Three ways you can tell spring has come to Southern California: The swallows return to Capistrano, the Dodgers return to Chavez Ravine, and the sounds of roaring engines return to Long Beach as America’s longest-running street race gets under way: the Long Beach Grand Prix.
For more than 41 years, drivers in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach have descended on this port city to race around its oceanfront streets, nowadays weaving past the Convention Center, the Long Beach Arena, and the Aquarium of the Pacific. Onlookers standing on balconies of nearby apartment towers crane their necks to catch a glimpse of racing’s elite as they twist through the palm tree–lined course.
[With three days of events, the race action and the crowds in Long Beach can be overwhelming. These 12 hacks will help you get the best view and race-day experience.]
The annual event has helped revitalize the city’s core and has carved out a significant place in racing history.
“Besides Indy, this is the place you want to be in the winner’s circle,” says driver Helio Castroneves, three-time champion at the Indianapolis 500 and the winner here in 2001.
It’s certainly the place to be for high-stakes drama on race weekend.
The Starting Line
Jim Michaelian is president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, the group that puts on the race. Affiliated with the race since 1975, he says the key to its success is appealing to a broad audience, not just to hard-core race fans.
“It’s really three days of entertainment that happens to feature motor racing as one of the tent poles,” Michaelian says.
That’s why the race also offers concerts, a lifestyle expo with exhibits from major automakers and suppliers, and a children’s area with slot cars and racing games. Parents can race against their kids on a go-cart track. If you want a glass of wine while watching the race, several restaurants are located around the course with windows on the race action.
The effort to broaden the race’s appeal has paid off. Marketing surveys show a race-attendance ratio of 59 percent male to 41 percent female, unheard of in motorsports.
“It shows everybody feels they can come out and have a good time,” Michaelian says.
To further attract a wide range of fans, multiple types of racing are offered, including Stadium Super Trucks, drift cars, sports cars, and the historic cars and IndyCar.
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But the race weekend’s marquee event is the IndyCar Series on Sunday. Long Beach is just one stop on a 16-course (17-event) season for the 2018 series, which uses the same type of vehicle found at the granddaddy of these races, the Indianapolis 500. Built on identical chassis, the cars are loud and fast. Last year’s winner averaged a little over 100 mph over the seaside circuit’s 157 miles.
With that kind speed on city streets, you’d think spectator safety might be a concern. In fact, a tragic accident in 1952 at Watkins Glen in New York made people think twice about opening city streets to road racing. A car swerved into the crowd, killing a 7-year-old boy and injuring 10 others. The incident had a dramatic effect on racing in America, highlighting spectators' vulnerability. Street races couldn’t get insurance. For two decades, racing fans had no choice but to visit permanent courses that often were located well away from cities.
Enter Dr. Peter Talbot, a Menlo Park obstetrician turned race car driver. He came up with the idea of concrete barriers topped with rigid fencing, which the Long Beach race organizers put into practice at its first race in 1975. The barriers have since proved a great success, with not a single spectator fatality in the race’s history.
During race week, the planning really revs up. Starting Monday morning at 6:30, race organizers meet with volunteers and city officials to go over minute-by-minute plans for the weekend. They refine the plan again on Tuesday, then finalize things on Thursday.
Announcer Bruce Flanders has been the voice of the race since 1978. He says of the Wednesday meeting, “By the time we’re done, I can tell you within 30 seconds when the final checkered flag will come down.”
Soon after the last echoes of engine noise fade, race organizers will spring into action to take everything down. Their contract with the city gives them three weeks to dismantle the grandstands, pedestrian bridges, and concrete barriers.
And the only clues left to show that the world’s top street racers were here will be a single red stripe painted on the ground outlining the course and a painted start/finish line on the eastbound lanes of Shoreline Drive.
Senior writer Paul Zieke crossed “Go Faster Than 120” off his bucket list when he got to ride in Kyle Mohan’s pace car at the 2017 Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix.
Top photo: Team Penske driver Will Power (No. 12) leads the field down Seaside Way at the 2017 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. | Scott R. LePage / LAT Images. Below, Power negotiates turn 2/3 "Fountain Complex." | Steve Swope / LAT Images
When: April 13–15
For tickets: (888) 827-7333
For general info: (562) 981-2600