A strange tale of how a world champion, an immigrant, and a refugee saved a decaying city by the sea …
When the first Monaco Grand Prix was run in 1929, the principality was already world-renowned as a plaything for the well-healed beside the ever-blue Med’. Over in Long Beach in 1975, meanwhile, blue was the color of the movie running in the seamy theatre opposite the start-finish line for the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix.
Somehow through the intervening 40 years, though, Long Beach has gone on to become the ‘Monaco of the West’, a jewel in the crown of US motorsport, and part of the holy trinity of street races that includes only Macau and Monaco.
How did that happen?
Two Brits in a gritty port city
Two things British washed-up in the port city of Long Beach in the late 1960s. The first was the Queen Mary luxury liner, the other a 26-year-old ex-pat named Christopher Robin Pook, owner of American Aviation Travel Services. The two were connected by both birth and aspiration—to turn an urban bog into a tourist hub.
Being a travel agent in the early ’70s was a tough gig for Pook: Aside from the Queen Mary, and an old theme park dating back to 1902, there really wasn’t much to entice tourists to what the local council, perhaps ironically, had dubbed the ‘International City’. Downtown Long Beach was decaying in place. Sure, the Pacific Terrace Convention Center was in its planning phase, and the Pike amusement park was still a draw (and included the ‘Cyclone Racer’ ride, which was as terrifying as the name implies), but Chris Pook’s Long Beach was as defeated as the army of vagrants who haunted the trash-lined streets and boarded-up buildings.
Amidst this decay, Pook, in the late spring of ’73, was listening to the Indy 500 on his radio when he began experiencing the first signs of unbridled lunacy.
“The weather, the locale, everything was perfect,” Pook told the LA Times in 1998. “Monte Carlo had proven that racing next to the ocean was exciting for both drivers and fans. I was positive it would work [in Long Beach].”
Pook went off to the Long Beach Convention Bureau and pitched his idea. “We needed to project our image worldwide,” Pook told the LA Times. “The Queen Mary hadn’t done it. I told them they had a nice arena, but needed customers. Actually, I was still thinking about how much business it might bring to the travel agency!”
Pook, after describing how, with the simple addition of a yearly motor race, Long Beach could become Monaco on the Pacific, was quickly escorted out into the ramshackle reality of downtown Long Beach. So he did what anyone in his position would do—he doubled-down. Pook needed to get backing from some major players, guys like motorsport legends and California natives Dan Gurney and Phil Hill.
Gurney recalls that, “When Chris Pook came to me in 1974 with his dream of making Long Beach the Monte Carlo of the United States, I was quite overwhelmed […]. Motor racing was not enjoying the boom times as today, nor was it considered a mainstream sport which corporate America wanted to embrace […]. To me, a race through a city seemed not the lunatic idea it was made out to be at the time, but just exactly the right innovative thing to shake up the establishment and capture the heart and imagination of racing fans worldwide.”
With Gurney came Hill and with them came the mayor, and with the mayor came the city council. Less enthused was the California Coastal Commission, who had to be assured that the gulls and fish would not be overly distressed by the sound of big horsepower machines running down Shoreline Drive. Pook’s madness, though, was infectious. With the pieces in place, all he needed was to secure an actual race. For that, he called on a chap named Bernie Ecclestone. Sure, said Bernie, I’ll gladly bring the Formula 1 circus to California—on condition you show me you can organize a race first.
Pook settled on the US-based Formula 5000 series and convinced them to stage a race at Long Beach in late September, 1975—an open wheel formula with monstrous 5-litre V8s that were so loud no-one even heard the fish complain.
Dr. Peter Talbot was then brought in to create the pre-cast concrete blocks through which the F5000s would slalom—2,000 slabs of 12-foot long concrete blocks weighing 3,500kgs each that would run along the course mapped-out at precisely 2.02 miles, and which included as many palm trees as possible. Long Beach was tarted-up to look something other than the careworn port city with a bad habit of collecting flotsam out of LA. The blocks, craned into position, were protected by over 30,000 banded tyres for safety—a procedure that remains much the same today, almost half a century later, and has become the gold standard for all street circuits worldwide.
Pook then got Toyota involved for that very first race (40 years later, they’re still the title sponsor) and, to spice-up the show, invited celebrities to come race in Toyota Celicas (Hill and Gurney, of course, being the headline drivers).
Forty thousand paid to watch Brian Redman win the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix; on Ocean Boulevard, thousands more didn’t pay but watched all the same from the crumbling high-rises. The event was a festive success, and that meant only one thing: in the spring of ’76, as promised, Bernie brought the big show to town for the inaugural United States Grand Prix West, Clay Regazzoni taking the win in his Ferrari 312T.
Pook’s Long Beach Grand Prix Association had done it. They’d brought the world’s most famous racing series to the dilapidated streets of Long Beach, and brought the (spruced-up) palm-lined streets of Long Beach to millions of potential visitors around the world.
That left Pook with a smile as big as the $400,000 hole in the LBGPA books, and the prospect of an even bigger loss for ’77.
The savior comes from Nazareth
With the books in the red and the project headed for a crash as hard as the walls surrounding the track, the race in ’77 couldn’t have been more significant. Standing on the grid on March 26 of that year, Pook walked amidst the world’s fastest cars and drivers in the full knowledge that only a miracle would save his dream.
Enter the savior hailing from Nazareth (Pennsylvania), a refugee from post-war Italy. Having tip-toed around what would become the usual Turn 1 carambolage, Mario Andretti became the first-ever US winner of the US Grand Prix, and the first winner of a Grand Prix using a ground-effects car (the Lotus 78 in Project CARS 2).
But that was just the start of it.
