin is still challenging -- just go over and stand along the fence during practice or qualifying. The driver must not only stay within the walls of the concrete canyon, he must also get the power down at the precise moment for maximum traction and do so with the left rear tire on asphalt and the right rear on concrete.

Indeed, the drivers will often say, if there is one repeatedly troublesome spot on the circuit for a race engineer, it is balancing the configuration of chassis and gearbox to produce the best mechanical grip to get the best launch possible from the hairpin so that the driver has a good chance to complete a pass a half-mile later at Turn One, or roughly half that to the checkered flag, whether for pole position in qualifying or for the win on the last lap of the race.

About 30 yards from T8 towards the Start/Finish line is the entrance to pit road, and drivers are required to commit to pit, or not to pit, to prevent would could be a major pileup.

The pitlane at Long Beach will probably be remembered by most fans for the frightening accident there in 1991 involving Michael Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi. It was after this -- if I remember right -- that IndyCar adopted, globally, pitlane speed limits, first introduced by Long Beach organizers.

The pitlane itself is probably the longest on the IndyCar tour and, as such, provides plenty of room for every pitbox -- even with 33 entries, the Long Beach Indy car record set in 1994.

What the pits do not have is depth behind the pitwall. I'm guessing each team has something like 20' by 10' of space to store all their gear over the pit wall, including the refueling rig and tire sets.

During the Indycar practice and qualifying sessions, in a narrow accessway behind the teams, hospitality suites squeeze in several hundred credentialed persons.

Bunches of onlookers -- the press core, sponsor's guests, and a limited number of hard-core fans with deep pockets -- surround top drivers like Rahal, Unser, Andretti, and Fittipaldi (it sounds like I'm reading from IndyCar's US 500 ticket brochure but this is in fact just how it is).

Up to about ten minutes before the sessions all these people are allowed over the wall to mingle around the cars in the pitlane even reach up and touch them. Then a signal comes and groves of people return to their pit suites and the rest squeeze back into the accessway.

During the race, the pits are off-limits to everyone without a CART-issued photo badge or the correct color-coded wristband -- and these people are required to wear a protective fire suits. I did hear a rumor that the fire suit rule may be waived this year but given the fact that there was a pit fire just last week at Surfers Paradise, I wouldn't be too surprised if officials again require protection. I'm paying special attention to this issue because, though I've had the correct color wristband in the past, I do not have a fire suit. I do have some reservations of shunning protection, but I would like to experience some hot-pit action; just not too hot. :)

Note: The next report will probably not be ready until Tuesday night unless there is some big news to report.

-Robert Heathcote

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Paul Tracy , Nigel Mansell , Mario Andretti , Al Unser Sr. , Emerson Fittipaldi , Brian Redman , Andre Ribeiro