Longing for Long Beach

Longing for Long Beach


The third round of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season should have been this weekend at Long Beach. David Malsher-Lopez laments this iconic event’s absence from a schedule butchered by the coronavirus.

Today, Friday, April 17, should have been the first day of practice for the 46th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, but for the first year since 1974, there won’t be a Grand Prix in sunny Southern California.

Instead, Shoreline Drive, Pine Avenue and Seaside Way remain open to the public, yet are eerily quiet due to stay-at-home orders. Restaurants and bars on The Promenade, Pacific Avenue, Ocean Boulevard and Pine Avenue should be emitting a sonic confluence of loud voices, clinking glasses and clattering cutlery, with business booming so much that patrons have no choice but to withstand the springtime evening chill and make use of outdoor seating areas bedecked with checkered flag garlands. Instead, in the Covid-19 era, some establishments are clinging to survival by serving take-out meals, but most stand deserted, inside and out, as they have done for weeks now.

The Convention Center in Grand Prix week traditionally hosts a Lifestyle Expo, and also features areas where kids play and where parents dream as they gaze at a bevy of beautiful classic cars. Downstairs, come Friday, journalists would be tapping urgently at laptops informing fans of the latest track action, photographers would be uploading pictures to illustrate those stories, while race series’ admin staff and team PRs would be providing all parties with facts and figures, and setting the appointed hour of seemingly vital press conferences.

Today, no one’s visiting the LB Convention Center for pleasure; instead, it houses far more worthy workers with far more urgent business, as it has been prepped as a hospital overflow facility.

2019, and Alexander Rossi’s Andretti Autosport Honda triumphs for the second straight year.

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

Outside, there’s no stage for the annual rock concert; just yards and yards of yellow police tape sealing off the area. No beer trucks, no food trucks, no inflatable ‘King Taco’, no pulsating 93.1 Jack FM van, no chain-link fences to divide souvenir stalls from the paddock, and the paddock from the path that leads to the grandstands on Shoreline. Even the concrete blocks holding debris fences for delineating the 1.968-mile course have been tucked away in storage for another year.

Perhaps even more poignant than the absent items are the few still-visible reminders of good times put on hold. Awaiting a repainting they won’t need again until April 2021 are the scarred checkered start/finish line on Shoreline Drive, and sections of red-’n’-white curbing at various points all around the track. The Firestone (IndyCar) and Michelin (IMSA) rubber ingrained into the pavement also survives the elements and remains obvious at every turn-in, apex and exit. And on South Pine, of course, you can’t miss the Motorsports Walk of Fame comprising sunken metal plinths bearing names such as Unser and Andretti, Newman/Haas and Penske.

So now we know how it is when America’s greatest street race, an annual festival of all that is good about motorsport in the warm California sun, is put on ice for a year. It’s sad.

IndyCar’s decision to cancel the 2020 edition of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach came on March 13, when it simultaneously pulled the plug on the races at St. Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park and Circuit of The Americas. The president and CEO of the GP Association of Long Beach, Jim Michaelian, briefly provided some hope as he sought an alternative date that might work for the city council, local businesses and the series itself. Five days later, even this dedicated and tenacious man was forced to concede defeat, and an event that is reputed to bring $35m to the local area was parked up for a year.

Michaelian’s struggles have been replicated across the motorsport universe, with race organizers scurrying to rear-load their year’s schedule in the wake of multiple postponements, or scrambling to make financial ends meet in the face of outright cancelations. And of course, racing is far from sacrosanct in the face of a pandemic: as in any other line of business, throughout the industry there have been pay cuts, furloughs and even redundancies. Hard to believe that barely five weeks ago a few senior figures within IndyCar were stating that they didn’t expect the 2020 schedule would be affected, while some venue operators seemed to think their gates could stay open based on the promise of increased numbers of hand sanitizing stations.

As fans, we’ve had one month to get used to the idea that Long Beach won’t be happening this year – but it still hurts, this weekend most of all. Unlike several other canceled sporting events, the centerpiece of GPLB has never been the be all and end all. This isn’t just a race, it is not for aficionados only. The Grand Prix of Long Beach is an occasion – like the Indy 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Sebring 12 Hours – that attracts in their tens of thousands people who are there simply to have a good time at a local but giant festival. That marks it out from so many other IndyCar rounds, and so too does its heritage.

