IndyCar heads to Long Beach, where the track is just as much the star

Ryan Hunter-Reay led the field away for the 40th running of the IndyCar Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 2014.

Phillip Abbott

LONG BEACH, California – It was 40 years ago that the most famous street race in North America began and Mario Andretti has been there since the very beginning.

The Verizon IndyCar Series will be the featured attraction in the 41st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – an event that is second only to the Indianapolis 500 on the list of races that make up the IndyCar schedule in terms of prestige, popularity and impact.

It’s a glamour event that brings out the stars of Hollywood and the entertainment industry to watch high-speed drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay battle it out on the picturesque street course with the famed Queen Mary serving as a backdrop.

Brian Redman won the first Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach when it was a Formula 5000 race in 1975. The next year it was on the Formula One schedule with Clay Regazzoni winning in 1976 followed by Andretti in 1977.

The list of drivers that have participated here includes some of the greatest drivers to ever compete in racing.

Perhaps the greatest name of all was Andretti, who won one Formula One race at Long Beach and three of the first four Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach contests when it was added to the CART schedule beginning in 1984. It remained with CART and Champ Car through the Champ Car Series finale won by Power in 2008 – a race that was part of the merged IndyCar Series.

 “I drove the very first race in the Formula 5000 car so I was there from the very beginning,” Andretti recalled. “I have seen that city transform in an incredibly positive way since the event started back in 1975. I remember the very first race on Ocean Avenue, which is where the pit straight was. Most of the stores were all boarded up and it was like a Ghost Town. In a few years after that when Formula One raced the city started to thrive tremendously. I think for more than a few years it was considered the best city in America to live in. That is a testament to what the race really did for that community. At first the idea was to create some awareness for their city and it has gone way beyond that with businesses investing in their cities with convention centers, hotels and restaurants. This is what I would say one spectacular success story.”

There is a tremendous legacy created and continued but the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, but race promoter Jim Michaelian doesn’t view it in that perspective. He is more interested in continuing the momentum of the event from year to year and adding to the weekend to make it more attractive for fans to continue to come to this city.

And it’s drivers such as the legendary Andretti that have helped make it a legendary event.

“Mario Andretti’s name is not only on a lot of the trophies and on our victory circle area four times as a winner but he’s always enshrined in the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame as one of the recognized members of the racing community that has contributed to so much of the success the grand prix here,” Michaelian said. “It’s great to have all of the Andrettis back, all of them participating in one way or another. Mario will be here to will his grandson, Marco, to a good finish and Michael is here as the team owner.

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“It’s names like that and names like Unser. Al Unser, Jr. has been our grand marshal. He was the `King of the Beach’ he’s won here six times. The ability for us to reach back in our history and highlight some of these names and individuals who have contributed to our success is very important. Those are two great names and Bobby Rahal has been inducted into the Long Beach Walk of Fame, too, so Al and Bobby have been inducted at the same time. There couldn’t be two more prominent names in our history with the exception of the Andrettis in our history.”

The beginning of this great American motorsports classic began 40 years ago when Long Beach was an old, seedy port city full of longshoreman and dockworkers. Ocean Avenue was full of adult bookstores and movie houses, in contrast to today’s lush high-rise hotels and condominiums that make this the glamour stop of the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.

“It’s a testimony of a great success story,” said Andretti. “That was the beginning of street racing in America and it was becoming defunct in Europe where it was created. The only one that remains is Monte Carlo. I remember racing through the streets of Barcelona in 1975 but that has since been abolished. Chris Pook tried to start it here and Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones and myself got behind it and it was accepted and started a wave of street racing in America, which was unprecedented.

“Long Beach started it all.”

And 40 years later, it continues stronger than ever as the Verizon IndyCar Series hits the streets of Long Beach as the feature attraction.

“It’s not just the race; it’s an event,” continued Andretti. “Places like Indianapolis and the Kentucky Derby people go there because they know something big is happening and not necessarily all are race fans. I remember coming out of the cockpit when I fell out of the race I walked around and a lot of the people walking around were not watching the race but wanted to be there. That to me characterizes an event and it became a classic because of that.

“You have so much going on there but there is so much for all to enjoy. You want to be there.”

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Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Verizon IndyCar Series Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. ET.