Long Beach Preview
Indy cars have been running at Long Beach since 1984, when Mario Andretti took the checkered flag. Formula One raced at The Beach from 1976 through 1983. Formula 5000 was the premier series attraction at the inaugural running in 1975.
Besides Mario Andretti, some of the iconic names that have won at Long Beach include Michael Andretti, Al Unser, Jr. Danny Sullivan, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Sébastien Bourdais, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay. More recent winners include Takuma Sato, Mike Conway and Simon Pagenaud.
Looking back, it was Long Beach that launched Pagenaud’s march to the championship last season. Although Pagenaud had moved into the points lead after the second race at Phoenix, winning Long Beach last year began a three-race streak of wins that cemented Pagenaud into a lead he would never relinquish.
Pagenaud’s Long Beach win last year was not without controversy. There was a blend line rule in place for cars exiting the pits that Pagenaud clearly violated, allowing him to re-enter the course ahead of Scott Dixon. No penalty was issued to Pagenaud. With this being the last round of pit stops, Dixon was never able to pass Pagenaud on the track and he went on to win the race. By the time the series got to Barber the next week, added procedures were put into place to make sure the controversy wasn’t repeated.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is known more for the event surrounding the race than the race itself. The setting could not be better – southern California sun, a scenic harbor adorned with the RMS Queen Mary stationed across the water from the main straightaway. I’ve never been to this race but from what I understand, it is nothing but several days of parties situated around a race track. It’s probably safe to say that many in attendance aren’t really there for the racing. That’s good because this race may not always be the most exciting on the schedule.
Don’t get me wrong – there have been many memorable moments over the years. I remember in 1992, when Danny Sullivan took out his teammate Al Unser, Jr. in the closing laps, ending Little Al’s bid to win five races in a row at Long Beach. He would go on to win two more races after that, but it was probably not a pleasant day in the Galles/Kraco team garage that afternoon.
The year before that saw Michael Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi tangle in the pits – this in the days before pit speed limits. Fittipaldi was waved out of his pit unaware that Michael was about to come screaming around the bend in pit road. Emmo went wide to avoid tires that were laid out ahead of him and Michael had nowhere to go. His car flipped up in the air and got past 45-degrees. Fortunately, no one was hurt but both drivers were out. At the time, Andretti and Fittipaldi were running second and third respectively.
Fast-forward to 2010 for one of the more emotional victories I’ve seen in IndyCar. Ryan Hunter-Reay’s career was running on fumes. His Rahal-Letterman team had shut its doors after the 2008 season. He ran a few frustrating races in 2009 at Vision, but was farmed out to AJ Foyt after Texas. Things went from bad to worse as Foyt had one of their worst seasons ever – even by their standards. Hunter-Reay looked all but washed up. He brought IZOD sponsorship to Andretti Autosport and was essentially race to race. Hunter-Reay out-dueled Will Power on a restart about two-thirds of the way through the race and held off Justin Wilson for the win. That win solidified Hunter-Reay’s standing with the team. One championship and Indianapolis 500 win later – he is the undisputed leader at Michael Andretti’s team.
In 2011, Mike Conway steadily worked his way from fourth to third to second and then to the lead to score the second straight victory for Andretti Autosport. Three years later, Conway returned to victory lane at Long Beach driving Ed Carpenter’s car.
As I mentioned earlier, the racing is not always great at Long Beach. There are few passing zones and sometimes the race can resemble a parade. But there always seems to be some moment in each race there that stands out in my memory forever. And it is always a favorite stop on the schedule for fans, teams and drivers for all of the hoopla that goes on around this race each year. I would like to make it out there sometime if the budget and time constraints will allow. It is usually just before or just after Barber. With there being an off weekend between the two, this year would have been perfect. Unfortunately, the wallet would not allow it this season. Oh well, one of these days…
After Sébastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne and Honda stunned everyone with their surprise win at St. Petersburg – can we expect more surprises or will we see the return of normalcy. I think we could see a little bit of both. The Penske and Ganassi cars will be strong as they were last year, but I think we might see another mild surprise this weekend. Who is my pick to win the 2017 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach? Graham Rahal, who will give Honda their second victory of the season.