Battle of the Beach: IndyCar Wins Long Beach Grand Prix

2017 LBGP Winner James Hinchcliffe

2017 LBGP Winner James Hinchcliffe (image credit: Gary Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

With Formula 1, as well as IndyCar, ready to return from their mid-season breaks, the silly season news continues to flow.  Instead of drivers, the latest bulletin revolves around the signature Long Beach Grand Prix that has been a staple of the IndyCar schedule since 1984.

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach remains the longest running street race in America, having sustained 43 consecutive years.  While the inaugural Long Beach GP featured Formula 5000, F1 arrived in 1976 and stayed until 1983, when IndyCar took over.

For IndyCar, the Long Beach Grand Prix has been a bonanza, boasting crowds of more than 180,000 over the extended weekend, remaining the 2nd most popular IndyCar race on the circuit, and providing a giant April precursor to the pageantry of the Indianapolis 500 in May.

Given its 2018 contract expiration with the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach (GPALB), the Long Beach City Council apparently felt compelled to bestow a $150,000 project to accountancy KPMG for an assessment of competing proposals to host the street race in 2019 and beyond, given an expressed overture to bring F1 racing back to the Beach.

John Watson of McLaren won the last Formula 1 race at Long Beach in 1983

John Watson of McLaren won the last Formula 1 race at Long Beach in 1983

Two primary motives caused the Long Beach City Council to open the bidding process: 1) F1 exudes worldwide prestige, and 2) the insider beating F1 drum was none other than Christopher Pook, the visionary founder of the original race back in 1975.

Fortunately, the KPMG report reached the conclusion that the current GPALB is the “most qualified” firm to run the race, snubbing Chris Pook and his World Automobile Championship of California.  The report left no doubt that the WACC proposal was truly wacked.

Bluntly, the entire undertaking seemed ludicrous and hollow from the beginning.

First, the exorbitant investment required to accommodate F1 racing would never have made economic sense for a city of Long Beach’s prominence.  Hosting F1 would have necessitated construction of a semi-permanent garage and pit complex.  Additionally, a reconfigured circuit would require costly expansion for the widened track and safety runoff areas that are necessary to host F1.  It would be insanely expensive, impacting the City with dramatic venue changes.

At the end of the day, what costs the city money…costs the taxpayers money, and most of its citizens are currently stretched.

Secondly, the reason the Long Beach Grand Prix is so successful is the assortment of events and activities, which feature a casual, laid-back vibe.  Many of its attendees are not hard-core race fanatics, but are destination entertainment seekers.

These thrill seekers come for the evening concerts, variety of concessions, and spectrum of races, such as IMSA, Stadium Super Trucks, Pirelli World Challenge, and Formula Drift.  The Long Beach race is a tepid melting pot, and offers something that everyone can partake and find enjoyment in.  And the ticket prices are affordable enough to attract the broad masses.

Chris Pook, founder of the original Long Beach Grand Prix

Chris Pook, founder of the original Long Beach Grand Prix

More basic, the WACC bid raised more questions than answers around broadcast rights, sanction fees, etc.  It just seemed unfeasible that WACC could negotiate all of that, honestly.  The death knell was the acknowledgement by WACC that they could not mobilize to host a race until 2020, which would have left the city with a schedule gap and no race calendared for 2019.

And yet, Pook expressed dismay, saying “We’re disappointed.  I don’t understand; apparently the financials weren’t taken into consideration.”  Perhaps that because no realistic numbers were truly on the table.

With the selection committee’s recommendation firmly in hand, we anticipate the full Long Beach City Council will bless these findings when they meet this week and begin negotiations in earnest with the GPALB for a new 2019 contract extension, assuring IndyCar’s leading role in this signature series.

However, one thing is certain: The City Council, having played poker with the best of them, can be expected to seek a more alluring deal with the GPALB, including perhaps a higher rights fee associated with rents for Convention Center and ancillary facilities, as well as neglected road infrastructure repairs and improvements.

Perhaps if we are blessed, this increased cash flow will provide the City of Long Beach with payback of its $150,000 study cost.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Should Long Beach have stayed with IndyCar or pursued F1? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

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