Dario Franchitti dedicated his victory to his wife, Ashley Judd, whose 41st birthday they celebrated together at Long Beach - kind of a boring proposition in Long Beach, especially if Parker's Lighthouse is full, unless you do win
It was a weekend of record-hot temperatures, so they threw a hell of a car race this past Sunday in Long Beach, CA.
After a dozen years, two angry, disparate and heading-downhill-into-obscurity-fast open-wheel racing series, the Indy Racing League and Champ Car (aka CART) had been combined this past year into IndyCar, one American open-wheel series featuring the country’s most familiar drivers, sponsors and teams.
Long Beach, 2009, would be IndyCar’s first big showcase (and we won’t go into the other series which ran at Long Beach, the American LeMans Series, IndyLites and etc; there’s time to cover those in the future).
Raymond Chandler's most famous character, private detective Philip Marlowe, frequently has a portion of his adventures in a place called "Bay City", modeled on depression-era Santa Monica, just about 20 miles north of Long Beach.
Given its description by Marlowe as "a wide-open town", where gambling and other crimes thrive due to a massively corrupt and ineffective police force, Long Beach could serve as the modern model for Chandler’s Bay City (no e-mails from cops, please; Chandler wrote over years ago, and the LB PD doesn't have the best reputation in So Cal).
Through the race, the world sees the results of the notoriety and money the race has brought to Long Beach; the city’s high-rise condos, semi-trendy yet expensive restaurants, cruise ships, the Queen Mary (and adjoining Russian submarine) and an aquarium, convention center and performing arts center which all sit smack in the middle of the race circuit, along with disguised oil wells which after 100 years still pump money into the general fund and the mid-high office towers and hotels along Ocean Boulevard just off the race track.
One block from the track area, though, Long Beach remains one of So Cal’s toughest towns, kind of a big-league, tougher Torrance, which local reader might appreciate.
Danica Patrick, with help from team principal Michael Andretti, who was calling the strategic shots, ran one of her best races ever, finishing fourth after a terrible qualifying effort of 21st; here she's on her way to winning her first race, the first major open-wheel win by any woman, almost a year to the day before Long Beach, 2009, at Twin Ring Motgei, Japan
Long Beach has been known as “Iowa by the Sea” and the “Land of the Nearly Dead and Newly Wed” for its Midwest transplants and heavily-skewed young/old population. And for all the good the race has done a small part of the downtown area, the city still has one of the largest and most-unused airports in Southern California, Disney pulled out of a planned “major ocean attraction” with the city years ago and hasn’t come back, the huge, attractive dome which housed Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the gigantic balsa-wood aircraft built as a concept to ferry WWII troops, whose only powered flight was in Long Beach Harbor, is now a cruise chip terminal and the So Cal airplane itself is in some private museum in the northwest and the boondoggle of the Queen Mary is forced to reinvent nearly every year in desperate bids to bring-in tourists.
If not for the race, some might call Bay City, uh, Long Beach, something of a loser. (Before So Cal readers get too angry, Long Beach neighborhoods like Bixby Knolls, Naples and Belmont Shore are among the finest anywhere – but Long Beach is more the size of an average county, not a mere large city, so for some, the “less desirable” neighborhoods stretch long and far).
Penske driver Helio Castroneves beat an IRS federal rap Friday night in a Miami courtroom, flew to Long Beach, qualified eighth, then beat Penske teammate Will Power out of the sorted-out car Power drive to the pole; Power got back at his boss and his co-driver in the Penske tradition, by not giving in, and finishing second in his poorly set-up car and - most important - beating Castroneves (www.SteveParker.com photo)
Thanks to the small race crowds this year, we were able to park –- legal and free and on city streets -- barely four blocks from the track, but the thought of coming back to a broken-into car was with us much of the day (though things turned out fine; a heavy police presence around the track area, to put it mildly, certainly helped keep crime down – one weekend a year).
