Going strong after 45 years, Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach has its own hometown vibe
LONG BEACH >> Those people who like the idea of the Los Angeles Angels building a ballpark in Long Beach is modest compared to the cynics who say it will never happen.
Jim Michaelian, who runs the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, may be in the latter group. “I’m not going there,” he said when he was teasingly asked Sunday afternoon if Victory Lane is big enough for the race and Mike Trout.
On Sunday, the Grand Prix shone brightly once again — under the blue skies of near-perfect 70-degree weather, Alexander Rossi deftly recorded his second straight wire-to-wire win. Michaelian, meanwhile, estimated a boost in weekend attendance — to 187,000 from last year’s 185,300.
It’s not easy to remember now that people once scoffed and chortled when Chris Pook came to Long Beach and asked the powers that be let him stage a car race on the streets.
That idea initially was given as much chance as the Queen Mary breaking its moorings and setting off for Maui. But almost a half-century later, the Grand Prix has earned its place as the dominant street track in the U.S., and race weekend has become the Big Event in a city that never felt it needed one.
The 45th edition Sunday was, as usual, contested on a beautiful day to be outside and in front of a crowd that was comfortably full. There were very few empty seats. A half-hour before the race began, most people were headed to the track; the number of people who were there just for the atmosphere is the only place where numbers seemed down.
Maybe they’ve just moved to Saturday, which has become fun day, with racing and music and sun and good vibes. Attendance was up this weekend, despite there no longer being a celebrity race.
Sunday was race day. Repeat pole-sitter and winner Rossi led 75 of 80 laps to win his second straight Grand Prix, leading even more laps than he did a year ago (71). That puts him in company with Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Alex Zanardi, Paul Tracy and Sebastian Bourdais as the only drivers to win two or more LBGP in a row.
He also did so while driving for Andretti Autosports, keeping alive the long-time Andretti connection with Long Beach. Mario won here three times. Son Michael won here twice, and he runs the race team. It was the 200th win in all racing events for Andretti Autosports, which Michael Andretti had to admit was another moment of amazing karma.
Rossi ran away with the race early. He had the best car and turned lap-after-lap in 68 seconds like a metronome. The race was clean of incidents, which only enhanced his dominance.
The only talking points for the race were:
- Will Power coming into a turn too hot and driving off the track, which cost him a chance at the podium;
- And Scott Dixon coming back from a slow pit stop and being advanced from fourth to third when Graham Rahal was penalized for blocking on the last lap.
A few drivers said the race was boring. Well, sure it was for them — they were running behind Rossi all day. Anyone who’s been here on a day with multiple yellow flags and crashes knows that carnage isn’t exactly good racing.
Sunday’s crowd didn’t seem to mind. And its demographics embraced the young and the old.
Julio Lopez, who lives in downtown Los Angeles but runs five miles around the Shoreline area every day, was there with his wife and two children. His oldest daughter was attending her fourth Grand Prix. She’s four. Dad had his new-born strapped across his chest — Arabelle, who at five months and three weeks was the youngest person at the race Sunday, and perhaps for all 45 races.
“I love the race, it’s always fun,” Lopez said with an engaging smile. “I watch the race but I’m really here for the cars and how fast they are. It’s an enjoyable day. The weather is great, and I like being with others who like the sport.”
Calvin Miles, meanwhile, has lived in Long Beach his entire life. He was a Poly grad in 1977 — “Jackrabbit for life,” he said with a grin — who used to watch the race from whatever good viewing position he could find on the fringe, which is often as good a view as a seat inside.
He now buys a seat.
“This is the fifth straight race I’ve attended,” Miles said, who said he’s 60 but looked 40. “My birthday is next weekend and I decided a few years ago to treat myself for my birthday by coming to the race.
“I like racing in general, and I watch all of the races, but the Grand Prix is one-of-a-kind.”
A few years ago, Michaelian was asked if he wanted to try to increase the number of seats for the race.
“I didn’t want to do anything that would take the race away from those people who watch from the promenade,” he said. “Mobility is important to people. They have their phone in one hand, a beer in the other, and they’re watching the race from a unique spot.
“I’ve always said this is a family event. We let kids under 12 in free, and we’ve done that since the first race.”
The 2019 race was different in one respect. Toyota ended its long-time association and Michaelian found a new sponsor, Acura, and has a multiyear contract with the brand. He added new auxiliary sponsors this year, too. He also says he has a plan for a new attraction next year.
“I think we’re a generational event,” he said. “There are people here who came here the first time with their parents, and now they’re bringing their kids.”
Even the pre-toddlers.