Santa Maria Sun / Art
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 9
The masterpiece of American motorsportsInside the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach
BY FRANK GONZALES
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is a decadent and depraved festival of speed. I mean that in the best possible way. Every year a refreshing cloud of racing fumes blankets the normally clear coast of Long Beach, energizing the faithful over three days of vehicular mayhem. While the race might seem like a useless anachronism in this greening society, it is a marvelously splendid one. The most recent extravaganza just took place April 19 through 21.
Although the series to which the Grand Prix belongs has changed over the years, currently finding itself under the auspices of IndyCar, the race continues to grow in attendance and in the number of spectacles to experience over the weekend. In addition to the open-wheel IndyCar race, which takes place on Sunday, highlights include the American Le Mans and Toyota Pro/Celebrity races on Saturday, drifting competitions throughout the weekend, visiting the racing pits, and exploring a large expo that has become a mini car show. This year the latter included the 2013 SRT Viper and the all-new 2014 Corvette. Even people not initiated into the cult of cars will be awestruck by the pageantry and the noise of these events, which can be heard from miles away.
This year’s race weekend was gifted with stereotypically perfect, clear weather without the searing sun that created the shirtless, man-sized lobsters of many past years. Long Beach’s skyline glimmered, as the serpentine track below challenged dozens of small, young men and a few women in their light and nimble chariots. While the glamour of the race at Long Beach isn’t yet on par with the big daddy Monaco Grand Prix and the international crowds that come with Formula 1, each year the profile of the American race grows, thanks in part to the proximity of Hollywood.
This year, that grimy city below the hills was represented in the Pro/Celebrity race by Jenna Elfman and Wanda Sykes, among other B-listers, while pro winner Adam Corolla and celebrity winner Rutledge Wood are known as much for their senses of humor as they are for their love of cars. The influence of movies has also spread to the expo, where Chrysler’s performance division SRT showcased a Charger SRT8 from the upcoming Fast & Furious 6.
While the main racing events have lost some of their star power, with Danica Patrick now stuck making left turns in NASCAR, the wheel-to-wheel action has only improved. The American Le Mans race was amazing as always, thanks to it being a competition of not only drivers, but also manufacturers. In this series, cars that look like models that can be purchased in showrooms, but have had extensive modifications for racing, take to the streets of Long Beach in a number of different classes. Hordes of Porsche 911s, Corvettes, Vipers, Ferrari 458s, BMW Z4s, and a host of futuristic-looking prototypes all race at the same time, passing frequently and replicating the drama of the world-famous 24 Heures du Mans race Steve McQueen captured in his seminal film.
While the race only lasted two hours, it was filled with passes, crashes, and even its own actor-turned-driver-in-a-Porsche Patrick Dempsey, who kept a respectably low profile befitting his serious racing ambitions. Of the homologated racecars, the BMW Z4 took the win, despite having a V8 engine that isn’t part of the Z4 lineup in dealerships.
The IndyCar race was especially fierce this year, thanks to rule changes that shortened its length and thereby decreased the necessity for late-stage strategic driving to conserve fuel. Instead there was more paint trading and crashes than in years past, while the winner, Takuma Sato of Japan, impressed with his precise driving that allowed him to continually increase his lead lap after lap until the finish. No doubt the seven years that he spent in Formula 1 going up against the likes of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton on similar street courses was a big factor in his win.
Sato is one of a number of international drivers who’ve flocked to IndyCar in recent years and now outnumber Americans. The only missing link compared to Formula 1 is the multiplicity of manufacturers involved, but this will be remedied in the near future. Currently Honda and Chevrolet are the only engine suppliers, but the series is making moves to increase the number of suppliers to make it more of a constructor’s race, too. Formula 1 will face a serious international competitor at that point, since IndyCar already includes races in Russia, Canada, and Brazil, not to mention the renowned Indy 500.
While the Grand Prix of Long Beach has been a world-class racing event in years past, it went through a slow decline, notably after it was removed from the Formula 1 series schedule. A few years ago it was on the verge of ending, as racing series after series stumbled and fell due to the flagging popularity of open-wheel racing in the United States. The behemoth NASCAR was king in America, it seemed. Thankfully, the IndyCar series was able to unify open-wheel racing and to reinvigorate the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
In this country there is no greater spectacle of man, machine, and place than this race, and it’s only a short drive away from the Central Coast. Next April—when the air is again full of the sweet smell of high-octane fuel and the man-lobsters are on the prowl—be sure to make a pilgrimage down south. Just beware that such a trip will likely turn you into gas-guzzling, proselytizing race fan. m
Contact Intern Frank Gonzales at firstname.lastname@example.org.