A Formula 1 race around downtown Long Beach? Yeah, right… But bring in Dan Gurney to open doors and pretty soon it’s go time.
It was the summer of 1973 and Chris Pook had an idea for an auto race through the streets of Long Beach, Calif. But the ambitious 32-year-old Brit had no clout or credibility with the city or racing community.
So he picked up the phone, called All American Racers and asked for Dan Gurney.
“Obviously I knew who he was, but he certainly didn’t know me,” recalls Pook with a chuckle. “I told him my vision and he said, ‘That sounds like a wild idea, why don’t you come over and we’ll discuss it.’ I was blown away that Dan Gurney liked the concept.”
After a meeting with the Convention Bureau (whose jaws were on the floor because they were eating lunch with Gurney), The Big Eagle dialed up Les Richter, who ran Riverside. Richter found a guy named Jim Kaser, who drew up a track plan.
“We applied to ACCUS and they immediately kicked it to the curb,” says Pook. “Dan said not to worry, he was going to call Tom Binford (Indy chief steward and a member of the FIA and ACCUS board) and we’ll just bypass ACCUS.
“CSI was the forerunner to the FIA and Dr. Bacciagaluppi, the manager of Monza, was head of the CSI’s circuit committee. He flew in and myself, Binford, Dan, Phil Hill, Richie Ginther and Denis Hulme met with the city engineer and team and we discussed using Ocean Boulevard and concrete barriers. City Hall liked the proposal; Dan led that entire discussion.”
The next hurdle was wrestling a permit from the California Coastal Commission. Gurney met Pook in San Francisco – and they both smiled entering the CCC office.
“The young man we dealt with had a huge ‘Dan Gurney for President’ poster on his wall, so we spent most of the next half hour talking about Dan’s career,” says Pook. “As we left he said he was going to give us the strongest recommendation possible. Dan gave him his famous thumbs-up sign and we were on our way.”
Gurney brought Bobby Unser and an Eagle to the newly-constructed Shoreline Drive for a demo in the summer of ’75, and first car on track for September’s inaugural Grand Prix of Long Beach, run for Formula 5000 cars, was Vern Schuppan’s Eagle.
Six months later, in March 1976, Clay Regazzoni headed a Ferrari 1-2 on Formula 1’s first visit to Southern California. Pook and Gurney had pulled it off.
“The Toyota Celebrity race was built around Dan, too. The first one had Graham Hill, Bob Bondurant and Phil Hill in identical Celicas and that started a great tradition,” says Pook. “Dan was also on our board of directors and when I told him I was thinking of dropping F1 for CART he led the charge. His footprints were all over this race.”
If you saw Long Beach in the mid ’70s and drove through it today, you’d be amazed at the makeover this city underwent thanks to a race on its streets.
“The City of Long Beach owes a huge amount to Dan,” says Pook. “He was a great race driver, but so much more than that. He was just an amazing man, and there wouldn’t be a Long Beach Grand Prix if there hadn’t been Dan Gurney.”
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