Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: The Grand Prix of Long Beach is a Big Deal

As Formula 1 fans, IndyCar fans, and now even NASCAR fans know, street races are usually a passing fad. For every Monaco Grand Prix or Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that becomes an iconic staple of its calendar, there are countless Valencia Street Circuits, Dallas Grands Prix, Grands Prix of Baltimore and Grands Prix of Houston that only make it a few years, with a few Vietnam and Boston Grands Prix that never happen at all thrown in for good measure. 

For the ease of getting to a track in the middle of a city and the spectacle of watching race cars on public roads, promoters must go through a logistical crucible. Not only must they devise a layout that is safe and creates exciting racing, they have to do it out of pre-existing stretches of tarmac and get permission from municipal authorities to close down those roads for nearly a month. They must negotiate the twin bureaucracies of sanctioning bodies and city governments and create a motorsports event out of the tiny overlap in that Venn diagram.

Let alone the fact that the non-racing infrastructure needs to support the increased traffic of tens of thousands of race fans and industry members descending on a roughly two-mile stretch of tarmac, without the noise or inconvenience turning the public against the event. The cutthroat world of local politics means that the tide of public opinion can turn on a dime, bringing new officials into office who are ready and able to trim motorsports right out of the city budget. So the fact that this Sunday (April 16) will mark the 48th running of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in California (the land of NIMBYism) of all places, is remarkable on its own.

Still more remarkable, this seemingly-random IndyCar street race has outlived NASCAR’s Auto Club Speedway. That’s not because Southern California is open-wheel crazy. IndyCar’s own events at the speedway in Fontana – some the fastest and most competitive closed-course auto races in the world, failed to catch on. Yet Long Beach survived. It’s North America’s longest-running street race, American auto racing’s most historic event that doesn’t have ‘500,’ ‘24’ or ‘12’ in the title. It was the crown jewel of Champ Car, the only race to survive reunification without missing a beat, and the NTT IndyCar Series’ biggest race with right turns. 

It’s a European-style Grand Prix with distinctly American flavor, all under the Southern California sunshine. It’s a race you can watch from a yacht in the marina or the patio of a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Last year, for a $40 paddock access sticker, fans could walk right up to racing legends Jimmie Johnson and Helio Castroneves and ex-F1 pilots Marcus Ericsson and Romain Grosjean.

The Grand Prix was the brainchild of Anglo-American travel agent Chris Pook, who wanted to create a Monaco-esque destination event in Southern California, one that he felt could revitalize the derelict waterfront of the port city of Long Beach, about thirty minutes’ drive from downtown Los Angeles. 

These comparisons to Monaco are familiar to anyone who’s watched the explosion of street races on the F1 calendar in recent years. By this point, series should be used to lofty promises and expectations failing to be met. The difference is, this time it worked.

The first Grand Prix of Long Beach was a Formula 5000 proof-of-concept in 1975, but the second was a fully-fledged F1 race. Clay Regazzoni in a Ferrari won the inaugural United States Grand Prix West.

In its eight years as a World Championship race, Long Beach winners included Gilles Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda in addition to Mario Andretti, whose 1977 victory remains the most recent for an American driver on American soil. John Watson’s victory in 1983, the last F1 race at the circuit, set an F1 record that is unlikely to be beaten. The Englishman climbed to the top step of the podium after starting 22nd.

The track layout changed several times in Long Beach’s F1 era, with the biggest being the shift in the location of the start/finish line from Ocean Avenue to the now-iconic sweeping right on Shoreline Drive. The circuit has always been tricky, its rough surface and narrow width punishing machinery and challenging drivers despite generally pleasant weather. 

For 1984, citing rising costs, Pook switched the race to an IndyCar event. In its first edition under CART rules, Andretti became the first multi-time winner of the race, a stat he backed up in two of the next three Long Beach races. His son Michael Andretti earned his first career IndyCar win at the track in 1986, breaking up his father’s streak, before Al Unser Jr. took the reins in 1988, winning four in a row and six of the next eight.

See also
Al Unser Jr.: King of Long Beach

The list of winners in the CART era is a who’s who of IndyCar legends: two Andrettis, ‘Little Al,’ Danny Sullivan, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Castroneves. It was this consistent presence on the CART schedule, along with its star-making power (Andretti, Tracy and Montoya won their first IndyCar races at Long Beach) that transformed the event into more than just another street race. It certainly didn’t hurt that the city of Long Beach grew in prestige alongside its biggest sporting event.

In 1999, road construction forced another layout change, and the famous fountain section was added to the track for the first time.

One year later, the circuit reached its final form, the one that has remained for the last 22 years: start on Shoreline drive, passing zone into the Turn 1 left-hander, narrow fountain section that starts to open up as cars pass the convention center, and the final, fearsome hairpin in the Aquarium of the Pacific parking lot which is, for my money, the best place to sit and watch the action. 

Still, 2003 was the decisive year in the history of the open-wheel Split, as most of the big-name teams and drivers defected to the IRL, leaving CART in bankruptcy. But the Long Beach Grand Prix continued, and with no Indy 500 on its schedule, became the de facto Crown Jewel of the new Champ Car World Series. 

Frankly, it was a lone bright spot in an otherwise struggling operation, and when the IRL merged with Champ Car at the end of 2007, the Long Beach Grand Prix was the first race they kept. Despite a scheduling conflict that saw the ex-IRL teams in Japan on the same day, the ex-Champ Car teams lined up on the grid on April 20, 2008 for one final time. The last Champ Car race, which counted for full points towards the 2008 IndyCar championship, was won by Will Power.

Since reunification, IndyCar’s Grand Prix of Long Beach has been a popular and consistent presence on the schedule. After a run of underdog winners in the 2010s including early-career Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato, and Mike Conway (twice), the race has been dominated in recent years by IndyCar’s biggest names: Alexander Rossi, Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden have won every race held since 2018. In 2020, the race was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and was delayed to September the following year. Alex Palou won the Astor Cup on the streets of Long Beach in 2021, the lone time the Grand Prix has served as series finale.

See also
Inside IndyCar: Push-to-Pass

It’s not entirely controversial to claim that the IndyCar series is outranked in prestige by its largest race. The Indy 500 is so big a deal for the sport that everything else looks like peanuts in comparison. But Long Beach is still a cut above the rest. It helped turn a derelict port city into a tourist destination and proved that street racing can work in America, a formula IndyCar has been trying to replicate ever since. It’s birthed stars and decided championships and finally put the Split to rest. 

It’s often forgotten, rarely mentioned in the same breath as Daytona, Sebring, Darlington or Indianapolis, but the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a great American motorsports tradition. Come mid-April every year, you know where I’ll be.

Plus, there’s incredible support-series action all week. Historic F1 cars, Stadium Super Trucks, Formula Drift. What more can you ask for?

The NTT IndyCar Series Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach airs this Sunday (April 16) at 3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.

About the author

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

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