‘The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach: A Look Back’

Gilles Villenueve

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As the Indycar teams begin to roll into Long Beach this week, it’s a great time to look back on the history of this fine event. The idea for a street race through the downtown Convention Center area of Long Beach was hatched by race promoter Christopher Pook nearly 40 years ago. He had a vision that essentially would make his race the United States’ version of the Monaco Grand Prix.

At the same time, Formula One was beginning to look for an alternate site for the United States Grand Prix as safety concerns were growing over the course at Watkins Glen. Pook staged a Formula 5000 race in the fall of 1974 to show that it could be done.

He was granted to go-ahead from Formula One and the circuit hosted the inaugural United States Grand Prix-West in March of 1976 with Clay Reggazoni as the winner. The race was a moderate success, but not on the level that Pook, and the F-1 organizers, would have liked.

It was the 1977 event that forever cemented Long Beach as one of the premier motorsportsevents in the United States. Mario Andretti, driving for the Lotus team, fought a spirited duel with Jody Scheckter and Niki Lauda for the entire race. In the end, Andretti was able to outbrake Schekter going into the hairpin grabbing the lead and taking the victory.  It was the first time an American driver had won a Formula One race on American soil. News of this race was featured everywhere from the front page of the New York Times to the cover of Sports illustrated. The rest, as they say, is history.

Formula One had a great run with Long Beach producing several memorable races. Who could forget Gilles Villenuve’s popular victory in 1979, Nelson Piquet’s total domination in 1980 or Niki Lauda coming back from retirement to win in 1982? Then of course, there was John Watson starting from the 22nd spot on the grid and methodically picking off cars each lap to take the win in 1983.

The cost of staging a Formula One race was increasing to astronomical proportions. Looking for a more cost-effective alternative, Chris Pook and the Long Beach Grand Prix Association opted to run the CART IndyCar Series as the headliner beginning in 1984. The series was gaining popularity at the time, and looking to add more street and road races to their schedule. The CART series was an instant success in Long Beach.

During the early years of the CART era at Long Beach, the names Andretti and Unser became synonymous with the event. Mario Andretti won three times, Michael Andretti twice, and Al Unser Jr. was able to take his car to victory an astonishing six times. Other drivers who have found considerable success at Long Beach include Paul Tracy with four wins and Sebastian Bourdias with three.

John Watson

The race stayed on the schedule through the transition of CART to ChampCar and became a part of the Izod IndyCar Series when ChampCar was absorbed by the Indy Racing League in 2008. The 2008 Grand Prix of Long Beach was the final race sanctioned under the ChampCar name.

The event remains as popular as ever today and has had a tremendous economic impact on the area. Weekend attendance regularly tops 200,000 fans. The event is held in a carnival-like atmosphere that lasts the entire week. Sports heroes, movie stars and television personalities alike can often be seen strolling around the pits, paddock, and hospitality areas. One of the weekend’s popular events is the Toyota Pro-Celebrity race. This race features professional drivers squaring off against well known celebrities in identically prepared showroom stock Toyotas. The celebs are given a thirty second head-start. Television personality and noted ‘car-guy’ Adam Corolla won last year’s event.

The Izod Indycar series will return this weekend to kick off the 39th straight year of racing at the Beach. Andretti Autosport won the first two races of this season and are coming in as the favorites. Michael Andretti must be totally stoked about returning to a circuit that has been so good to him. Andretti’s first win in the CART series came on this track way back in 1986. In 2002, his final win in the series before retiring from driving was at Long Beach. Andretti Autosport drivers have also won two of the last three races at Long Beach.

They’ll certainly get a challenge from Penske driver Will Power who won here in 2008 and 2012. While Power still seems to be finding his mojo this season, he can never be counted out at a street or road race.

Michael Andretti

Indeed, with sixteen drivers picking up top-ten finishes in the first two events, this is nearly anybody’s race. You won’t want to miss it.

Race coverage will be provided by NBC Sports and Sirius XM Radio Channel 211 beginning at 4:00 PM on Sunday April 21st. Live timing and scoring will be available through the weekend or on the IndyCar 13 mobile app provided by Verizon wireless.

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