Although the City of Long Beach had no way of knowing, when Friday morning, March 26, 1977 dawned, the city would never be the same again.
An auto racing fan-turned-travel-agent — Chris Pook — was about to put the city on the international sports map and spark a business, travel and financial renaissance that continues today.
Barely 18 months earlier, Pook had beaten all the odds and naysayers by staging the first Long Beach Grand Prix, a Formula 5000 race won by Brian Redman that attracted more than 46,000 race fans and curiosity seekers. He followed that only six months later by staging a Formula One race, won by Switzerland’s Clay Regazzoni, that was a moderate success.
Now, at 4:30 a.m., it was financial crunch time. With a pack of creditors snapping at his heels, Pook desperately needed a high-profile F/One race that would be watched by countless millions worldwide and – he hoped – packed grandstands in Long Beach.
He got it. With some help from a tough, diminutive Italian-American from Nazareth, PA. Mario Andretti avoided a first-lap, multi-car collision, then went on to outduel F/One stars Jody Scheckter and Niki Lauda to become the first American to win a F/One race in a U.S. Grand Prix.
“Mario’s victory really changed the whole image of the race,” says Jim Michaelian, now the President and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach and the race’s financial officer in 1978. “We made the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and the race was all over the local and national news.”
For the next six years, a decidedly international ambience settled over the city each Spring. Romantic car marques like Ferrari, Renault and Brabham shared headlines with equally-romantic, internationally-famous drivers like Jacques Laffite, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet.
Argentina’s Carlos Reutemann won flag-to-flag in his Ferrari in 1978, just evading a now-classic first-lap shunt involving James Hunt that remains perhaps the Grand Prix’s most enduring image.
Canada’s Gilles Villeneuve – a crowd favorite for his hard-charging style – led a Ferrari one-two finish in 1979 and, in 1980, Brazil’s Nelson Piquet’s Parmalat Brabham scored another flag-to-flag victory in the first LBGP that was title-sponsored by Toyota. The race has been known as the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach ever since.
In 1981, F/One champion Alan Jones led an Albilad Williams FW07B one-two finish in a race notable because, for the first time, two American drivers, Mario Andrettti (fourth) and Eddie Cheever (fifth) had scored F/One points in the same race.
Marlboro McLaren scored the next two wins, with Niki Lauda in 1982 and John Watson – coming from an improbable 22nd place on the starting grid – in 1983.
And, all the while, change had been coming to Long Beach. Downtown, the porn movie houses and boarded-up building were being replaced by office buildings, restaurants and gleaming new hotels. And, for Chris Pook, it was Financial Crunch Time II.
In 1983, faced with increasing F/One purses, sanctions and shipping charges, Pook was approached by Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), and signed for the Champ Cars to make their Long Beach debut in 1984.
Once again, Mario Andretti rode to the rescue.
“We weren’t exactly sure if the Champ Cars would have the same mystique for race fans,” says Michaelian. “But we didn’t miss a beat.” Thanks to Mario, who put his Budweiser-Haas Lola under the checkered flag…and again put the race back into headlines around the country.
American names have dominated the streets of Long Beach ever since, winning 14 of 28 races. Al Unser Jr. was the victor here six times, including a remarkable four straight from 1988-91. Mario Andretti visited Victory Circle four times and his son, Michael, is a two-time winner. California’s Jimmy Vasser won the race in 1996.
Still, the race has always managed to retained a little of its original international flavor. Italy’s Alex Zanardi, one of the race’s biggest fan favorites, won back to back in 1997-98. Colombia’s Juan Montoya, now a fixture in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, in 1999 became the first rookie to win the race before joining the F/One wars, and Brazil’s Helio Castroneves led an all-Brazil 1-2-3 finish in 2001.
And, Canada’s Paul Tracy is a four-time winner here: 1993, 2000, 2003 and 2004. France’s Sebastien Bourdais won three consecutive Long Beach races from 2005 to 2007.
In June 2005, race team owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe purchased the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, ensuring that the famed seaside circuit would continue operating. In March 2008, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach signed an agreement with the City of Long Beach to continue running races through 2015.
On April 20, 2008, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach staged the final race in Champ Car’s long and storied history, with Australia’s Will Power taking the checkered flag.
In May 2008, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach signed a long-term agreement with INDYCAR to run the IndyCar Series beginning in 2009. Dario Franchitti won the inaugural IndyCar event before a packed house, ensuring the race’s success in the new era. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the first American to win the race since Michael Andretti in 2002 with his 2010 win. In 2013, another first happened – Japan’s Takuma Sato took the checkers, becoming the first Japanese driver to win – and be on the podium – in the race’s long history. In 2015, in his ninth try, three-time series champion Scott Dixon finally won his first Toyota Grand Prix!
On April 9, 2017, Simon Pagenaud will defend his first Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach win when the words “Drivers, start your engines!” mark the 43rd edition of America’s #1 street race!