Long Beach Preview

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The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will run this weekend for the forty-second consecutive year. That is the longest running stretch of any race, by far, on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule – with the exception of the Indianapolis 500, of course. There are many mainstay non-ovals that we take for granted to be on the schedule each and every year – St. Petersburg, Barber, Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. But none have the date equity and staying power as the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

When Champ Car and IndyCar reunified in 2008, it created a schedule snafu. Many traditional CART markets prior to the split, were suddenly in jeopardy. Toronto fell off the schedule for one year. Road America went away and didn’t resurface until this season. Portland disappeared for good, as did Cleveland. Surfers Paradise was run after the 2008 season finale as a non-points paying exhibition before it dropped off for good. But there was one weekend that stood out – Long Beach.

IndyCar was already scheduled to run at Twin Ring Motegi the weekend of Long Beach, in 2008. Knowing what a gem Long Beach was, something had to be worked out in order to preserve the event and keep it available for future dates on the newly combined IndyCar calendar.

It was finally decided that the 2008 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach served as the Champ Car farewell. The transition teams would have one last hoorah in the short lived DP-01chassis, while the IndyCar teams would race in Japan. Points accrued in the Champ Car finale would count towards the IndyCar standings. It was a little convoluted and awkward, but it showed the importance of keeping a continued presence in Long Beach and how important that event was on the schedule.

CART, Champ Car and IndyCar are not the only sanctioning bodies to run at The Beach. The inaugural event in 1975 was a Formula 5000 race. The next year, Formula One staged the first of eight F1 events there. Long Beach F1 winners include Clay Regazzoni, Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda. In 1984, CART replaced F1 at Long Beach and it has been sanctioned by an American open-wheel series ever since.

I’ve never been to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. When I was a kid, we went on board the Queen Mary, which still sits across the harbor from the main stretch on Shoreline Drive. But believe me; this race is on my short list to visit at least once.

This race is rarely the best race of the season, but it is always entertaining and usually offers at least one major surprise. One example is the pit mishap in 1991 between pole-sitter Michael Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi. Michael and Emmo were running second and third respectively, when they pitted under the yellow for John Andretti’s crash.

Michael came out of his pit first. As he was barreling down pit road, the Penske team waved out Fittipaldi just in front of the oncoming Newman/Haas car of Andretti. That was in the days of little or no speed limit in the pits. The result was that Michael went up in the air at a forty-five degree angle and almost onto his hat. At the time, it appeared that the incident affected the points greatly. Michael Andretti left Long Beach with only two points in hand after two races, but went on to win the championship. Those that have buried Will Power this season, can take note.

The next year, Danny Sullivan threw everyone a curve – not only because he unseated Al Unser as the consecutive four-time defending race champion, but in the manner in which he did it. Little Al and Sullivan were Galles/Kraco teammates. As usual, Little Al led most of the race. That is until the closing laps when Sullivan stuck the nose of his Galmer/Chevrolet under the identical chassis of Unser, Jr. Little Al spun in the turn and Sullivan went on to take what may have been an unpopular win within the team.

More recently, there have been many surprise winners. Ryan Hunter-Reay ended a two-year race drought in 2010, when he earned only his second IndyCar win (although he did win twice in Champ Car) in the under-funded fourth car for Andretti Autosport. The next year, it was Mike Conway in an even more surprising win for Andretti. In 2013, Takuma Sato gave AJ Foyt his only win in over a decade. The team has not won since, either. The following year, Mike Conway won his second race at The Beach in four tries – this time for Ed Carpenter.

In fact, the only two “expected” winners this decade have been Will Power in 2012 and Scott Dixon earning his first-ever Long Beach win last season. They join a very impressive list of winners of this event – a list that includes Al Unser, Jr. (six wins), Mario Andretti (four wins), Paul Tracy (four wins), Sébastien Bourdais (three wins), Michael Andretti (two wins), Alex Zanardi (two wins) and Will Power (two wins). Past winners among current drivers are Power, Dixon, Bourdais, Hunter-Reay, Sato, Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya.

This season, I’m 0 for 2 on picking winners. I picked Helio for St. Petersburg and Newgarden for Phoenix. Both came up empty. Whose race will I ruin this weekend by picking them? The only current Penske driver to have never won at The Beach – points leader Simon Pagenaud, to get the monkey off of his back since joining Team Penske.

From what I see on television; this race can be good, but seldom is it great. But from what I understand, the throngs that actually attend this race are there more for the party atmosphere than the great racing. Most of my hard partying days are way behind me, but I would still like to go to this historic event and experience it at least once. Maybe next year.

George Phillips

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3 Responses to “Long Beach Preview”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    At Long Beach and Toronto, the question for me is always whether there will be a lot of contact or a whole lot of contact.

    I like the Pagneaud pick. Rahal to finish second because that’s what Rahals do at Long Beach.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    George, I continue to wonder how you find the time to research these racing columns as well as you do three times each week and still keep your regular job. And keep a wife. Like most good supervisors I imagine you have learned how to delegate. Maybe Johnny Mac covers for you.

    When it comes to picking winners I think I do a good job with beer and burger joints. With race winner picks………..not so much. So, a weekend of California girls and racin’. What’s not to like?!

  3. I had to go with Penske because of their qualifying. Of the 32 races at Long Beach, 16 of them have been won by a driver starting on the front row. Also, 25 of the 32 races have been won by a driver starting in the top four.

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