And not just the LB cops were on-the-job. This may or may not have been ranked a “national security event” by the Department of Department of Homeland Security, like the Super Bowl, Daytona 500 and the Masters (check out those two "kids" walking every hole with Tiger) but we spotted too many buff young men and women with windbreakers (even in 100 degree heat, got to hide those guns and cuffs, and look nonthreatening and college-age while doing it), backpacks and earpieces to think the local cops were the only ones in town.
You can't have a Long Beach Grand Prix story without running a crowd-watches-race-with-Queen-Mary-in-the-background-photo, so here it is; I think it's a law, actually
A very weird-looking Chevy Suburban, parked in an off-limits corner well out of the public eye, had TV send and receive antennas on its top. Never saw anything like it (and we’ve seen a lot; probably too much in this lifetime alone), and another 5-seconds of investigation revealed Washington, DC license plates. Oh. I felt better already. If Tony Soprano – or Tony George -- showed up, they’d take him out in a second!
When the race began in 1975, the old, sleazy Pike Amusement Park filled most of the flatland area where the track is today, bars and tattoo shops catering to sailors were the major local industries (Long Beach, like San Diego and San Francisco, was a major US Navy base) and a Grand Prix employee spent part of every year using black tarp to cover up the marquee of the Mitchell Bros. porno theater on Ocean Boulevard, lest the city’s guests find offense (the original track configuration used Ocean as a main straight and pit area; cars flew up Pine Avenue to get to Ocean, going airborne with drivers willing them every way they could to hit the ground and just…turn…right, then they crashed them back down Linden Avenue to the flats, destroying suspensions on every lap – Great fun to watch, and hear! Today, the track is entirely on the flat landfill holding the convention center, aquarium and the Hyatt Hotel).
After the opening “test” race of F5000 in 1975 (still one of the best races, if not the best, in Long Beach racing history), followed by a decade-or-so of Formula 1 (which American fans never got used to – or liked very much), Long Beach switched to the CART circuit and the good times started rolling. Dramatic rivalries between various Unsers and Andrettis dominated for years, drivers like Nigel Mansell, Bobby Rahal and Alex Zanardi (personal favorite) became almost as famous as did Penske and Ganassi as owners.
Stan Barrett in his #98 Curb/Agajanian/3G race car acquitted himself well in his second IndyCar event. Barrett, who had a long and successful NASCAR career, while never reaching the "top," decided with his partners that this might be a good time to try IndyCar, with some costs for the sport going down. He's started and finished both races this season, starting 21st and finishing 17th at Long Beach (www.SteveParker.com photo)
Although in a CART race, you’re rarely able to chat-up George Harrison or Rod and Alana Stewart in the pits – maybe Jim Nabors or Burt Reynolds, on a good day. The EuroTrash always looked more than little lost in Long Beach; Monaco, it ain’t, no matter what anyone says.
Then Tony George screwed it all up for everyone.
The scion of the Indiana family which owns the Indy 500 and the Indy Speedway, the first purpose-built race track in the world, was jealous of CART and saw a serious threat to his Crown Jewel: The Indy 500, at that time the only race on the circuit which George still controlled (through the US Auto Club, or USAC).
That's the now-infamous Tony George on the right with dad Tony Hulman-George; I saw Tony Jr, at the first press conference he held on the west coast to announce the IRL in 1994; even then, he lied about certain facts, such as his having no ownership interest in any of the IRL teams
Whatever possessed George to start the Indy Racing League, a separate open-wheel series from CART, proved a disaster and served as the blast-off point for the amazing growth of NASCAR. Which might explain why George and NASCAR became such good friends and the annual NASCAR race at Indy each August, the Brickyard 400, is one of the biggest in all of racing (at least that’s what NASCAR and George say).
Supposedly created to be an all-American driver, all-oval series using much less expensive cars and engines than the CART machines, the IRL turned out, predictably (at least by me, even then) to be none of those things.
