4/24/2013 - Long Beach GP Serves Up History, Heritage
Long Beach, CA – Thirty-nine years ago, Long Beach was a harbor town--and a favorite stop for the Merchant Marine and the many navies that stopped here to re-supply. With a wealth of bars, houses of ill-repute and locker facilities to keep gear, the salty sailors took in the atmosphere in an age where sex was safe and the rigors of the sea whet their appetites. That is until a man named Chris Pook saw an opportunity to showcase the industrialized ship-building and logistics port and put it on the map as one of the most glamorous stops on the racing calendar.
Nearly four decades later, it is all that and more: the docks are still there - but moving toward “green” environmental initiatives – modern high-rises posture along Ocean Avenue as Long Beach continues to host a race that has become the favorite stop of the glitterati and some of the finest names that racing has to offer at any given time. Add to that a mix of celebrities, rock and roll, 5-star accommodations and the support of a car culture that is uniquely Southern California.
Call to mind that Chris Pook’s SCCA/USAC Formula 5000 event, won by Brian Redman in a Carl Haas/Jim Hall-entered Boraxo Lola T332 so many years ago, would evolve into a Formula One race, known as the US Grand Prix West, then become the crown jewel for many years for CART and Champ Cars and now, the most popular stop on the Izod IndyCar calendar beyond the Indianapolis 500 itself.
One can just stroll around the paddock and see numerous legends including Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti, Arie Luyendyk, Stefan Johanssen and Parnelli Jones, to name a few.
For many of the fans, the long history of the event itself sits in the hearts of the repeat customers – some from the very beginning. Long Beach pays a great deal of tribute to its racing past during the course of the weekend.
Those tributes began Thursday as Long Beach’s Mayor Bob Foster unveiled the latest plaques of great racing veterans in its Motorsports Walk of Fame induction ceremony. This year it honored Canadian Paul Tracy, a four-time winner of the race here, and Mexico's Adrian Fernandez, who Long Beach Grand Prix Assn. President Jim Michaelian credits with the significant influx of Hispanic fans to the circuit and to racing itself.
Tracy was contemplative during Thursday morning’s ceremony as he retorted, “I walked around here last night as the sun was going down and said to myself, ‘Man, where did all the time go?’ I still feel as young as ever."
Thursday night celebrated the Road Racing Drivers Club (RRDC) banquet, this year honoring inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix Champion and vintage racing favorite, Brian Redman (see separate story). The affable Brit did not disappoint as he told great stories and paid deserving tribute to wife Marion for “putting up with him” for 50 years!
The 2013 Long Beach Grand Prix treated fans to the cars and stars of IndyCar, with Dario Franchitti taking his 30th career pole in his 250th Izod IndyCar start for the 2013 headliner. The knock-out styled qualifying blanketed the entire field within a three-second margin, providing a starting field of 27 screaming Dallara Hondas and Chevys. The race, an exciting 80-lap street slugfest, introduced a new victor to the series in the form of ex-Formula One driver, Takuma Sato over Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson – ending an 11-year winless drought for AJ Foyt Enterprises and providing IndyCar its first Japanese winner.
The Patron American Le Mans Series ran a two hour race that saw Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr take the checker in Prototype 1 by 37 seconds over Nick Heidfeld and Neil Jani. The race, which featured prototypes by Lola, Oreca and HRT, along with GT cars including Porsches, BMWs, Corvettes and Ferraris with many familiar racers from the gamut of big-time motorsports including Scott Sharp, Guy Cosmo, Tomy Drisi, Olivier Barretta, Jan Magnussen and Bruno Junquera.
The Pirelli World Challenge sports car series and IndyLights – with a first corner accident that nearly wiped out half of the 10 starters –rounded out the supporting shows, providing an absolute cornucopia of American road racing for the faithful. For the 21st century race fan, the turn 9 complex through the straightway hosted Motegi Drifting under the lights, a spectacular attack on the senses – and on tires. The evening event packed the stands in the complex as tire smoke, rubber marbles and high-pitched 4 and 6-cylinder screams pelted the crowd.
Several other long traditions were exercised during the weekend including the 29th ugly Hawaiian shirt contest, the famed lifestyle expo – and most unforgettable, the 32nd Toyota Pro-Celebrity race that pits A- and B-listers of Hollywood wheel to wheel on the streets in equally-prepared cars. This year Toyota provided the exciting new Scion FRS, retiring the Scion TC from celebrity racing duties. A rumor floated throughout the weekend that this might be the end of the Pro-Celebrity Challenge run as the administration has other support race ideas.
Long Beach and the rites of spring event remains Southern California’s longest-running racing tradition, having long outlived Riverside and Ontario raceways. The Long Beach Grand Prix is looking forward to its 40th Anniversary next year. Here’s hoping those activities will include deep respect to its storied past... – Reported by Tom Stahler