Next weekend we’ll have the pleasure of enjoying the 40th Long Beach Grand Prix. Long Beach of course, is America’s most successful, longest-running street race and is the prototypical example of using a motor race as an impetus to redevelop and redefine a city.
Forty years ago Long Beach was a seedy old WWII port city, ignored by millions of commuters who passed by on a daily basis on the 405 freeway from LA to Orange County. Today, downtown Long Beach is a much-desired convention centre destination bristling with new hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings and condominiums gleaming in the Southern California sun.
Over the years there have been many great races at Long Beach, starting with Brian Redman’s victory aboard a Haas/Hall Lola-Chevy in the inaugural Formula 5000 race in 1975. Formula 1 arrived the following year and the race went from failure to success in 1977 when Mario Andretti scored the first of his four Long Beach wins driving a JPS Lotus 78. Mario’s win brought fresh excitement and popularity to F1 in America and with it the crowds at Long Beach surged.
In 1984 CART’s Indycars replaced F1 at Long Beach after Chris Pook refused to agree to Bernie Ecclestone’s demands for more money. The crowd on race day in ’84 was down by some 30,000 from the previous year but Andretti’s trio of wins aboard Newman/Haas Lolas in 1984, ’85 and ’87 helped bring the crowds back and by the end of the ’80s and through much of ’90s more than 90,000 punters regularly turned out on race day at Long Beach.
Al Unser Jr replaced Andretti as ‘Mr Long Beach’ after scoring four wins in a row from 1988-91 and adding two more wins in 1994 and ’95. In his prime, Al Jr was unbeatable in many of those races, although there were others were he had to fight furiously for the win.
The greatest race
Maybe the most exciting race in the streets of Long Beach occurred in 1998 when Alex Zanardi came back from losing a lap to charge through the field, outbraking Bryan Herta to seize the lead with less than two laps to go.
At the time, Zanardi was in the last of his three years in CART with Chip Ganassi’s team and had won in Long Beach the previous year on the way to his first CART championship. Ganassi had the right combination in Reynard chassis, Honda engines and Firestone tyres and Zanardi took full advantage of it, turning in many inspired performances and going on to win his second consecutive CART championship in ’98.
But going into Long Beach that year Zanardi didn’t look a likely winner. He qualified a relatively poor eleventh after hitting the wall and didn’t appear to be a threat to win for most of the race after losing a lap in the early stages when he was involved in a multi-car spin at the last hairpin. Before going to the pits for repairs, Zanardi had to sit and wait patiently for his engine to be refired.
“When I was sitting there, unable to go anywhere, I tried to put it in first, then I tried to reverse,” he explained. “But somebody hit me in the back and then I stalled. I was left sitting there for a long time and I was very disappointed because I thought realistically that was the end of my race.”
One of Zanardi’s steering arms was bent in the incident, but chief mechanic Rob Hill straightened the crooked arm in the pits. Zanardi’s steering wheel was half an hour out of place for the rest of the race but it didn’t have any adverse affect at all as sharp pitstop strategy and a charging drive from Zanardi saw the Italian pull himself back into the battle late in the race. When the rest of the leaders made splash-and-go stops for fuel in the closing laps, he was in a position to make a final challenge.
Leaders Bryan Herta and Dario Franchitti ducked in for quick fuel stops with 11 and nine laps to go respectively and Zanardi found himself hard on their tails in third place. He had taken on fresh tyres at his last pitstop while Herta and Franchitti were running on worn tyres after their quick, splash-and-dash stops. Sure enough, Zanardi outbraked Franchitti for second with five laps to go, then made his move on leader Herta under braking for what used to be called the Queen’s hairpin on lap 104 of 105.
“I just went for every car that was in my way,” a grinning Zanardi said after the race. “Because everything went wrong for us, we pitted and took on new tyres. I was pushing very hard and trying not to take much time to pass slower cars. If you are able to pass traffic and keep the momentum going, you can gain a lot of time, and that’s what I tried to do. I thought a top five finish was possible but I didn’t really think about winning the race.”
Herta was on the pole in Long Beach that year and led a good deal of the race but knew he was a sitting duck in the closing laps on much older tyres than Zanardi. “I tried everything I could to hold off Alex, but I knew it would be a struggle when we had eight laps to go,” Herta said. “I was going to fight him off until I had nothing left but when he got up alongside me, I knew I couldn’t hold him off. He drove a great race and I congratulate him. I just wish I had a little fresher tyres at the end.”
Herta got wide into the ‘marbles’ as Zanardi passed him which allowed Franchitti to catch and pass Herta for second place, thus scoring his first Indycar podium finish. Meanwhile, in the post-race press conference Zanardi returned Herta’s compliments and the two drivers shook hands. “I’d like to thank Bryan,” Zanardi said. “It’s very nice to receive his compliments. I want to thank him for the compliments and for being a good, clean driver.”
It was heart-warming to see such first-class sportsmanship, particularly after Zanardi’s famous pass of Herta at Laguna Seca at the end of the previous year when Zanardi used all the road and more to outbrake Herta at The Corkscrew on the last lap to win the race. But at Long Beach in ’98, Zanardi and Herta were arm in arm, full of mutual respect, and that made an electrifying race even better.