Long Beach, CA – Every April, something magical happens in Long Beach – the streets of Shoreline Drive are closed off by barricades. The raucous sounds of monstrous engines can be heard reverberating through downtown. The smell of burnt rubber and race gas permeates the air. Huge crowds line up to get a glimpse of the action. Yup, it’s that time of year again – the annual Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix has begun.
Over the course of a weekend, spectators are treated to a full gamut of cars in various states of racing evolution- from readily available but heavily modified cars set up for drift, Le Mans prototypes, open-wheel race cars, and even Stadium Super Trucks- I would argue that the Long Beach Grand Prix has enough to entertain even those not interested in cars, through pure spectacle and sensory overload (sometimes quite literally as earplugs are necessary).
To summarize, a portion of the streets of Long Beach are closed off and turned into a road course, with which several races are run by different sanctioning bodies. The major ones are the Verizon IndyCar Series (along with Indy Lights), the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, the Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge, and the Pirelli World Challenge.
The IndyCar Series is perhaps the most recognized race at Long Beach- chances are you’ve heard of the Indy 500. Unlike F1, whose presence in the United States is relatively unknown due to most of its races being held internationally, the IndyCar series is America’s premiere form of open-wheel racing, utilizing many of the tracks available in the U.S. Because of this, the Long Beach event is one of the few times that locals are able to catch a glimpse of these cars in person.
One of the greatest things about the Long Beach Grand Prix is the unprecedented access afforded to some (rich) spectators and media. Due to the nature of the track layout, watching the teams working the pit lanes and doing post-race analysis in the paddock areas are merely a walk away.
One of the major and enjoyable highlights that I usually look forward to is the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race event. As the name suggests, every year Toyota asks several celebrities if they would like to participate in the race. The stars are led through rigorous training, which includes practicing at the Streets of Willow, before they are thrown into the main race here in Long Beach. Toyota provides a field of their modified compact sports cars – naturally, this year the Scion FR-S was the car of choice. And yes, every driver is forced to use a manual transmission. Combining this with mostly non-professional racers, and a rear-wheel drive layout, one can expect that the races would be extremely entertaining (i.e. crash fests and major upsets)- and for the most part, this year’s race lived up to expectations. Some of the celebrities involved this year were Adrian Brody (a regular), Rutledge Wood, Kyle Petty, Al Unser Jr., Sam Witwer, Corbin Bleu, and my personal favorite, Vanessa Marcil. Brett Davern was this year’s winner, outdriving even the seasoned pros.
The IMSA-sanctioned TUDOR United SportsCar Championship is perhaps the most technologically advanced and entertaining race; combining Le Mans class prototype cars with GT (grand touring) class production cars. If you ever wanted to watch a heavily modified Ferrari 458 race alongside a wildly designed Le Mans car, this is the series to watch.
The Pirelli World Challenge is the most relatable race to showgoers- sanctioned by the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America), this class consists of touring and grand touring class cars. Essentially, these are all modified versions of readily available production cars. From affordable Nissan 370Zs, Ford Mustangs, and KIA Optimas, to the more luxurious Mercedes AMG SLS, Cadillac CTS-Vs, and Audi R8s, one can almost imagine themselves becoming professional racers with a bit of time and effort (and money).
In addition to the races, the event is strewn with numerous activities to keep spectators occupied during race intermissions. Ever wanted to take a ride through the track with Mario Andretti in a specially modified IndyCar for two people? Yours, for the low price of $500! The convention center was filled with various manufacturers and companies advertising their wares- as usual this means freebies, in the form of baseball caps, lanyards, and even free yogurt.
The final races took place on Sunday, with Friday and Saturday used for practice and qualifying. The IndyCar ended in spectacular fashion, as nerves rattled, causing numerous crashes in the last few laps. A risky fuel strategy ended up costing Scott Dixon the race, with Mike Conway heading into first in the final laps to secure the win, even with broken aero.
Despite the ridiculous amounts of walking and pain endured to cover the event, we couldn’t have been happier. The last time we’ve been able to cover the Long Beach Grand Prix was back in 2006. The amount of adrenaline from watching race cars go head to head, and the roars of engines and tires being pushed to the limit is an experience that shouldn’t be ignored. Some people only visit Long Beach to get their Roscoe’s fix- let the Grand Prix be another. In the meantime, check out the rest of our gallery for more visual candy!