One night two top execs from Oldsmobile, then the IRL series engine supplier (remember a company called Oldsmobile?) spent several hours, and using graphs and charts (yawn!), explained how, in their view, the closeness, the competition, lap-by-lap, second-by-second, in the IRL was as good or better than in CART.
Great, I said, but who the heck is Jovy Marcelo (a driver killed during practice for Indy in 1996), and why would the American public ever care? Racing isn’t just numbers and speeds; it’s emotions and relationships and history.
Apart from the Speedway itself, the IRL offered none of those things. The Oldsmobile apologists were, shall we say, not too amused. But they couldn’t argue – too hard – with the truth.
After starting their races in 1996, the IRL/CART split scared away sponsors (“Why does anyone need TWO open-wheel series?”), lost the sport millions of fans and their great ABC/ESPN TV coverage, and today the combined IndyCar series has a worse TV package than either Champ Car or IRL had separately, and in this 100th anniversary of the Speedway, there may very well be one – except it might look more like a wake.
Sad sight at Long Beach - the Chevy Corvette C6R American LeMans Series pit box; the team has dominated endurance racing in its class worldwide and next year probably won't exist; I thought about taking home on of the team's pit chairs, you know, as a "keepsake," but one team member strongly discouraged me (www.SteveParker.com photo)
Tony George, acting out of fear, spite and ego, not the first time a member of the Hulman/George family has been so accused, single-handedly drove American open-wheel racing into a pit which, considering the economy and the general non-interest of the public, it may not be able to escape.
It took George Bush just eight years to do pretty much the same to the world economy; did we tell you Tony George is close friends with former US VP Dan Quayle? Dan’s an Indiana boy, too.
So, on the hopeful side, when Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, AJ Foyt and bunch of Andrettis, Unsers and rock-star-of-the-moment Danica Patrick are all in the pits at the same time, along with Castroneves, Franchitti (and his wife, Ashely, the good-looking Judd) and a guy named Power, you know that there’s at least a shot at having a good event.
At least, if you’ve been to a race before, you can once again tell the players without a souvenir program (which at $10 is still way overpriced; always wait to buy race souvenirs until you leave the track – any track – on Sunday evening; prices for everything drop, let’s just say, dramatically).
While the new IndyCar series took to the 2-mile temporary street course, it appeared a lot of the regular attendees decided to stay home and spend their weekend searching their cable boxes for the “Versus” channel, which has the IndyCar TV contract for the next five years. Oh, they’re the ones who carry the NHL and bull riding. Yep, Professional Bull Riding.
Judging by what a lot of people told me, they didn’t have much luck finding Versus.
Which is a shame, because the drivers put on quite a show. It might not have been fast or loud enough for some, there might not have been enough passing to satisfy the regular customers, but for a series running combined for the first time on a rough and bumpy street circuit, with any of the top 15 cars being capable of winning the race with ten laps to go, made for a sporting and satisfying proposition for many fans – and reporters.
Tony Kanaan took third place at Long Beach, and as usual did it with not a cross public word, not a complaint, none of the whining so often associated with race car drivers (www.SteveParker.com photo)
It was superstar Danica Patrick’s first time in an IndyCar race on the track in the shadow of the Queen Mary, the first time in 14 years AJ Foyt was working at the event and an emotional weekend for Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. He’d walked out of a Miami federal court a free man on Friday night after being acquitted (along with his sister/manager and attorney) on tax fraud charges running into the several millions of dollars (a single remaining conspiracy charge against Castroneves and his sister was thrown-out by the judge).
The charges, said by many in the sport to have been instigated by one of the world’s best-known names in Formula 1 racing, open-wheel American CART racing and Brazilian orange growing (hint, hint) who is a former business partner of Castroneves’, took the talented and droll racer and TV’s Dancin’ with the Stars (!) champion off the race track and dance floor for the past several months. In fact, while ostensibly signed with the sport’s Penske Racing team, many observers figured Castroneves to continue to be a no show at races for quite some time – like, 7 to 10 years.
