The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach

It’s a historic spectacle of racing you need to watch in person. The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach draws crowds with IndyCar, IMSA, GT4 and Stadium Super Trucks.

Even as someone who lived nearly his entire life on the East Coast, the Grand Prix of Long Beach has always enthralled me. That’s something not many street circuits do. I typically find them as boring, line racing that Formula One has had issues with up until a few years ago. There is something about Long Beach that gives a driver comfort to push more than normal street courses and it certainly makes the race more interesting to spectate. How did it start, though?

A Depressed Port City

Back when Chris Pook – a former travel agent from England looking to expand his expertise – drew up the idea of an American Monaco, he probably had better locations to choose from. That type of idea, a race on the waterfront, brings about images of luxury, yachts, and multi-million-dollar homes. Well, multi-million-dollar for the 1970s, anyhow. Long Beach, at the time, was an industrial port city and an area that didn’t have an image as clean as it has now.

Pook saw something different. It was less than 30-miles from Los Angeles and Hollywood, so getting the rich out to see a race wasn’t a challenge like it would be for other established circuits. The first race was for the 1975 Formula 5000 series and the circuit didn’t look like it does today. You would probably struggle to recognize it at all save for Shoreline Drive and the Hairpin.

The Lap on September, 1975

A lot of what I’m about to reference doesn’t exist anymore or didn’t exist at the time of this first race. So, if you’re familiar with the very first layout or the history of the area, sorry. This layout would also remain until 1977, but the start line would move a few times between the inaugural race and that year.

The initial start line was on Ocean Boulevard and Long Beach Boulevard and you would drive to the first corner, a 90-degree right on South Linden Ave – known as Cook’s Corner. A left 90 turned on to East Seaside Way for a brief straight before turning right – Penthouse – and into the Long Beach Convention Center parking lot. A sweeping turn known as Indy Left drove all the way up to a straight on Shoreline until a hairpin turn on Ocean. This led to Le Gasomet straight on Shoreline. From there, it was a flat out and fast run along Shoreline Drive, with a kink that flanked the Aquarium of the Pacific – called Bridgestone – until the next hairpin at Queen’s Way – Queen’s Hairpin. Yes, there were two hairpin rights in 1975.

You drove back down Shoreline to a left Pine Ave. Turns Nine through Twelve were all 90s and located where the front of the Long Beach Convention Center parking garage and the Walkway are now located, with Twelve leading parallel to Pine Ave before turning on the Ocean Blvd on Toyota – a 90-degree right. You were flat on it until the finish line at where Ocean and Long Beach Blvd meet. The full circuit in 1975 was 2.02-miles.

Formula One Comes to Town

That first race was able to draw around 30,000 people – some thought impossible considering how many viewed the area of Long Beach. This along with the beginning decline of the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International secured it as the US Grans Prix West with the Watkins event changed to the USGP East. It also moved the event from September to March in 1976. While the F1 race wasn’t a financial success, it was a success for the city. By the 1980, Long Beach went from a dilapidated, industrial port you wouldn’t want to caught dead into a flourishing, family friendly area with high-rise hotels, tourist attractions, and growing businesses that didn’t rely on port businesses. All of this was due to gaining an F1 race.

CART Enters, Champ Car Exits, and IndyCar Survives

Even so, the high financial risk and poor return put pressure on Pook to do something. So, in 1984, he convinced the city leaders at the time to hose a CART Series race instead. CART, or Championship Auto Racing Teams, was created in 1979 when USAC Championship Division teams and USAC leadership had two very different ideas on the direction of the series. USCA wanted to continue promoting and sanctioning its Championship Division though a neutral body – where no one series really gets more promotion over another and you’re just a division in a rulebook – over allowing teams and drivers to sanction and promote on their own – which is what the teams wanted. So, without coming to complete terms, USAC and CART split and they created the Indy Car World Series with the USAC-sanctioned Indianapolis 500 being their marquee event.

