Long Beach Preview
The Verizon IndyCar Series heads west this weekend for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. This race has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons lately. Well, the wrong reasons if you are an IndyCar fan. Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone had proposed for his series to replace IndyCar when its contract ran out after the 2015 race. Chris Pook, who founded the Grand Prix and later served as a very disappointing commissioner for CART, had been lobbying for the Long Beach City Council to consider Ecclestone’s bid. But just last week, the Long Beach City Council proposed a three-year extension to the IndyCar contract, extending the race through 2018. It will go for final approval in the next few weeks, but is expected to pass.
That’s good news for the Verizon IndyCar Series and its fans. This has been a mainstay on the American open-wheel calendar since 1984, when Mario Andretti won the first of his three victories at “The Beach”. Thirty years later, it is second only to the Indianapolis 500 in continuous longevity and prestige. The Milwaukee Mile has been around longer than both, but has not been on the schedule in some years for various reasons.
I wouldn’t say that the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has cornered the market on the most knowledgeable race fans. Milwaukee or Indianapolis can probably stake their claim there, but those that attend the race come to have a good time. By the attendance reports and the longevity of the event – I’d say they probably succeed. Like St. Petersburg; it is a party atmosphere at Long Beach. Given its proximity to Hollywood, this is the race that a lot of the so-called beautiful people try to attend. It’s a good race to see and be seen.
But not only is this race a big deal to attend, it’s a very prestigious race to win. Prior to CART beginning the American open-wheel era at Long Beach – Formula One ran there for eight years, beginning in 1976 (after Formula 5000 ran in the inaugural event in 1975). Over the forty total years of this event, there are very few obscure names on the list of winners. Formula One legends that have their name on the list include Clay Regazzoni, Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda.
The list of winners in American open-wheel lore to grace the top of the podium at Long Beach reads like a Who’s Who. Those winners include Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Al Unser, Jr., Danny Sullivan, Paul Tracy, Juan Montoya, Alex Zanardi, Sébastien Bourdais, Will Power, Dario Franchitti and Ryan Hunter-Reay – all former series champions.
There will be seven former Long Beach winners in Sunday’s race, including winners of the past four races that I thought were particularly good races for various reasons. Hunter-Reay won in 2010 as a first-year driver for Andretti-Autosport. He had a limited budget and was brought on at the last minute as a part-time driver. He had such good results, he continued to run the entire season. Long Beach was his first win for Andretti. Two years later, he won the championship. Mike Conway won Long Beach in 2011 for Andretti in dramatic fashion. With only a handful of laps, Conway came seemingly out of nowhere to win. He passed cars right and left in places that are not considered the best passing zones, until he assumed the lead. In 2012, Will Power came from mid-pack to win the race. Last year, Takuma Sato ended AJ Foyt’s victory drought and won at The Beach. Who will win it this year and what storylines will go with it?
There has not been a repeat winner of this event since Bourdais won three in a row from 2005 to 2007. But before that, repeat winners were the norm at Long Beach. Paul Tracy won in 2003-04, Alex Zanardi in 1997-98, and Al Unser, Jr. in 1994-95. In fact, Little Al went through a stretch where he won six of eight races – including four in a row from 1988 to 1991.
Sato has been fast so far this season. He sat on the pole at St. Petersburg and led the entire first stint, before yielding to Will Power on Lap 31. Sato finished seventh at St. Petersburg, mostly due to a slow pit stop by his crew. If his crew can get him out of the pits on-time, I’d certainly expect Sato to be in the mix. Will Power looked unbeatable at St. Petersburg two weeks ago. He seems to be re-focused and ready to put the disastrous start to 2013 behind him. Scott Dixon, the defending series champion, has never won at Long Beach. As good a driver as he is, he seems to struggle at the beach. Out of seven starts, he has one fourth place finish – but the rest of his finishes are mostly in the mid-teens or twenties. Can he shake his Long Beach doldrums this weekend?
It’s now time for me to put the curse on a driver and pick them to win, thereby guaranteeing that they will lose this Sunday. The contrarian in me tells me to buck the odds and pick Dixon to finally excel on a track where he historically struggles. My heart says to go with Sato to give Foyt another win and make himself a back-to-back winner. But my head says to go with the streaky driver that is on a roll from the end of last season. Will Power has won three races in a row. Sunday will make it four.