But Helio got on the phone to “The Captain,” Roger Penske, just seconds after leaving the courthouse. Those Who Claim To Know said the conversation went something like this: Roger – “So what do you want to do?” Helio – “I sure as hell don’t want to got to Disneyland! I want to go racing!” Short and sweet; racy, even.
The Menards crew huddles during Saturday qualifying; Menards is a Home Depot-type chain in the Midwest, but bigger than Home Depot. The team ran daring V6 turbocharged Buicks at Indy for a few years and always had great starts - then always blew up. Their driver, Ed Carpenter, had his usual share of troubles during Long Beach; but what race car driver named "Ed Carpenter" can be successful? Sounds like the local TV sports guy... (www.SteveParker.com photo)
So that night Helio was on a chartered plane headed west, arriving in time for Saturday afternoon practice. After being out of any race car for months, Castroneves managed an eighth place qualifying spot on Saturday for Sunday’s race.
Penske driver Will Power (best name of any current race driver outside of NASCAR’s Scott Speed) won the pole position in qualifying, but Penske afterward moved Power into another, untried team car and gave the pole-winning racer to Castroneves.
Power ultimately thumbed his nose at Penske by still managing a second-place finish next to front row co-starter and ultimate winner Dario Franchitti (Target Chip Ganassi Racing). Castroneves took seventh place, an impressive comeback just two days after leaving a nerve-wracking Miami courtroom.
Danica Patrick, the only woman to have won a major open-wheel race (Motegi, Japan, 4-20-08, a day short of a year before Long Beach, 2009) is clearly the superstar in IndyCar. Outside her team transporter on Friday afternoon in the paddock area, several hundred race fans were gathered to get a glimpse of the petite but hard and plain-spoken Midwest driver. Hopping on her Honda scooter to head to the pit area, where her team needed her in the car’s cockpit for practice, Patrick had to slalom through three other team’s paddocks until she found a hole in the fence which didn’t have clamoring fans screaming for her photo.
AJ Foyt, Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske all at the same race track at the same time - it's happened in NASCAR, but not in Indy racing for at least a dozen years (www.SteveParker.com photos)
I guess if anyone could slalom like that, Danica could.
Sunday, she also ran one of the best races of her career.
While she’s clearly a talented race car driver with everything it takes, emotionally and intellectually, to win races, and capitalize on those wins afterward (not every race car driver is in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition – as a model), her single win at Motegi is considered by many to be a fluke, but a smart fluke nonetheless, the result of superior strategy called by her crew chief when it came to scheduling pit stops.
By the way, no one inside IndyCar will say that publicly, because she is the single most-important person in the sport right now. But it remains a fact. And she proved Motegi a fluke with her Long Beach performance – another sort-of fluke of the same type.
Patrick had one of her team owners doing the strategy honors Sunday and talking to her in the car at Long Beach, a guy named Michael Andretti, who had won a few races in his time on this very track.
Patrick, usually never a good qualifier, turned in one of her worst performances, starting the 23-car race in P-22.
But starting on stickier tires and coming in for fuel early, Boss Andretti sent her on her way to a fourth place finish behind Franchitti, Power and the quiet, always-dangerous Tony Kanaan, who we watched use a fire extinguisher in the pits during Saturday qualifying to spray his team to “keep them cool.”
Vitor Meira, who finished 6th and 2nd in the Indy 500 for Rahal Letterman racing in 2004 and '05, is now with AJ Foyt and driving the legendary - if now somewhat slow - #14 (www.SteveParker.com photo)
Kanaan, reputed to be 178 years old and the stunt driver for Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (and possibly the real driver in some of those races BC) is the definition of the “journeyman” driver. He’s now on the massive Andretti Green team (Green meaning money, as well as partner Km Green) team driving the 7-11 car.
But back to Patrick. The kid’s got the chops. Takes direction well. And she showed it in the right town. If racing doesn’t work out, she can travel a few miles north of Long Beach to Burbank and get her own cable sit-com.
