The Long Beach Grand Prix is the third event in the Verizon IndyCar series. While it is the third overall, it is, without a doubt, the largest racing event to be held in Southern California. Sure, SoCal does play host to several NASCAR races and a few other sanctioned events (in fact, there is another Indy race later on in the year in Fontana), but, this is the only one that transforms an entire city to do so. When this race comes into town, the whole of Long Beach gears itself towards this event. Road barriers begin to go up about a month in advance, and slowly but surely the streets of downtown Long Beach become transformed. In that month of setup, the city begins to make itself into an arena that is and has been known around the world. But, for that month before, not only does the city become the scene for an Indy race, it becomes a living, breathing beast that hosts several other racing series. These series not only take place in the city, but, they embed themselves into the culture of Southern California. Thankfully, the car culture is ripe in that region, and that is perhaps why folks welcome the event with welcome arms. This year, we were very fortunate enough to attend the race, and to go closer than we ever had before. This year, we would be able to see the heart of open wheel racing in America, and see what other arteries were attached to it. Having been to the Long Beach Grand Prix for over a decade now, we already knew what to expect. But, this time around, we would see it from the inside. And to tell you the truth, this is one rabbit hole that goes very deep.
The first event we would be witness to would be the practice for IMSA. IMSA, (aka the International Motor Sports Association) is a well-established racing series that has been around since the late sixties. Known for hosting some of the fastest, and most incredible purpose-built GT (and prototype) cars in the United States, the IMSA series has long been seen as a hub for some amazing drivers and their cars. As a longtime 300ZX fan (and owner), I have long been familiar with the prestige and class of cars that have been represented in the IMSA series. Knowing that an enhanced version of my car once participated in the series, makes me feel some sort of connection to the series. And to know that this year, (they were there last year as well) IMSA would be driving at the Long Beach Grand Prix circuit, made it even more exciting. Before IMSA had come to Long Beach, we were treated to another racing series. This was known as the American Le Mans Championship series. Being a huge fan of LeMans, it was really nice to see our version of that GT (and Prototype) class of racing on this side of the pond. A few years into its existence however, things had changed, and in 2012, American LeMans had folded and merged with IMSA. While this was unfortunate, one of the best things about racing, is that drivers and the crews associated with them don’t really disappear. So, when the merger happened, many of the drivers that were there, made the crossover and began to drive for IMSA. While this wasn’t the case for everyone (such as Corvette driver, Johnny O’Connell, who ended up leaving and now drives in the Pirelli World Challenge), it definitely was a breath of fresh air to fans of the drivers to see them move to a comfortable place. And, thankfully for myself, I was able to see them at the Long Beach track once again. I was even more excited this time around to see the cars and drivers return to the Long Beach city course, especially under a banner that I already knew and loved. Watching drivers Giancarlo Fisichella (for team Risi Competizione), Ryan Briscoe (Chip Ganassi Racing) and Katherine Legge (Panoz DeltaWing Racing) drive their vehicles around the track and into the pits was a moment in time that I would love to revisit again and again. This time around, it was nice to see some of the drivers from different series’ come over to IMSA and take on other legends of the track. Right behind that, you have the sound. Part of the beauty of racing is the sound that comes with it.
For people (myself included), the sensation of speed is something that is hard to translate. When you see racing on television it’s very hard to get the sensation of speed across. You can see cars whipping around a race track for hours on end, passing by scenery at incredible speeds, and it may look incredible. But, unless you have something to judge it against, it’s pretty tough to imagine how fast these cars are going. Watching a race on television (or online of course), the one thing that you don’t get through it is the sensation of sound. Sure, you hear it. But, it is a mere whisper of what you get hearing it in person. These cars (whether in IMSA or in any other racing series) give off a sound that cannot be described. Well, not in any way that would give it justice. Whether it is the high pitched whine of the Ferrari’s, or the low rumble of the Corvettes, the sound is music to the ears. It is something that has to be experienced, and in the case of IMSA, it is pure audio ecstasy. If you needed a reason to see racing in person, this could very well sell it to you. But, don’t take my word for it.
