Long Beach Preview
Last week, with no IndyCar race to watch, Susan and I did a lot of yard work – and I mean, a lot of yard work. While planting trees along the property line, we finally met the neighbor directly behind our house. After we exchanged a few pleasantries, we revealed that we were still technically newlyweds and that we had exchanged vows at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the evening before Pole Day last year. I figured we’d get the same blank stare from him that we get from most people here. Instead, he revealed he is a west-coaster and an IndyCar fan who always used to go to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He immediately began telling us stories of watching Al Unser, Jr., Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti conquer The Beach. Knowledgeable IndyCar fans are hard to come by in Nashville. We may have met a new friend.
It’s hard to believe, but Long Beach is the second longest continuous running track on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule – second only to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This event started in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race. In 1976, Formula One took to the Streets of Long Beach, with Clay Regazzoni winning for Ferrari. Mario Andretti won the following year for Lotus. Other notable Formula One winners at Long Beach included Gilles Villenueve, Nelson Picquet and Niki Lauda.
For 1984, Formula One was replaced by CART at The Beach. Mario Andretti won the first three CART events at Long Beach. Al Unser, Jr. won the next four straight on his way to the six victories he amassed over an eight race stretch. His teammate, Danny Sullivan, punted him in the late stages of the 1992 race to end his quest for five straight – giving the Galmer chassis its first of two victories in its short life.
Other notable winners during the CART years at Long Beach included Paul Tracy with four victories, Sébastien Bourdais with three along with Alex Zanardi, Jimmy Vasser, Juan Montoya, Adrian Fernandez, Helio Castroneves, Michael Andretti and Will Power. That’s pretty much a who’s who for open wheel racing for the past twenty years.
I won’t go so far as to say this is a great race, but it is a great event. I say that like I’ve been there, but to be truthful – I haven’t. I’ve been to the city of Long Beach a couple of times, but not for the race. It’s on my to-do list over the next ten years. This race is always very well attended over the three day weekend – probably the best attendance over three days that the series sees away from Indianapolis. From what I understand, it is a massive party that happens to be centered around a lot of fast cars going by. I don’t think this is the most knowledgeable crowd that the series races in front of, but they sure know how to have fun.
As for the race – well, it’s full of tradition and it’s one of the races that every driver wants on his or her resume. But to say it offers edge of your seat racing for two hours – well, that’s a bit of a stretch. This race has produced many memorable moments over the years. Who can forget Michael Andretti flying over the car of Emerson Fittipaldi just as Emmo was leaving his pit in 1991, or the aforementioned slide job that Danny Sullivan put on Little Al the following year. Long Beach is where Paul Tracy got his first career victory in 1993, while driving for Marlboro Team Penske. More recently Ryan Hunter-Reay scored a well-earned surprise victory in 2010, while Mike Conway came out of nowhere late in the race and began passing cars right and left in 2011 on his way to his first and only IndyCar win. That drive probably explains why Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing signed Conway for a one-race deal for this race this weekend.
One wonders if a surprise winner will emerge for this weekend. The series is headed into its third race of the season, and so far there is no winner from the Penske or Ganassi camps. Andretti Autosport has produced both winners, with James Hinchcliffe taking the honors in St. Petersburg and the defending champion, Ryan Hunter-Reay winning at Barber. Can Marco continue the string for his father’s team and become a third generation winner at The Beach? His season is certainly off to a better start than usual.
Can Dario Franchitti win at Long Beach, as he did in 2009 – or will his nightmarish start continue as he sits dead-last in points after two races? Normally, you wouldn’t think a driver should hit the panic button after only two races – but Dario’s results have been so horrendous, it may be time to panic for him if he wants to contend for a fifth IndyCar title.
Will Power is the defending race winner at Long Beach. He could stand a win to keep pace with some of the drivers that are having excellent starts. Helio Castroneves is the points leader and could pad his lead with his first Long Beach win since 2001, when he was still in CART. Can Charlie Kimball continue his solid start by at least landing on the podium, if not scoring his first victory? Scott Dixon is second in points and would like to add Long Beach to his list of accomplishments while taking the points lead.
Takuma Sato has been strong in practice and qualifying since he started driving for AJ Foyt, but he doesn’t have the results to show for it as he sits in the twelfth spot in points. Tony Kanaan was strong at St. Petersburg, but was way off the pace all weekend at Barber. Kanaan’s teammate, Simona de Silvestro, also showed well in the opener but struggled somewhat at Barber, although she had a better weekend than Kanaan. Can the KV cars get it together at the track where co-owner Jimmy Vasser won in 1996 on his way to the championship that year?
There will be a lot of racing to be done after this race this weekend – sixteen more races to be exact. But I think we’ll have some questions answered after Sunday as to who is going to have a good season and who isn’t. As for picking a winner – there aren’t many obscure drivers over the years, who snuck up and stole a win at Long Beach and I don’t think it will happen this year either. I think Ryan Hunter-Reay is going to make it two in a row as he is determined to prove that his championship season of last year was no fluke. Winning two of the first three races of the season would be substantial proof. Now, we’ll see if we can get together with our neighbor to watch the race.
Enjoy the race!