Champ Car finale signals new start for Long Beach Grand Prix

Paul Tracy will drive in the shadows of palm trees once again Sunday at the Long Beach Grand Prix. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- They're celebrating the end of an era in Long Beach this weekend. But it's actually the start of another phase of rebirth for the franchise that is the Long Beach Grand Prix.

With the recent announcement of open-wheel unification -- or, more accurately, the demise of the Champ Car World Series -- the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series has emerged as the undisputed leader of single-seat formula car racing in this country. That development has put an end to the conflict, but confusion will be the watchword for one more weekend at the 34th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

IRL officials understood that Long Beach was important enough in the overall scheme of things in American open-wheel racing that it couldn't afford to take a minimum one-year sabbatical like many other Champ Car events.

Therefore, this year's edition of the popular California seaside street race will count as a points-paying round of the IndyCar Series championship. However, the event will be run using Champ Car's turbocharged Panoz DP01-Cosworth spec package for the last time, an awkward compromise fueled by the fact that a scheduling conflict between Long Beach and a long-standing IRL race slated for the same weekend in Motegi, Japan (and promoted by IRL stalwart and Toyota arch-enemy Honda) could not be resolved.

So while two-thirds of the 2008 IndyCar field headed to Japan earlier this week to race on the Honda-owned Motegi oval, the five former Champ Car teams that successfully made the transition to the IRL will dust off their DP01s for one last fling on the streets of Long Beach.

This year's LBGP would have been the 25th edition run under CART or Champ Car sanction; it will also be the final race for the turbocharged single-seater generically known as a Champ Car. For 2009 and beyond, the event will be run using the normally aspirated IndyCar formula introduced in 1997 by the Indy Racing League.

After a total of 457 CART- or Champ Car-sanctioned races since 1979, Long Beach '08 truly represents the end of an era.

"For 25 years, we've hosted a series that has given our fans countless great racing thrills," said Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach. "We plan on using the weekend of April 18-20 to celebrate the many notable drivers, great cars and memorable moments that have been a hallmark of Champ Car racing here at Long Beach for a quarter-century."

Plans call for bringing back many of the cars and drivers who once scorched the streets of Long Beach to run ceremonial laps. The LBGP started out as a Formula 5000 race in September 1975 before hosting the Formula One World Championship from 1976-83.

"We'll be honoring our past and, at the same time, setting the stage for showcasing the unified IndyCar Series as it comes to the streets of Long Beach in 2009," Michaelian said.

As part of the weekend's historical theme, Mario Andretti, winner of the 1977 Long Beach Formula One race and a three-time LBGP Champ Car winner, will be honored at the third annual Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame induction ceremony. Former Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones and Gary Gabelich, the late land and water speed record holder, will also be inducted.

It's no surprise that maintaining a strong presence for Long Beach in this transitional year for American open-wheel racing was a high priority for IRL founder Tony George as well as Champ Car co- principals Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe. Kalkhoven and Forsythe are also the promoters of the Long Beach race, and George attempted to wrest control of the event in 2004 during the CART bankruptcy hearings that resulted in Kalkhoven and Forsythe taking over the Champ Car series.

"Long Beach has served, since the start of Champ Car, as our marquee event," Kalkhoven said. "It always has been a fan-friendly event that also appeals to the owners, drivers and teams who love to compete there.

"I can think of no better circuit at which to celebrate Champ Car while at the same time signaling the beginning of a new era in open-wheel racing than the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach."

The turmoil surrounding Champ Car created speculation that this year's Long Beach race would have an extremely slim field. But the unification agreement calls for those teams transitioning to the IndyCar Series to race their Champ Cars at Long Beach.

"All of the race teams indicated a strong desire to finish strong and enter as many cars as they could despite all of the variables involved," Michaelian said. "Some of these teams are actively in the IRL so they have other concerns, but no one wants to walk away from Long Beach because it's been so good for racing."

The nine drivers for those teams who are competing full time in IndyCars this year will be joined at Long Beach by other pilots ranging from rookies who have never turned a wheel in a Champ Car to
1996 CART series champion (and Long Beach winner) Jimmy Vasser, who will come out of semiretirement to make one last run in what is effectively his home race.

The entry lists Paul Tracy, who will make his first start of the season for Forsythe-Pettit Racing, though even Tracy is confused about his contractual status.

Ironically, the 20-driver lineup for the Champ Car finale is the strongest the series has enjoyed since 2002. Other veterans returning include Nelson Philippe, Alex Tagliani and Roberto Moreno.

"I don't expect to be fighting for the victory, having been out of the car for two years," Vasser noted. "But it will be a lot of fun and a great honor to take part in the Champ Car World Series' final race. It will also be great to compete one more time in front of all the Southern California fans that have been so supportive of me throughout my career."

The effort put in to keep Long Beach a part of this year's IndyCar championship despite the unresolved date conflict with Motegi did not go unnoticed.

In a unanimous vote, the Long Beach City Council renewed the city's contract with the GPALB, guaranteeing that the race will be staged on the city's streets through 2015. An additional five-year option could extend the agreement through the year 2020.

"We're very proud that the City of Long Beach, whose vision and foresight has been instrumental in our success since the first race in 1975, considers the Grand Prix such a key ingredient of the city's fabric," Michaelian said.

IRL founder George and a group of IndyCar Series executives are expected to arrive from Japan in time for the start of the Long Beach event. Many of the drivers who compete in Japan may be on hand as well.

"It's going to be a great weekend, and we're going to make the most of ensuring that both events come off in world-class fashion," George said.

In short, what looked just a couple of months ago like a lame-duck race for a lame-duck series has been guaranteed a bright future.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.