Race Weekend Central

The Legendary Long Beach Grand Prix and How It Became a Signature Event

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is a strange creature, indeed. It’s been a marquee event on three different racing series; was twice essentially saved by Mario Andretti, who was merely doing what Mario Andretti did best; features a winner’s list that looks like a Who’s Who of Motorsports for the past 40 years; has a title sponsor that is an auto manufacturer who isn’t even involved in the racing; and was the swan song of the series that called it home for the longest time in one of the strangest twists of all.

This Sunday will be the 39th running of the event that was the brainchild of a local travel agent and race fan, Chris Pook. That makes it the longest running major street race held in North America. Pook initially tried the concept in 1975, as a Formula 5000 race and when that went well, attracting some 46,000 fans, he followed up six months later with a Formula One race that also was a moderate success.

But competition on this scale was expensive, and Pook needed more than moderate success to make this thing fly. In 1977, Mario Andretti brought him exactly that by outdueling Jody Scheckter (father of Tomas, for you astute open-wheel fans) and Niki Lauda to become the first American to win an F-1 race in a U.S. Grand Prix. It made headlines all over national news and put the Long Beach Grand Prix on the map.

The winner’s list at Long Beach reads like a Who’s Who of Open-Wheel Racing. Photo Credit: INDYCAR LAT USA

Formula One is the territory of our F-1 guy, Andy Hollis, but sometimes we open-wheelers overlap a tad. The Long Beach Grand Prix remained a Formula One event for the next six years. Our readers will recognize names like Gilles Villeneuve, the 1979 winner, or Nelson Piquet, who scored a flag-to-flag victory in 1980, for their sons if for no other reason. 1980 was also the year Toyota came on as the race sponsor. It’s been the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach since then.

The final Formula One version of the Grand Prix was held in 1983. Pook faced a financial dilemma again, with rising costs for purses, sanctioning fees, and just getting the predominantly European series to the race, so when Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) approached him, about running Champ Cars he chose to sign them instead. They debuted, in 1984 but there was some nervousness over whether Champ Cars would draw race fans the way the exotic international F-1 show did.

Cue Mario Andretti again. The longtime favorite went out and won the inaugural CART version of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, making headlines nationwide just as he had in 1977 and the event never missed a beat. Andretti, incidentally, won the race a total of four times, once in F-1 and three more times in a Champ Car. But for son Michael interceding, in 1986, those final three victories would have been consecutive. Mario is also one of only two drivers to win the race in different series, the other being Will Power who won it in 2008 in Champ Car and 2012 in IndyCar.

The 2008 running of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was probably the most bizarre version of the storied event. By that year, the Champ Car World Series (formerly CART) was in trouble and a merger with the IRL IndyCar Series was in the works. The merged series would feature events from both schedules, moving forward and Long Beach was definitely on the short list to stay. But for 2008, the IndyCar Series schedule already featured an event at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on the same weekend. Longtime engine supplier Honda owns Motegi, and a change of dates was out of the question. Likewise, a change of date was out of the question for Long Beach, given the plans the city puts in place for the preparation of the temporary circuit on city streets.

The only solution, odd as it was, was to have one final split weekend, with all of the regular IndyCar drivers racing in Japan and all the former Champ Car drivers racing in Long Beach one last time in their Panoz-Cosworth Champ Cars, the ones they would have raced had the merger not taken place. Both races counted toward the 2008 IndyCar Series championship.

In May of 2008, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach signed a five-year agreement with INDYCAR to run the IZOD IndyCar Series beginning in 2009, continuing the longstanding event under its third different sanction.

Everybody who is anybody in American open-wheel racing has won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. In the 29 runnings since CART/IndyCar took over, American drivers have dominated, winning 14 times. Of those 14, 11 of those winners have been named Andretti (Mario three times, Michael twice) or Unser, specifically Al Jr., who won a mind-boggling six times, four of them in a row between 1988 and 1991. The other three American trophies belong to Danny Sullivan, Jimmy Vasser, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion, winning in 2010 in what is probably the moment that convinced team owner Michael Andretti he needed to hang on to Hunter-Reay, no matter what it took to find a sponsor.

Other multiple race winners include Paul Tracy, a four-time champion, Sebastien Bourdais with three (coming back for another shot this Sunday) and Alex Zanardi, with back-to-back victories in 1997 and 1998. NASCAR’s Juan Pablo Montoya boasts one of these trophies and was the first rookie to win the race.

In addition to Bourdais, Power, and Hunter-Reay, past winners Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, and Mike Conway will also be running this weekend.

Today, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is the single largest event in the city of Long Beach and regularly draws attendance of 200,000 plus. The addition of the Firestone Indy Lights, American Le Mans Series, Formula Drift, Pirelli World Challenge, Robby Gordon OFFROAD Stadium SUPER Trucks, and the legendary Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race makes for a grand total of seven on-track events over the course of the weekend.

Long Beach makes more than just a weekend out of it, though. Concerts, festivals, charity events, the fun starts early and goes on all week. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is a signature event, no matter what the name of the sanctioning body presiding over the racing and that’s why it survives and remains a coveted spot on any series schedule.

The Grand Prix Association of Long Beach has a deal with the city of Long Beach to continue the race through 2015, with an additional five-year option and there is no reason to think this wildly successful event won’t continue well past the current deal.

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