The History of the Long Beach GP!
America's #1 Street Race Roars To 39th Year
The Grand Prix has become Southern California's rite of Spring.
Photo: Tim Mathinsen
For the past 38 years, North America's #1 street race has served up drama and excitement on a silver platter to fans, participants, the city of Long Beach, all of Southern California and even to the world.
In 2013, from April 19-21, the IndyCar series brings Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliff and more top open-wheel drivers roaring down Shireline Drive downtown Long Beach. It marks just another change in this long history of this grand race through the streets of downtown Long Beach.
Who would have thought that Chris Pook's dream, Dan Gurney's persistence, the city of Long Beach's cooperation and Mario Andretti's victories would combine to create an annual rite of spring in Southern California?
Yet this April, cars will roar down Shoreline Drive for the 39th time, highlighted by the high-horsepower machines of the Indy Car Series in Sunday's featured event.
Also during the three-day weekend will be the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race on Saturday, the "triple A" Indy Lights, the wild and crazy World Challenge Series, the exotic sports cars of the American LeMans Series and the wildly popular cars and drivers of Formula Drift.
The Savior, Mario Andretti made the Grand Prix.
Paul Newman in Victory Circle in '87. Photos: Grand Prix Association of Long Beach.
Ahead of them lies the glory or disappointment of the day. Behind them is nearly a half-century of historical moments, magical memories and event-threatening occurrences.
"I'm quite proud of what we have created in Long Beach," said Pook, who launched the inaugural event back in 1975. "What we have here is more than a race. It's a cultural event."
The goal, Pook preached from the outset, was to not to develop a race, but a happening. It is here that he has succeeded most spectacularly.
The champagne bath for '09 winner Dario Franchitti.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has become such a fixture on the local social calendar, it's hard to imagine the days prior to its existence. The event is to Long Beach what the Hollywood sign is to that city, the Rose Bowl is to Pasadena, Pauley Pavilion is to Westwood.
Part of the success story belongs to the fans. The turnstiles click some 200,000 times on race weekend, making the race one of the the largest paid spectator special sports events on the West Coast.
Miss Grand Prix Anastassia Vassilevska enjoys the view from the top.
People have taken to the event with such passion, they plan vacations around the race, often sitting in the exact seats they have kept for years. They have developed fierce loyalty to favorite drivers over the years – Andretti, Fittipaldi, Unser, Zanardi, Tracy, Vasser and now Castroneves and Franchitti.
Grand Prix's Key On-Track Moments
The moments these and other drivers have provided are legendary: Andretti becoming the first American to win a U.S. Grand Prix in 1977, an occurrence that may well have saved the entire event; Danny Sullivan twice running out of gas the final 11 laps in 1985; Michael Andretti out-dueling Al Unser, Jr., over the final 24 laps to earn his first CART win in 1986; Unser, Jr.,'s six victories earning himself the title "King of the Beach;" Michael Andretti colliding with Fittipaldi in a spectacular pit lane incident in 1992 and Zanardi's dramatic late-lap pass of Bryan Herta for the win in 1997.
Grand Prix's Key Off-Track Moments
And that's just part of the story. There was a worker's strike on the eve of the first race and even Pook himself was up the night before the race hammering the fences into place.
A couple of years later, Pook met Formula One's Bernie Ecclestone at the airport with the news that there would be a delay in giving him a check for the sanctioning fee. Ecclestone responded by saying he was getting on the next plane to Europe and taking the entire series with him. Pook held an emergency meeting with bankers and the next day presented Ecclestone with a check.
Yet the biggest moment was Andretti's win, which put the young race o the international map and kept the event roaring down the shore. It is also significant that Toyota has been on board practically the entire time. In fact, it's the longest-running sponsorship in American sports history.
The free Saturday concerts are a big hit with fans.
The Show Goes On For The Fans
For the fans, it's these thrills and many others. A few years ago, the event added a free concert to the lineup and began billing it as "Rock 'n Roar." Bands have included Everclear, Third Eye Blind and Pennywise.
The weekend kicks off with Thursday Thunder on Pine which has pit stop and extreme sports demonstrations and the Miss Grand Prix pageant. On Friday, there is another free concert at the Performing Arts Center for anyone with an event ticket.
The drivers are not the only ones who get to visit Victory Circle.
During the day, people walk around, admire the tans and bodies of other fans and join them for beers behind the bleachers or in the bars. Some, it must be said, never see a wheel turn.
It's all part of the show.