“Mario’s victory really changed the whole image of the race,” Jim Michaelian, now the President and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, says. “We made the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and the race was all over the local and national news.”
Success and vindication. But if you ask Pook, the real success wasn’t as a result of Andretti’s win—it happened before the race had even gone green.
“Mario took the chairman of the board of the Hyatt hotel chain, A.N. Prideker, for a couple of laps around the track in a pace car,” Pook told the LA Times. “When Mr. Prideker got out of the car, he turned to the city manager and said, ‘If this city has enough courage to put on an event like this, then I’ve got enough courage to build a Hyatt Regency Hotel right here.’ ”
With the Hyatt came more upscale hotels, businesses, restaurants, and a revitalized downtown. Long Beach had swapped its sleaze for slicks and reaped the rewards. Pook, meanwhile, was in deep trouble.
Long Beach and IndyCar—love at first sight
The Long Beach Grand Prix hosted Formula 1 cars until 1983, the year when Irishman John Watson cut through the field from 22nd on the grid on his way into the history books. The Pike had been torn down by then, replaced by snazzy department stores, while the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center had risen from the cleaned-up streets. Over 80,000 had come to the race in ’83, and the global TV audience was gold-dust for tourism and business travel. Everyone was making out a winner. Everyone, that is, except for the guy who’d dreamt it all up. The continued cost of staging the Formula 1 event added up only one way for Pook—financial disaster.
In the summer of ’83, Pook was approached by the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). CART was then younger even than the Grand Prix at Long Beach—only in its sixth year—and desperately sniffing about for a road-race marquee event to join the Indy 500.
“We weren’t exactly sure if the Champ Cars would have the same mystique for race fans [as Formula 1],” Michaelian recalls. But the reality was, Pook could no longer afford Formula 1. For 1984, the Grand Prix of Long Beach would swap F1 for IndyCars on a track that was shortened to 1.67 miles, with Ocean Boulevard cut out completely. Everything else, though, looked eerily similar to what had happened in ’77. Yet again a little Italian-American named Andretti took his Budweiser-Haas Lola from pole to checkers to front page of every daily in the US and beyond. IndyCar had found its home, and so too, in a way, had Long Beach.
At the core of this appeal to the US market was not only the Unser vs Andretti (father and son) battles, but also the string of uninterrupted American wins starting with Andretti in ’84 and only ended by Zanardi in ’97 (with the sole exception of Paul Tracy in ’93).
Long Beach went on to become synonymous with IndyCar, even playing a central role in reunifying the split in the top tier of US open wheels in the mid-2000s. It’s now the oldest street-race in the US, and like Monaco, it’ll have more stars than cars when, on April 9, 2017, Simon Pagenaud defends his Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach win for the 43rd running of America’s greatest street race.
IndyCar, though, is not the only event that shows up at the ‘Monaco of the West’ these days—the event has grown into one of the world’s most enticing weekends for race fans. Actually, the action nowadays starts a week before when Formula DRIFT kicks-off the racing with its two-day event that uses Turns 9, 10, and 11. With a high-speed entry and very tight spacing between the cars and walls, there’s no room for mistakes, making the opening round of the Formula DRIFT season one of the most exciting drift events of the year. Then, a week later, The Pirelli World Challenge brings its GT cars to Long Beach, while The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship brings its prototypes—the fastest and most technologically advanced cars in North America—along with support from GTLM (Le Mans) and GTD (Daytona) cars. And if that’s not enough, when the sun goes down, the Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge will keep the action going well into the night.
Long Beach in Project CARS 2
The track has gone through nine evolutions through the years. The version that comes with Project CARS 2 is the current layout, scanned, and featuring LiveTrack 3.0. What does that mean for you, the driver? The surface condition is key to the evolution of Project CARS. With LiveTrack 3.0, the single sensors common with so many of the current generation of racing sims are no more, swept away and replaced by hundreds-of-thousands of sensors. These sensors serve to detect rain, rubber from tyres, loose materials from the outfield, and ambient temperature. Combined, they create tracks that are genuinely alive and continuously updated inch-by-inch and second-by-second, all in real-time. With Project CARS 2, it isn’t just the car physics that are class-leading—it is the condition of the tracks which drive the genre to a whole new level of realism. The days of a uniformly wet or dry track is a thing of the past—drivers must now adapt not to the conditions of the track as a whole, but, as in real-life, to the conditions of every turn, rise, and brow.
Long Beach, on a typical sunny SoCal day, is a violent experience.
On a damp, drying surface, it is a track that can sit up and bite. Down the banked front-straight that falls away to the right, for instance, water will pool at the bottom of the slope near the wall—get a slick tyre into that at full whack and life will speed up very quickly. The section around the fountain, meanwhile, Turns 2 and 3 at the Aquarium of the Pacific, is infamously bumpy, and lead to Turn 4 where the inner kerbing will always puddle up after a rain-storm. The camber of West Shoreline Drive slopes to the outside at Turn 6, and the joining road sloping down to meet it means it’s always damp here, even when the rest of the track has dried. Get through there, and you’re two turns away from the notorious Turn 9.
On a perfect spring day, this turn will want to hurt you. On a drying track, it’s murderous; there’s always a huge puddle that forms to the left just as you commit to the brakes, and then you’ll be in the puddles as you turn-in as well. Splash through the smaller puddles through the carpark section, fight your way around Turn 11, and you’ll have survived a lap at Long Beach.
The Long Beach of the 1970s is long gone now, replaced by a buzzing, tourist-friendly, business-savvy city that comes alive in the spring to the sound of IndyCars. One thing has remained the same, though, through all these years—Dr. Talbot’s walls are still as hard today as they were in 1975.