Long Beach a success story

Set to be run for the 40th time, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is long established as an important American auto racing event.

From Chris Pook's inaugural Formula 5000 race, through an eight-year run with Formula One, to its current incarnation as a key stop on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, the LBGP has been a success in every form it has taken. It's easy to see the impact Long Beach made as the prototype for the downtown American city street race.

The inaugural LBGP -- run Sept. 28, 1975, to test the circuit and event infrastructure prior to a full-fledged F1 Grand Prix to be held in the spring of 1976 -- was staged as the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and the United States Auto Club (USAC) were completing their second year of co-sanctioning the U.S. Formula 5000 Championship. The eventual goal was to create a common formula that would feature oval and road racing championships within an overall North American Championship.

It's easy to wonder what would have happened if those exploratory efforts almost 40 years ago would have resulted in the SCCA and USAC successfully creating a unified open-wheel racing series that included road, street and oval circuits. Would CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) have ever been formed? Likewise, the Indy Racing League? Would NASCAR have emerged as the dominant power in American auto racing regardless of what turned into a 30-year fight for control of what generically became known as Indy car racing?

It's interesting to ponder the what-ifs, and ultimately it's just another tale of frustration for open-wheel racing fans in this country. But it's a fascinating tale, and the Long Beach Grand Prix figures prominently in the story.

After successfully including a few road races in the late 1960s, the all-oval USAC Championship Trail for Indy cars reached its low point in the mid-'70s. Competitors were unhappy about the series' lack of promotion (Indianapolis 500 notwithstanding) and the soaring costs of turbocharged engine development. And several key drivers -- notably Mario Andretti and Al Unser -- wanted to include the challenge of road racing.

Meanwhile F5000 had what Road & Track called "excitement, competition and color, [but] it didn't have the names that draw the fans." R&T went on to say "a merger looked like good business for both sides."

So the SCCA turned over key sanctioning duties in the F5000 championship to USAC and, in return, opened the rulebook to allow turbocharged Champ Cars to compete in F5000 races. USAC loosened the reins on its drivers and allowed them to participate in more SCCA events, and the two sanctioning bodies commenced work on a common car that would likely have utilized something similar to the 5-liter stock-block engines used in F5000.

In many respects, it was a golden era for open-wheel racing in America. The USAC Championship Trail boasted names like Andretti and Unser, as well as A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock and Wally Dallenbach. Meanwhile, Brian Redman was dominating F5000, winning three straight championships between 1974 and '76 over strong fields that included stars like James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, David Hobbs, Sam Posey, Jackie Oliver and Vern Schuppan -- as well as Andretti and Al Unser, who were both F5000 race winners.

Despite all that promise, by the end of 1976, USAC and the SCCA were again bitter enemies and Formula 5000 was dead. But in the midst of this organizational wrangling came the first Long Beach Grand Prix.

Pook, an Englishman who operated a travel agency in Long Beach, believed a big-time car race -- specifically, a Formula One World Championship Grand Prix -- would attract attention to the city and pave the way toward redevelopment.

He got key support from famous California racers Dan Gurney and Phil Hill, and armed with a number of ingenious ideas that would redefine the notion of a street race, set to work. But first, Pook had to stage a race on his temporary circuit to prove to the F1 powers-that-be that Long Beach was up to the task.

Pook enlisted Dr. Peter Talbot, who created a design for a pre-cast concrete block that would deflect errant cars without introducing the hazards of steel Armco barriers. Around 2,000 of these 12-foot long, 34-inch high blocks, weighing 8,000 pounds each, were craned into position lining the 2.02-mile circuit, with key impact areas protected by around 25,000 banded tires.

There were other areas in which Pook blazed new ground. He attracted the support of Toyota for that first F5000 race and staged a celebrity race using equally matched Toyota Celicas; the participants included Hill, Gurney and Bob Bondurant. From small seedlings, Toyota grew to be the title sponsor of every F1 and CART version of the Long Beach Grand Prix and rapidly expanded its involvement in American motorsports over the next 40 years, to the point where it is now a major player in NASCAR racing. And the celebrity race concept is used almost everywhere these days.