With any racing series there are always concerns about costs, competitiveness, and revenue sharing. Unfortunately for CART, this came to a head in 1996 and began the split of American open wheel racing. You had CART – rebranded as IndyCar in 1992 – on one side and the Indy Racing League (IRL) on the other. In the split, the IRL retained the Indy 500 and IndyCar kept the Long Beach Grand Prix. In 2002, Then CEO Joseph Heitzler was fired – having just been put in place in 2001 after Bobby Rahal retired from CART – and Chris Pook would take over as CEO of CART, but it would eventually go bankrupt in 2003. Its assets then bought by the trio of team owners Gerald Forsythe, Paul Gentilozzi and Kevin Kalkhoven as well as Dan Pettit and rebranded as the Champ Car World Series.

By 2005, both the IRL and Champ Car were at their lowest points in audience attendance, car counts, sponsorships, and TV ratings. Mergers were discussed by both series in 2006 but would break down over the Panoz spec chassis and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s (IMS) disapproval of a joint series. IMS was upset as they were the founding party for the IRL. The biggest blow for Champ Car came in 2007 when both Bridgestone and Ford dropped out while the IRL had races dropping out.

It was now time to merge or allow American open wheel racing die. Well, as far as being a major series since USAC still raced oval open wheelers while the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and National Auto Sport Association (NASA) continued with regional open wheel road racing. That’s exactly what happened and on February 22, 2008, The IRL purchases Champ Car’s sanctioning contracts, Mobile Medical Unit, it’s history and resources.

In what may have seen as a strange set of events, that purchase of Champ Car’s history meant a name not heard since 1992 would rise once again. The IndyCar Series was reborn and IndyCar drivers once again raced at Long Beach. Technically, for the first year anyhow. The 2008 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was still a Champ Car World Series sanctioned event with their Panoz-chassis, Cosworth-engine spec cars but winners would get IndyCar points. This happened because the IRL Indy Japan 300 took place on the same date and neither event could be moved on the calendar. So, while Champ Car was gone on paper, it existed for a final, celebratory race on April 20, 2008.

First Ever GT4 America at GPLB

Like many races, there are events through the weekend with other series that don’t conflict with IndyCar. The draw of Long Beach has been the same since its first F1 race so there have been many series who chomp at the bit to get in during the LBGP. For 2019, this included the first running of the Pirelli GT4 America Series – the rebranding of the Pirelli World Challenge Series (itself rebranded as Blancpain GT World Challenge America) GTS Class – as a Sprint Race at Long Beach.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it typically splits its races in to two per weekend per division. The Sprint is a 50-minute race where no driver changes occur while the SprintX is an hour-long race with a mandatory driver change during pit stops. Further, its split into two categories of Pro-Am Cup – where a FIA Categorization Professional Driver and amateur driver pair up – and Am Cup as well as crowning an East Regional Champion and a West Regional Champion.

The GT4 cars themselves are exactly what internet fanbois and YouTube commenters clamor for when they say their favorite series isn’t listening to them and the solution are cars closer to what’s on the roads. You know, the complaints NASCAR, Australia’s Supercars, and IMSA get on a daily basis. GT4 cars are essentially road legal cars with roll cages and minor changes for some parity for wheel-to-wheel racing. However, with GT4, it doesn’t always mean road legal in the USA.

For instance, we get to see the KTM X-Bow GT4 driven by Nicolai Elghanayan of Marco Polo Motorsports. The car itself is the only four-wheel vehicle under the KTM name but the looks were created by Gerald Kiska of KISKA and carbon-composite monocoque chassis is designed built by Dallara. It’s also unique in that it is the only closed cockpit version of the X-Bow. As a final disclaimer, the chassis is tuned by my friend John Mueller of Muellerized, a well-known chassis tuner of the Mitsubishi Evolution, Subaru Impreza/STi, and many others here in California. He’s even dabbled in the off-road world a time or two.

Last Rides of the C7.R and Ford GT in IMSA

While the 2019 Bubba Burger Grand Prix of Long Beach wasn’t the last ever IMSA race for the Ford GT or the Corvette C7.R, it is the second to last event for the West Coast. After the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca round in September, you’ll have to travel to Road Atlanta for the Motul Petit Le Mans in October to witness the final US races of both cars.

The C7.R is scheduled to be replaced by the C8 and its racing derivative. It will also mark the final ever production racing Corvette to be a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive vehicle as it is changing over to a mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive. This is no longer teasing by GM as it has been officially announced and set to be released in July of 2019.

