Long Beach Grand PrixHide Text
Birth of the Long Beach Grand Prix, by Dan Gurney
When Chris Pook came to me in 1974 with his dream of making Long Beach the Monte Carlo of the United States by means of Formula 1 Grand Prix, I was quite overwhelmed by the boldness of his idea, but also immediately fired up with enthusiasm to help make it happen. To make it happen was no easy task, especially in the era of the mid-70s, when safety concerns ruled the automobile industry and when the environmental agencies and the California Coastal Commission wielded great power.
Motor racing was not enjoying the boom times as today, nor was it considered a mainstream sport which corporate America wanted to embrace, let alone be involved with. To me, a race through a city seemed not the lunatic idea it was made out to be at the time, but just exactly the right innovative thing to shake up the establishment and capture the heart and imagination of racing fans worldwide. We were younger then and a bit less "business-like", and to try to create something "against all odds" appealed to my nature.
The obstacles were formidable. Chris and I recruited other people who were passionate about our sport and who were willing to put down some money or work without remuneration for a few decades to come. I remember going to late night sessions of the Long Beach City Council to persuade the members a motor race was just what the city needed. The mayor, thankfully, was an early and staunch supporter. The next hurdle was the California Coastal Commission, whom we had to convince, that the noise coming out of the exhaust system of racing cars along Shoreline Drive would not disturb the fish and seagulls in the marina. We had to go to Europe to the sanctioning bodies to get the race approved, and pass a strict safety inspection of the course that I had laid out right through downtown. We had to convince the Grand Prix establishment that Long Beach was indeed a site worthy of a Grand Prix.
The senior citizens living along Ocean Boulevard had to be persuaded not to flee the city, as they were bombarded with television news bulletins that the barbarians were at the gate. Some members of the press were openly antagonistic to the idea and had to be brought around in countless interviews....and sponsors had to be found, money was in short supply for a very, very long time. Toyota jumped on the bandwagon early on and has been a great sponsor of the race for 23 years. We had no master plan to emulate and had to make up our modus operandi as we went along. Everything had to be invented from scratch, the right fences and safety barriers, the placement of the grand stands, the detouring of traffic, the access to businesses, the accommodation of an international jet set, a task which Chris and his Long Beach staff fine tuned over the years so now every new street venture in the U.S. and abroad can profit from our experience and come here for guidance on how to put on a show, successfully.
Ah, the butterflies before our first event! We stayed on the Queen Mary in those days, slept a little at night and got up before dawn to work on some chore or other at the track. We were rewarded with a magnificent first Long Beach Grand Prix, a Formula 5000 race, in the fall of 1975. People turned out in great numbers to hear the "Roar at the Sea". The city handled it beautifully and with growing enthusiasm. The seniors did not want to leave once they saw the colorful crowd of racers and cars descend on their town. When the green flag fell over the first bona fide Formula 1 race in the spring of 1976, an international worldwide television audience witnessed the "Monaco Grand Prix West".
The rest is history. And what a history it's been. Formula 1 changed into CART, Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti changed into Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti, the layout of the course changed many times and corporate America arrived on the scene. The world's fastest beach party became the place to be in mid-April. The fact that the race became an ongoing and ever growing success as opposed to a temporary "two year wonder" is due to the dedicated, passionate and competent work of Chris Pook and his associates as well as the support of the City.
It has been fun through the years for me to observe so many young people getting hooked on motor racing "because of Long Beach". The celebrity events were hilarious highlights of my year, the friendships my family and I formed with many people associated with the Grand Prix will last for a lifetime.
Now, when I look out of my hotel room window and see the changed landscape of the City, the skyscrapers and the Aquarium, the marina and the beautiful, new restaurants, it fills my heart with great pride that a motor race played a part in this transformation. I am proud we were risk takers.