Clay Regazzoni, Ferrari 312T leads Patrick Depailler, Tyrrell 007 into the first corner at the start of the 1976 GP of Long Beach.

Photo by: David Phipps

Two years ago, just three months after Dan Gurney died, his son and former sportscar ace Alex drove around the Long Beach course in one of Dan’s creations, the Formula 5000 Eagle-Chevrolet in which Vern Schuppan had finished runner-up in the inaugural Grand Prix there. This wasn’t just a chance to pay our last respects to a New York-born, California-bred legend: Dan, along with America’s first Formula 1 World Champion, Phil Hill, had been a consultant who helped shape the event, and the original course layout.

The noise as Alex fired the Eagle’s 302 cu.in V8 Chevy into life made kids drop their ice-creams and grown men drop to their knees in praise of a time when blaring V8s weren’t muffled by turbochargers. One can only imagine – actually, some lucky souls will actually remember – how it was to hear 28 of these beasts, whittled via heat races from an original entry of 44, rumbling around Long Beach’s original 2.02-mile layout in 80sec, an average of about 90mph, on Sunday, Sept. 28, 1975. The blast of noise as Schuppan, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Tony Brise, Brian Redman, Tom Pryce and their rivals rumbled out of the pits – situated on Ocean Boulevard in those days – rattled shop front windows, sent tremors through grandstands and created a deafening echo off all the surrounding concrete.

The official attendance figure that day was 46,000, but this F5000 event had served merely as a trial run for the following March when the Formula 1 World Championship would roll into town. That would boost the prestige of the event but, in return, the event’s originator and architect Chris Pook would need Long Beach to look more classy for Bernie Ecclestone’s circus. And in order to justify to Long Beach City Council the seven-figure expenditure for local upgrades, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach needed to make F1 a repeat visitor. Pook and trusty GPALB lieutenant Michaelian (financial controller in those days) made things happen, drove things forward, and gathered sage advice from the likes of Les Richter, president of Riverside Raceway.

The ‘United States Grand Prix West’ held on March 26-28, (yes, just six months after the F5000 edition) outstripped anything else on the F1 calendar in terms of festivities. Pook and Michaelian effectively set a new template for street course motorsports events, taking the show to the people, but also keeping them entertained whether the headline act was on track or not. On the Tuesday of race week, the F1 cars were parked on Pine Avenue in what was effectively a concours display, where the public was allowed to mingle, ask questions of the attendant team members, and pose for pictures with the cars and drivers. Come the weekend, there were parachutists, drag boat displays, a Toyota celebrity race, motorcycle stunt teams, historic F1 cars and flypasts. And after the Hawker Sea Fury aerobatics came the sound and fury of 22 acrobatic Grand Prix thoroughbreds, bouncing and tricycling their way around the course, revs rocketing as fat bias-ply tires lost traction on the dusty surface.

Dan Gurney, a consultant for the GPALB, stands by as friend and former rival Stirling Moss interviews Ronnie Peterson before the ’76 race.

Photo by: David Phipps

After a weekend like that, it hardly mattered that Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari left everyone behind and dominated the race. In the event’s infancy, the sight of these cars crossing the limit of adhesion at every turn may have still seemed incongruous but, damn, it was spectacular. The cherry on the sundae that Sunday was Phil Hill demo-ing a spare Ferrari 312T just before the race, and Dan The Man on the podium to interview Mega Rega.

And so, having embraced history, Long Beach then started making it. Even on occasions when the winner was dominant, the result was memorable. In ’77 – the first year of local Toyota dealership support – the three-way battle between Jody Scheckter’s Wolf, Mario Andretti’s Lotus and Niki Lauda’s Ferrari was mesmeric. In ’78, when the startline moved from Ocean to Shoreline, rookie Gilles Villeneuve shocked the world by leading comfortably before climbing over Regazzoni’s dithering Shadow at half-distance and handing the win to teammate Carlos Reutemann. In ’79 Gilles made amends with a dominant run to the checkers, a performance that Brabham’s Nelson Piquet emulated the following year to score his first F1 win.