Whatever the case, later on that day, IMSA would take to the track and we would see its Long Beach season debut with the Weathertech Championship Race. This race would become a battle royale between the GT classes and the prototype cars. What makes these races so fantastic is the fact that all the cars that are part of the series share one track, and race at the same time. While the prototypes run at a different time, they end up overlapping, and the track ends up being the scene of some close racing. I was always a fan of the American Le Mans series, and I was sad to see the series go away. Thankfully, the series didn’t disappear, it was merged with IMSA, and in its wake the series was made into something even bigger and better. The aggressive driving and fan pleasing atmosphere that I (and fans of the championship) loved in the Le Mans Series, was carried over into the IMSA run. This isn’t to say that is wasn’t there, but, now we would be able to see IMSA take on the streets of Long Beach. The combined racing circuit made this year just as intense, if not more so than the last. This year we would see the rivalry between the Porsche team and the Corvettes in the GT Class. Porsche of America is located in Southern California, and the Corvettes have always been an American institution. Plus, this year, we would see the inclusion of the newest Ford GT into the mix. So, with those and more, we were sure to see some intensity on the track. And that’s exactly the way it went down. The entire race would be a pound for pound slugfest, and all cars in the GT-LM class would spend the race rubbing and bumping on each other, and would not let up until the final minutes. With only a few laps to go and with the only remaining Corvette in the lead (the other having crashed and retiring on one of Long Beach’s turns), Patrick Pilet (and teammate Nick Tandy) would take the lead and win the GT-LM class. A bump from the back guaranteed that Tommy Milner (and teammate Oliver Gavin) would not win this race. Frustrating to them, and I am sure to many fans, but, definitely exciting in the spirit of racing. This is IMSA, and this is what fans come to expect from it.
The other series racing that weekend was one that I was just as excited to see was the (Pirelli) World Challenge series. This series is incredibly competitive, and these drivers (as every driver in all of the series’ featured race weekend) are some of the best drivers on the planet. This course is packed with 11 nail-biting turns, and at each one of those, there is a potential for a shuffle in track position. Not only do drivers have to contend with the other drivers, but, they also have to struggle to keep their cars where they need to be. City tracks are beasts that are constantly changing. As cars pass over the tarmac, they leave behind tire and oil residues, as well as small bits of previous cars that may be scattered around. From lap to lap, this build up intensifies, and makes it a bit more difficult for the drivers to keep control of their vehicles. More rubber on the track can be a good thing, but, when you have a lot of other stuff, it makes it more challenging. And, after more than three days of being beat up, the Long Beach city streets had had their fair share of use. So, in the last and final day of racing, it was the Pirelli World Challenge cars that would finally take center stage, and they would do so amidst some tension.
Like the previous races, the World Challenge would play host to some intense action, and it would do so right at the beginning. In this racing series there are several classes of cars. However, at the Long Beach circuit, we would only see two classes on the track. You had the Grand Touring (GT) class, and the Grand Touring Sportsman (GTA) class. While you would think they would be different, the truth is that the GTA class is just the same as the GT class, but, they just happened to racing for a different championship. All cars in these series’ are based on real world cars, and have been modified from the ground up. New body panels, suspension, engine mods and pretty much anything that can be modified, can and has been modified. Some of the cars competing in the GT class are the (K-Pax) McLaren 650S, the (Cadillac Racing) Cadillac CTS-V, the (AE Replay) Nissan GTR and the (Scuderia Corsa) Ferrari 458. All of these cars are based on their real-life counterparts, and may at times not be as powerful on paper as those. But, because of all of the mods, and the complete engine blueprinting, the response of the engines and the stability that these teams can get out of these cars is astounding. To hear about it is one thing, but, to see it in person is quite another. World Challenge has raced in Long Beach before, so, I was lucky enough to see it before the past few years. This year though, the ante was upped quite a bit. And, we would be graced with a few new cars on the track.
The day of the World Challenge race (which took place just before the Indy Race) could not have been more beautiful. The sun was shining, and the wind was passing by with just a faint breeze. It also helped that it didn’t become extremely hot. So, for us on the ground (and fans in the stands), the less engine heat there was, the more efficient we would see these cars running. And this day, would see action as soon as that green flag would fall. In the first turn after the race would start, driver Johnny O’Connell from the Cadillac Racing team would be nearly pushed off into some tire barriers by Alvaro Parente (whom would be driving the K-PAX Racing McLaren). The race would continue in this fashion for many more minutes to come, and no driver on that track would let up. Two cars (the number 6 K-PAX McLaren) would even have to leave the race after being smashed into the wall by a Porsche by GMG Racing. The other would be Bryan Heitkotter in the AE Replay Nissan GTR. A mistake at the 29-minute mark would see him sailing through turn 6 and running head first into the wall. Minus that, and a lot more bump and grind throughout the race, it would be Johnny O’Connell who would be winner on the track that day. For the GT series, Johnny O’Connell would cross the finish line first, but, it would be Alfredo Parente who would win. This Challenge race was intense, and it definitely showed on the track. With several yellow caution flags, it was easy to see just how competitive this series would be. Long Beach was only the third race on the calendar, so, there was plenty more action to see soon. As it stood, the next race was only a week out (in Birmingham, Alabama), so, there was little room to celebrate. But, it was very exciting, and I was so happy to see these drivers put on a great show.