The F5000 drivers, 13 of whom had Formula One experience, loved the track and the atmosphere. "It's great. I'm thrilled that it's happening," said Andretti, who led the F5000 race before breaking a transmission.

Mario later won the F1 LBGP in 1977 (marking him as the first and only American to have won a United States Grand Prix), and he went on to score three Indy car victories (in 1984, '85 and '87). To this day, Pook maintains that Mario's 1977 F1 victory ensured the future of the financially shaky event.

The apparent success of the initial Long Beach Grand Prix (which attracted 45,000 spectators and was broadcast live on CBS) was highly encouraging for the F5000 set. But when USAC's support for F5000 and ultimately a combined series melted away, so did F5000.

Gurney addressed many of the issues confronting American open-wheel competitors, including a lack of promotion, in a 1975 interview with Motor Trend. Several concepts he spoke of -- including "an association of the top USAC and F5000 teams, like the Formula One Constructors' Association, which has had a tremendous influence on Grand Prix racing" -- formed the basis of Gurney's famous White Paper, a key element in the formation of CART in 1978.

Although the engines are not stock-blocks like in Formula 5000, today's Verizon IndyCar Series looks a lot like the championship the SCCA and USAC tried to create nearly 40 years ago. Just imagine if they had successfully gotten it together and built a solid and diverse American open-wheel racing series way back in the mid-'70s.

Instead, the SCCA killed Formula 5000 and replaced it in 1977 with the "new" Can-Am, which never really caught on and faded away in 1984.

Meanwhile, CART had taken over from USAC as the main sanctioning body of Indy car racing and brought road racing back to the menu. That attracted Can-Am drivers like Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan and team owners like Carl Haas, who formed a CART team in conjunction with actor Paul Newman with Andretti -- back in Indy cars full-time after concentrating on F1 in the late-'70s -- as the driver.

CART's search for more road racing venues led it to Long Beach. After successfully staging the United States Grand Prix West from 1976 to 1983, Pook decided the price Formula One was asking had gotten too high. It was the exact set of circumstances necessary to give the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach a makeover.

CART's debut at Long Beach came on May 1, 1984, when -- appropriately -- Mario Andretti drove a Newman-Haas Racing Lola to victory before 56,000 fans. The event grew in size and stature for another decade, peaking in the first half of 1990s when Al Unser Jr. reeled off six LBGP wins (including four consecutive between 1988 and '91) to take over from Andretti as "King of the Beach."

While the CART-IRL war from 1996 to 2007 resulted in the demise of many traditional Indy car venues, Long Beach remained strong enough to survive into the era of the unified IndyCar Series. Outside of the Indianapolis 500, it remains the series' best-known and best-attended event.

On a larger scale, Long Beach demonstrated the potential for street racing in urban areas. The concept and execution of the Long Beach Grand Prix was a vital element in the growth of Indy car racing as we know it today. Still, very few street racing events have managed to create the kind of lasting impact of the LBGP; for every successful Indy car street race like Toronto or St. Petersburg, there are four or five failed ventures that were unable to weather the high start-up costs and long-term investment events staged on temporary circuits require before they become profitable.

In 2003, Pook resigned from the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach to take over as CEO for the final, troubled year of CART's existence. Now, more than 10 years later, he's turned his focus back to Long Beach. Pook is working with Formula One impresario Bernie Ecclestone to try to lure F1 back to Long Beach. More accurately, he's trying to hook Long Beach back into Formula One, an endeavor which would require tens of millions of dollars of investment to bring the 2-mile street circuit up to Formula One safety and presentation standards. Formula One's sanction fee is also many times greater than the $1.5 million the IndyCar Series routinely commands.

The Long Beach city council recently recommended a three-year extension through 2018 to continue running an IndyCar Series race, but Pook is not going down easily.

"I'm not knocking the IndyCar race, but Formula One will bring the economic value the city enjoys," Pook told the Long Beach Press Telegram. "We wouldn't be talking about this if it wasn't financially successful."

Time will tell whether the Long Beach Grand Prix remains a flagship Indy car race or a comeback story for Formula One. No matter what kind of cars are on the track, the event is an enduring and evolving success story, and a staple of springtime in Southern California.