With the Queen Mary forming a unique backdrop, Jody Scheckter’s Wolf leads the Lotus of eventual winner Mario Andretti and Niki Lauda’s Ferrari in 1977.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The guy who Piquet beat that day, Riccardo Patrese, then claimed his first pole position when F1 returned the following spring, but a blocked fuel filter in his Arrows left race honors to the dueling Williams drivers, with Alan Jones eventually prevailing over Carlos Reutemann. 

That was the final year of the slow but wide hairpin at the end of Shoreline Drive. To make room for construction of the Hyatt, in 1982 a new right-left-right sequence would connect Shoreline to Pine Avenue’s climb up to Ocean Boulevard. In ’83, Ocean was gone too – Long Beach’s weekend traffic had been too disrupted, according to the spoilsports – and so (logically) the pits moved to Shoreline, where the grid formed. But sadly, this also meant we lost the Pine incline and the Linden leap, replaced by a twisty section leading to Seaside Way (which remains the back straight of the current track) and then a similarly convoluted route back to Shoreline.

Carlos Reutemann’s victorious Ferrari 312T3 in 1978.

Photo by: David Phipps

The day after the ’83 event, memorably won by John Watson’s McLaren from 22nd on the grid, the widespread rumors about the event’s future were confirmed; that had been Formula 1’s final visit to the West Coast. Pook was friendly with Ecclestone but F1 hosting charges had ballooned too much for an event whose race day attendance had plateaued some way south of 100,000.

“We cannot make enough money to justify the [F1] race,” said Pook at the time. “In eight years of running Formula 1 races, the shareholders have not been paid a dime.”

So he switched the event to Indy cars for 1984, and provided an interesting insight into how F1 had changed over the previous eight years.

“I have been impressed by the growth of the CART series,” he said, “and they are good people to do business with… It is easier and much cheaper for us to hire an Indy car driver for promotional purposes than to get an F1 driver.”

Mario Andretti would win four GPs of Long Beach including here in 1984, the first time it featured Indy cars rather than F1.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

It still is, and that’s part of IndyCar’s charm, as are ticket prices that allow the AGPLB (Acura replaced Toyota last year) to remain one of the great spectator bargains in sport. But it’s the venue’s facilities and the fans’ access to the stars, human and mechanical, that remains key to the off-track appeal of the NTT IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and that is somehow accentuated in Long Beach. Perhaps it’s because many of those who line up for autographs here are not die-hard fans, but through osmosis while attending this local Grand Prix and perhaps by watching the Indy 500 on TV, they have come to know the names of the best drivers.

In 45 episodes, Long Beach has seen races that were on a knife-edge throughout, others that were pretty much decided on Lap 1, while the majority covered all points in between those extremes. Fate deals cards here as it does at any other venue. For that reason, too, the venue has featured regular starring roles for champions – Jones, Lauda, Piquet, Mario and Michael Andretti, Big and Little Al Unser, Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Alexander Rossi – but has also seen success by more infrequent winners such as Regazzoni, Watson, Mike Conway (twice!), Takuma Sato and James Hinchcliffe.

The course is 1.968-miles these days, and it’s simpler than the original layout (in some ways more demanding for drivers trying to pare a tenth here and half a tenth there), but the backdrops and some of the corners would be familiar even to those who haven’t visited since the ’70s. Some buildings are worn, the concrete blocks have their scars, and the pavement is ratty and tatty in places, but the sightlines around the track can still float you on a cloud of nostalgia back to the days of reading Long Beach race reports illustrated by sepia images and printed on beige and grainy magazine paper, when you had to rely on your mind’s eye to add the color and atmosphere of place and time.

Penske’s polesitter Will Power leads eventual winner Dario Franchitti of Chip Ganassi Racing and Luczo Dragon Racing’s Rafael Matos at the start in 2009.

Photo by: Bob Heathcote

The Grand Prix of Long Beach could have been a one-off F5000 curio in ’75, or an event that simply discontinued once Formula 1 departed, or one that failed during the U.S. open-wheel split. What has saved it over four-and-a-half decades, aside from decisions made by Pook, Michaelian and its owners since 2005, Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe, is that this event has become embedded in the SoCal psyche by perfectly blending informality with prestige.

Which is why April 16-18, 2021, can’t come soon enough.

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