As exciting as that was though (and believe me, it was), this wasn’t even the end of the weekend. There was one more series that needed to wrap up. One more race had to be completed before the weekend would be over, and this one would be for all the marbles. After all, it was the headlining race, and with several practices under the drivers’ belt (not to mention the qualifying round from Saturday), the race was building up to be immense. Indy Car was the headlining series for the entire Grand Prix, and it was the main reason that everything else was coming to town. All of the other racing series are fantastic in their own right. But, we have to give it up to Formula One, Indy, CART and eventually Champ Car for making the (Verizon) Indycar Series what it is today and for what it has brought to Southern California. If it weren’t for thsem bringing the spirit of open wheel racing to the Southland, we would definitely have been in a different state of mind. This is why, with this last race about to go down, all eyes were fixated on the starting grid. With drivers from around the globe, and with reputations that go far and beyond what we see on the surface. Drivers such as Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya, just to name a few, are some of the iconic drivers that take place in the series. And, for the Long Beach circuit, we were going to be lucky enough to see them duke it out for the title. With perfect scenery, ideal track conditions and beautiful people all around, this race was already living up to the hype.
The day before (on the Saturday of the race), Indy held qualifying for the starting grid. Qualifying is an all-out assault on the clock for the best position on the starting grid the next day. Drivers do anything they can to take their cars to the max, and get the best lap time. With that best lap time, they secure their spots on the grid. The lower the time, the better the position. This time, the top three would pretty much cement who was going to be there in the end. Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud secured first, second and third places respectively. Not to say that the rest of the drivers weren’t as good, but, at this level of competition, the battles were fierce, and this is what was determined. But, like anyone that knows about the sport. It isn’t how you start that race, it’s how you finish. And, that is exactly how this one played out. Helio Castroneves (of the Team Penske Team), was on a hot streak after winning the pole position on Saturday. For forty-six laps straight, he would hold the lead at Long Beach. But, after having to pit, and his arch rival that day (Simon Pagenaud of the Chip Ganassi Racing Team) would stay out on the track for an additional two more laps before coming in, he would no longer hold the front. That led to a head-to-head battle between Pagenaud and Scott Dixon until the very end. They would push each other to the limit for a whopping eleven laps. It wasn’t until that last turn (turn 11), that they would make one final sprint to the finish line. In the end, Pagenaud would take the win. Amazingly, it would be by only three tenths of a second, and amidst some drama that had taken place earlier in the pits. Pagenaud would be penalized for crossing some lines in the pits, against Indy rules. This did not go unnoticed, and he was posthumously penalized for this action. However, it was not seen as a serious violation of the rules, and he was allowed to keep his win. Great for Pagenaud, but, to the dismay of Dixon and his fans. Considering he had won the year before, I am sure that there a lot of folks in the stands, that would have welcomed another victory for him. One other thing to note, is that other than a few minor bumps and bruises, this race was pretty low-key and there were no cautions, yellow flags, or destroyed vehicles. It was a fairly clean race through and through.
With that race coming to an end, we would see the Long Beach Grand Prix come to a close. It may seem like a lot happened in that time, and to tell you the truth, you would be right. The races started on Friday (with practices), and would continue all the way through Sunday. All along the way, you had two major racing championships take center stage, a celebrity race, the Indy series, a car and lifestyle expo, Motegi drifting series and plenty of other side events going on. For what it’s worth, and for what you get, the Grand Prix is packed to the brim with excitement. It’s hard to keep using that word as I describe this weekend, but, it really is as described. At every moment during those days, there is something happening, and something to keep you entertained. If it has to do with motorsports, lifestyle or just something that doesn’t happen on a daily basis, then, you’ll see it at the Grand Prix. We are so fortunate to not only have a place to see all of this great racing, but, to have a world class (and famous) track that few can compare with. It is a perfect storm that comes but once a year, and if you are lucky enough to be scooped up by the craziness that it brings, you are sure to see something extraordinary. It is a shame that the next time we see it, things will be different than they were this time around. The Celebrity/Pro Race that we highlighted in our other (race weekend) article will not be returning next year. I am sure something else will be replacing that space in between. But, at least we were there to share in the moment with all of the other fans around us. The 2016 Long Beach Grand Prix may be over, but, it will definitely never be forgotten.
Words and Photos By Daniel Navarrete
With Additional Photos by Daynie Rivera
For more information on The Long Beach Grand Prix, check out their website at Long Beach Grand Prix Homepage
This article was prepared or accomplished by Daniel Navarrete in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spektrum Magazine, or its affiliates.