Stars pumped for final Long Beach Toyota Pro-Am

As the Toyota Pro/Celebrity event at Long Beach gets set to be held for the 40th and final time, an incredible list of former winners has been assembled. Anne Proffit takes a closer look.

Next weekend marks the 40th and final time Toyota Motor Sales USA will hold the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race on Long Beach’s 1.968-mile street course.

The Saturday afternoon race has always been a crowd favourite as professional drivers do battle celebrity invitees for over 10 laps – but it all ends this year.

To celebrate, Toyota has invited all of the race’s past winners to jump aboard the 210-horsepower Scion FR-S race-prepped cars. They’ll compete on behalf of the “Racing for Kids” charity.

There are quite a few invitees with ties to the Verizon IndyCar Series and its predecessors, unsurprisingly most filling the ‘professionals’ quota.

The Return of the King!

Toyota invited six-time Long Beach race winner Al Unser Jr, who won the Pro/Celebrity race three times – twice overall and once in the Pro division. Famously known as the ‘King of the Beach’, Unser Jr said he’s “always enjoyed running here. What can I say? It was the the first city street race in America and it’s a wonderful event.

“We’ve just been so fortunate here. I just enjoy the city, the weather and all that.”

Unser is joined by ‘Mad’ Max Papis, who was the overall winner of this race in 2004. Papis currently drives in NASCAR, and has raced at Le Mans, in Formula 1, and in Champ Car.

Papis, who began racing IndyCars in 1996 when he was tabbed to replace the late Jeff Krosnoff at Arciero Racing, has three Champ Car victories on his resume and raced to a championship for Lexus in IMSA’s 2004 season, the same year he was victorious in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race.

“I really enjoy the people and all of the events here, the history behind Long Beach and the incredible driving we’ve seen over the years,” Papis noted.

“Turn 1 is amazing but the corner that’s really the signature at Long Beach is the ‘hairpin’ that goes back onto the long straightaway. It’s the key to a clean lap.

“Long Beach,” he added,” is one of the most challenging street courses I’ve ever been to, for sure. It’s the ‘King of the Street Courses’.

“I’m a driver; I will never retire; this coming weekend I’ll just go out there and do what I love to do.”

Once finished with his 10 laps of the Long Beach circuit, Papis has other duties to assume in the Verizon IndyCar Series Race Control, where he is one of three stewards on duty to help officiate the series’s 32nd visit to The Beach.

Although he’s slated to compete in Saturday’s Toyota Pro/Celebrity finale, Verizon IndyCar Series 1996 champion and current team co-owner of KVSH Racing Jimmy Vasser missed the media day held on April 5 through illness.

Vasser, who won the overall Pro/Celeb title in 2010 is, of course, a former Toyota Atlantic Series champion as well. He owns a Toyota dealership in Napa, California as well as a distinctive winery that boasts his famous car #12.

Can a biker mix it at the front?

While he only drove once at Long Beach in an Indy car – he finished ninth for Galles in 1996 – motorcycle Hall of Fame member and four-time 500cc Motorcycle champion Eddie Lawson also caused a stir when he took pole there in Indy Lights two years earlier, driving for Tasman Motorsports.

How did he know the track so well? Because he took overall victory in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race in 1993!

Lawson believes the key to getting a good lap at Long Beach applies to any street circuit: “You’ve got to concentrate to stay off the walls,” he said. “Long Beach is a fun circuit; I really enjoy it and always have.

“There are so many fast guys in this race and I’m going to have a lot of fun no matter what happens. You’ve got Little Al [Unser], Jimmy Vasser, Max Papis and [NASCAR racer] Mike Skinner.

“All of them are fast guys; they haven’t lost anything. They’re fast and I know how fast they are.”

Beating any of them will be a tall order for Lawson: “I’m here to have fun, but maybe I can race with them? I don’t know yet. I’m not discounting those celebrity guys either.”

Lawson keeps his hand in, his reflexes going, and stays limber by karting and by driving John Anderson’s 1977 Wolf WR1 Formula 1 race car in historic competition. The ex-Jody Scheckter machine is a handful, and also has a Long Beach connection; it narrowly lost to Mario Andretti in the classic ’77 race, due to a slow puncture. And by coincidence, that was the first year of the Toyota Pro/Celeb race.

The Scion racecar Lawson will drive next Saturday appeals to Steady Eddie because “they’re so equal. You just get out there and it’s always fun to drive somebody else’s car.”

As for the celebs…

Actor Frankie Muniz has raced in the Pro/Celebrity sprint four times and was winner of the celeb class in 2005. He’s also raced in the Atlantic Series when it was the Swift 016/Mazda-Cosworth combo.

“I thought it was fun… I did some testing in Toyota Atlantic before that time,” he confessed.

“The key to getting a good lap around here? Well, you just have to be smooth, because if you try to overdrive these cars they’ll bite you. You’ve got to be tidy, hit your marks like in any other kind of racing. And yeah, you’ve got to be fast.”

Why does every racer love Long Beach? Muniz says “they call it the Monaco of the USA as far as racing goes. Long Beach has a beautiful setting, the talent group does an amazing job, the crew is great at getting everything ready for the weekend, too.

“There are the parties - it’s just everything,” he added. “It’s an amazing event. As far as drivers go, it’s one of the favorites in any series.

“Long Beach has a lot of history; this is the 42nd year of the race, remember? F1 raced here, all the ‘greats’ raced here and it’s pretty cool to be part of it.”

The 40th Toyota Pro/Celebrity race features practice and qualifying on Friday, and the race goes green at 11:40AM PDT on April 16.

There are 21 entries in the race and 19 of those are former winners, in either or both categories. Among the drivers that would love to be on-site for this race but can’t, due to prior commitments, is former Indy car racer Danica Patrick.

“I’d just like to be able to lead Tommy Kendall around on a leash again,” she said, “like I did the year we raced together (2002) and I won. That was definitely cool.”

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