And having a guy named Andretti sniffing around as part of an entourage never hurt anyone in Hollywood.
So the race had it all, but fans.
Like the Indy 500, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach never makes an official attendance report, so it’s pretty easy for them to say they’re the “world’s second-biggest motorsports event, next only to the Indy 500.”
Of course, Indy doesn’t release actual attendance figures either, so we pretty much have to take the word of the promoters in this case. “Trust us,” they say. “Would we lie about something as important as the Indy 500?”
Well, yes, you would. And as for this “second-biggest” thing; who cares? The second finisher, especially in racing, is just the first loser.
My own observations: On the average Friday at Long Beach, a good day would see about 35,000 fans in attendance, all of whom had called into their offices that morning to tell the boss their aunt had died – again. This year, if there were 20,000 fans there, I’d be surprised. Better for bosses and aunts, I suppose.
Graham Rahal, son of that famous NASCAR driver, Bobby Ray Hall, is just 20 and a few weeks ago became the youngest driver ever to win a pole position in a major open-wheel event, the IndyCar season-opener at St. Petersburg (Florida, not Russia, but they're probably working on that); named for the late F1 star Graham Hill, Rahal did his driver training in Europe and now has dad and CBS TV's David Letterman -- typical born-in-Indianapolis-where-he-was-also- local-weather-guy-before-having-money-for-race-team-owning -- pushing him hard but smart; Letterman has done more to promote open-wheel IndyCar and F1 auto racing to US audiences than any other personality (www.SteveParker.com photo)
On Saturday, the crowds usually turn-out in big numbers. One can’t walk along Ocean Boulevard heading to the track’s entrances; you’re swept along by the crowd, your feet barely touching the ground.
This year, you could have shot a cannon down Ocean at 1pm and not hit anyone.
Same, but always more crowded, for Sunday. The Jesus nuts were there with their posters (de rigueur for any So Cal event) but again, where were the regular folks? You know, the fans - Who pay the freight for the entire sport.
Sponsors and TV might pay for the teams and the races, but it’s the fans who buy the sponsors’ products and watch the TV networks which carry their favorite sport who make the thing happen.
I saw entire grandstands just half-full-or-less on Sunday. And at $125 for a reserved three-day Long Beach ticket, much less than a major NASCAR event, it all doesn’t bode well for racing in general, at least in this part of the country, the home of the American racing industry.
At least their were fewer freeloaders (like me) in the media room to eat free food (thank you for lunch, Tecate – no booze in the media room –that would never happen, right? But Tecate was charging race fans TEN BUCKS for a beer around the track).
The small fan and media crowds all made for a shorter wait on-line for media food and closer seats to the big-screens carrying the Versus TV feed and the second-by-second race stats (in a future post, I’ll tell you how race reporters get all those after-race quotes from the drivers, and how almost-magically they’re all the same, word-for-word, newspaper-by-website).
Breaker! Literally! Racing icon (well, trophy girl icon) Linda Vaughn is treated by paramedics at Long Beach after shoving her left foot up some promoter's ass too far and breaking it - her foot, that is. You can't break a promoter's ass; it's been tried, believe me. Vaughn, the original Major Trophy Queen, the Hurst Golden Shifter Girl of the early 1960s (look it up), remains the best-looking, smartest and funniest - and smartest - and toughest - and best-looking - person in the business, man or woman; I don't want that foot up my ass - actually, on the other hand ... (www.SteveParker.com photo)
It was easy to park (even some $30-a-day lots were at only $20 on race day), easy to get out of town and headed back to West LA over the Vincent Thomas Bridge and easy to shoot photos and videos.
The tough part is writing this story, about a good race which we might not see so soon again.
Couldn’t have been too easy on the promoters, though, although event principal Jim Michaelian, ever the optimist, said the week before the race that “ticket sales are up 7%.” Oh, yeah? Where? Kenya? Maybe that e-mail from Nairobi offering to sell me AJ Foyt’s team was truer than I thought.