When the Verizon IndyCar series unloads in Long Beach, California this coming weekend the storied track will be celebrating 40 years of open-wheel racing at the beach.
It was back in 1974 that race promoter, Chris Pook, had a vision to build a race that would become the United States’ equivalent of the Monaco Grand Prix. He staged a Formula 5000 race in September of 1975 to show the FIA that the community could host a Formula One race.
A mere six months later, the Formula One Circus first descended on the beachfront town as Clay Regazzoni took his Ferrari to victory at Long Beach in March 1976.
It was the 1977 event, however, that forever cemented Long Beach as one of the premier motorsports events in the United States. Mario Andretti, driving for the Lotus team, fought a spirited duel with Jody Scheckter and Niki Lauda for the entire race. In the end, Andretti was able to outbrake Schekter going into the hairpin grabbing the lead and taking the victory. It was the first time an American driver had won a Formula One race on American soil. News of this race was featured everywhere from the front page of the New York Times to the cover of Sports illustrated. The rest, as they say, is history.
Long Beach continued to host Formula One through 1983, and then switched over to Indy Car racing. Formula One costs were escalating at an astonishing rate, and the U.S.-based CART series was gaining popularity. Indy cars were an instant success at Long Beach.
When the former CART Series was absorbed into the Indy Racing League in 2008, the Long Beach Grand Prix was one of the few CART races that was saved.
Over the past 40 years, the event has remained popular with drivers and fans. The carnival-like atmosphere regularly attracts more than 200,000 fans over the course of the weekend. Movie stars, television personalities and sports heroes are often seen strolling around and soaking in the racing action and the California sunshine.
For the 40th Long Beach Grand Prix, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato returns as the defending race winner. No doubt, he will be excited to return to the site of his first IndyCar win. He certainly will be strong, based on his performance in the season-opener at St. Petersburg. While his race result wasn’t indicative of the domination he held through qualifying and the first segment of the race, I’m sure that the team has learned something from their data and will come back poised to repeat.
Another driver that will be returning to the site of his first IndyCar win is Penske Racing’s Juan Pablo Montoya. The Colombian driver won on the streets of Long Beach back in 1999 as a rookie in the CART Series. He went on to dominate that season and win the Championship.
While we are unlikely to see a repeat of those events, expect the entire Penske Team to be strong. Will Power is on a three-race winning streak, having won the season opener as well as the final two 2013 events. The Australian driver is a two-time Long Beach winner, having taken the win in 2008 and 2012. The third Penske driver, Helio Castroneves, is also a former Long Beach winner. He took the checkers here in 2001.
Other former winners in the field include Sebastien Bourdais, who won here three consecutive times between 2005 and 2007. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway have also tasted victory at Long Beach.
The festivities begin on Monday, April 7 culminating with the Grand Prix on Sunday, April 13th. In addition the the stars and cars of the Verizon IndyCar Series, fans will be treated to the TUDOR Sports Car Series, the Pirelli World Challenge, The Super-Drift Challenge, the SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks, the Indy Lights Series, and the ever-popular Toyota Pro-Celebrity Race.
The Long Beach Grand Prix will be televised live on the NBC Sports Network at 4:30 PM Eastern. Coverage will also be available on Sirius XM radio channel 209, www.indycar.com, or on the IndyCar 14 app provided by Verizon.