Long live the Long Beach Grand Prix illusion

Long live the Long Beach Grand Prix illusion
Apr 22, 2015, 5:21 AM

If a street race works there, it should work here, right? Wrong.

Long Beach fans
Takuma Sato, A.J. Foyt Enterprises
Helio Castroneves, Team Penske Chevrolet
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Long Beach atmosphere
Start: Helio Castroneves, Team Penske Chevrolet leads
Carlos Munoz, Andretti Autosport Honda
Podium: Race winner Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, second place Helio Castroneves, Team Penske Chevrolet and third placed Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske Chevrolet
Chris Pook
Jim Michaelian

LONG BEACH, California – It does not take long to walk the 40th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and realize why we’ve seen street races everywhere from Des Moines (TransAm) to Dallas (Formula One) to Denver (Champ Car).

Unfortunately, we’ve also seen them fail.

The illusion about Long Beach is that they make it look so easy. Downtown Long Beach cheerfully gives up its streets, local businesses either close or prepare for a weekend onslaught, depending on what they sell. The police are cool. The schedule is packed with everything from TUDOR United SportsCar Championship to Robby Gordon’s Speed Energy Truck Racing; Pirelli World Challenge to a Pro Celebrity race, and, of course, Indy Lights and IndyCars.

At night, there are concerts – it’s a little surreal, but entirely appropriate, listening to rock music at dusk as the Super Drift Challenge is on the track. There are car parades and plenty of displays in the “Lifestyle Expo” building.

The weather is typically good, but this year, it would have been hard to make a formal weather request and have it come out any different. Warm days, nice breeze off the water, cool nights.

And it’s always been like this, right?

Tough going

Ay, that’s the rub. Long Beach struggled mightily to keep a race going in one of the saddest, least California-cool cities on the coast. You do not have to go far up the road to see the industrial side of Long Beach and the neighboring towns – massive container ships loading and unloading thousands of orange and green and primer gray steel containers, hundreds of tired 18-wheelers dragging them off, one by one, down the Harbor Freeway.

Some of the housing makes Compton look like Beverly Hills. At the little, and cheap, hotel I stayed out, tough and mostly toothless working men gathered around back sitting in white resin chairs passing around a bottle. They were friendly, but I would not want to piss them off.

That used to be a lot more of Long Beach than it is now. The area by the track, almost in the shadow of the Queen Mary, has been the site of so much urban renewal that if you had come to the first race 40 years ago, and just now returned to this one, you’d be dumbfounded. Remember when the starting line was across from the porno theater? Try to find a porno theater anywhere in this portion of zip code 90831. The raciest thing you’ll find is a spanking new Hooters on Aquarium Way.

Formula 5000 at first

The green flag first fell on the Formula 5000 Long Beach Grand Prix on September 28, 1975, and that first checkered flag fell for Brian Redman in his Chevrolet-powered Boraxo Lola. So much has change on-track for the LBGP since – getting Formula One, losing Formula One, getting CART, then Champ Car, then IndyCar; getting the America Le Mans Series, then transitioning to the TUDOR Championship – through it all, promoters Chris Pook and Jim Michaelian and the rest have remained true to the original vision.

Yes, luck was involved, as were city leaders that, more often than not, actually tried to help the event instead of erase it from the books. And loyalty of the fans: TUDOR Championship GT-Le Mans class winner Bill Auberlen  is a regular at the race, since the very first one. He was six then. 

You already know that the Long Beach Grand Prix is the longest continuously running street race in the U.S. Second-longest: St. Petersburg, which has only been operating since 2005, though there were fits and starts as early as 1985.

The fact that Long Beach has been around four times longer than its closest competitor says a lot. It especially says a lot to people who visit, see how successful it is, and go back to their own Hometown, USA and decide to duplicate it.

Easy? Ask Pook and Michaelian about how many of their gray hairs are due to the “easy” success of the Long Beach Grand Prix.

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