Next weekend in the heart of the Los Angeles basin I’ll have the pleasure of covering the 39th Long Beach Grand Prix. I’ve been to every one of them since Chris Pook launched the great Southern California street race in 1975 as a round of America’s Formula 5000 championship. Long Beach became a Formula 1 race the following year and was a round of the World Championship for eight years before switching in 1984 to CART and Indycars.
The first Long Beach GP, won by Brian Redman in a Haas/Hall Lola T332, was a rousing success and established itself as America’s best street race during its eight years as an F1 race. Long Beach thrived through the late 1980s, the ’90s and into the new century, drawing more than 90,000 on race day and just short of a quarter million people over three days.
In recent years the crowd has dwindled substantially, but Long Beach remains a pretty good draw by modern standards. Regardless, it continues as one of the highlights of the US racing season and is always a pleasure to attend.
This year, Long Beach is the third round of the IZOD IndyCar series and it will be interesting to see if Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe can keep the ball rolling for Michael Andretti’s team. Defending champion Hunter-Reay won the weekend before last at Barber Motorsports Park and Hinchcliffe won last month’s season-opener in St Petersburg.
Despite its weak position in the American sports market, IndyCar is extremely competitive with less than eight-tenths of a second covering the fastest 24 of 26 cars at the Barber road course. So there are plenty of potential winners.
Without doubt, Andretti Autosport’s four-car team (Marco Andretti and EJ Viso drive Michael’s two additional Dallara-Chevrolets) faces some very serious opposition from Team Penske’s similarly-powered trio of cars driven by championship leader Helio Castroneves, Will Power and AJ Allmendinger, and from Chip Ganassi’s three Honda-powered cars with Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball on board.
IndyCar’s agreement with Long Beach expires next year and there are rumors that Bernie Ecclestone, Zak Brown and Long Beach founder Chris Pook are attempting to buy the contract. Ecclestone and Pook are known to have met a time or two last year to discuss the idea and Brown expressed his interest in the pages of last September’s Motor Sport.
“There’s a lot of talk about a a third [US F1] race on the West Coast,” Brown told our editor Damien Smith. “I’m an advocate of F1 buying the Long Beach GP. I think I can facilitate that and I’ve been having those conversations. You can make an argument that Long Beach would be a good investment. It’s got so much heritage. One race [in America] certainly isn’t enough.”
One of Bernie’s few regrets is making the decision back in 1983 not to continue at Long Beach. It’s in the heart of Greater LA and a return to F1 would surely be good for F1 and help revive the race’s old glory and huge crowds.
For his part, Ecclestone is well aware of the value of the LA market. Recently, his daughters Tamara and Petra have been setting new standards for LA and London real estate paid for from Bambino Holdings, a US$4.5 billion trust fund set up by Ecclestone for ex-wife Slavica Rasic and their daughters.
Petra paid the highest price ever for a home in LA County – $85 million – and then spent close to $20 million renovating the mansion formerly owned by TV producer Aaron Spelling. According to the New York Times, older sister Tamara is renting a home in Bel Air for $150,000 a month while she looks for a suitable $100 million home, “with lots of outdoor space so my dogs can play.”
The Ecclestone name is widely-known in LA, well beyond motor racing’s narrow corridors, and it seems all but inevitable that Bernie will buy the Long Beach GP for F1’s return to Southern California in 2015.