In contrast, the Ford GT may be the last effort by Ford to produce a supercar race car for a while. The GT will also be getting some interesting upgrades and debuting at Goodwood in July of 2019, too. However, there has been no official word on a replacement racing program from Ford for the Chip Ganassi Racing efforts in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT and World Endurance Challenge Grand Touring Endurance (WEC GTE) series. Hopes are high that Ford will surprise us again, just as they did with the GT when it first debuted, but nothing has surfaced as of late.

How to Bookend a Weekend: Stadium Super Trucks

Another interesting but recent staple of the Long Beach Grand Prix has been Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks (SST). It’s hard to top watching off-road trucks jumping two-times their height into the air and pickup up the inside front tire as they accelerate out of a corner. It is a great throwback to the original Stadium Trucks of the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group (MTEG) Stadium Series and the Grand National Sport Trucks. Robby, himself, was the 1989 champion of the GNST at only 20 years old. Beating, banging, jumping, and exciting racing – a perfect way to end the weekend.

What marks 2019 as an interesting year for SST as it is the reintroduction of a competing tire brand. While Toyo has been a part of SST since its inception in 2013, a driver could use a tire they wanted along with shock changes and suspension adjustments. Other than that, the trucks were identical. In 2015, that changed with Toyo’s Open Country A/T II becoming the spec tire. For 2019, Toyo is joined by Continental Tire and their TerrainContact A/T and they are taking advantage of it by having Sheldon Creed, Ryan Beat, and Greg Biffle driving an SST with Continental logos and coloring along with regular SST drivers on the TerrainContact A/T tires.

Future of the GPLB

The future seems bright for the GPLB after losing Toyota as its presenting sponsor in 2018, Acura stepped up to the plate to sponsor 2019 and will continue to do so until 2023. Even so, it’s not all roses, either. Even with that announcement, there are rumors that the landmark hairpin and Indy Left will be ruined – along with the destruction of the Long Beach Convention Center – and replaced by a baseball field. It would be the slated for a new home of the Los Angeles Angels, moving them away from Anaheim, California.

Fortunately, Jim Michaelian, the current president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, is as enthusiastic and caring of the Grand Prix as his early predecessor, Chris Pook. Every time there is news about its demise, Mr. Michaelian makes sure that its not true by approaching city officials and reminding the press that the GPLB was and continues to be the reason Long Beach is what it is today. A lot of it is probably because he is a racer himself, having driven in the 24-Hours of Daytona and 12-Hours of Sebring.

Pook and Michaelian

Chris Pook is still around and continuing to strive to keep the race alive, as well. However, he and Michaelian have had a strained relationship since 2017 on the direction of the GPLB. In many ways, it’s reflective of what happened to CART. Michaelian wants IndyCar to remain the staple while Pook wants a return of F1 and his original vision of a US Monaco. For now, Michaelian has been proven right with studies showing that F1 wouldn’t work and the continuation of the Grand Prix with IndyCar and Acura.

The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is the gold standard by which other street circuits strive to replicate and, far too often, do not equal. It was thanks to Chris Pook who originally pushed for the idea and we should continue to thank Jim Michaelian for continuing that legacy. Maybe one day, they will both be friends again. Regardless, it is from their passion that the City of Long Beach was revived, and the racing continues along Shoreline for years to come.

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Gallery from the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach

Justin Banner

Justin Banner, Lead Editor and Founder of Carbage Online, has been involved with the automotive media and industry in many capacities and now tackles publication ownership with CarbageOnline.com. Prior to that, he has freelanced for top online publications of modern media that include Speedhunters, MotoIQ, Super Street Online, Hot Rod Magazine and many others. All due to his nearly 20 years experience as a mechanic, service writer, and technical support in the automotive industry. Justin is also a Journalist Level member of the Motor Press Guild - an industry recognized entity of professional automotive journalists - since 2015.

One thought on “The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach”

  1. You somehow managed to not mention how important a role Dan Gurney played in getting the LBGP started.

    I was at the first event. Pretty cool deal. A lot of fun watching the cars come around the first corner, the front wheels not planted on the ground very well. Made for some interesting moments once they were planted if the car wasn’t going straight.

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