The first time I came to Long Beach was in 1976 for the U.S. Grand Prix West, and the city wasn’t a site for sore eyes, it was an eyesore. Bums, trash, liquor stores and porn shops littered a downtown that offered nothing to make anyone want to visit. There were no 2-star hotels, let alone 4s or 5s, and other than Mum’s restaurant, upscale dining was Denny’s.
But Chris Pook had an idea for a street race, and Dan Gurney convinced the city fathers it was a viable plan to try and pump some life into this gloomy seaside community.
Let’s fast-forward 45 years. Long Beach is now a progressive place with towering hotels on both sides of Ocean Avenue in addition to a cove of diverse places to eat on the water, and a mini mall that borders the track layout.
If you saw Long Beach in the mid-70s and then walked down the streets today, you would not believe your eyes. As the race began to grow, so did the city. A Westin went up, then a Marriott, then a Hilton and a Hyatt, and suddenly nice restaurants started appearing.
Of all the places Indy cars have gone in the past 70 years, this is the only example of a race rescuing a city. The Grand Prix – briefly F5000 before rising to prominence first with Formula 1, and now Indy cars since 1984, is responsible for the renaissance of Long Beach.
That’s what makes this baseball stadium proposal so troubling.
A few months ago it was reported that the LA. Angels were interested in building a new ballpark in Long Beach. But not just any place – it would be constructed right in the middle of the land that houses the racetrack.
Jim Michaelian, the man who has managed the LBGP for four decades, was asked on Sunday if he is concerned about losing the longest-standing street race in America.
“I don’t know enough information to say anything right now,” he told RACER. “In a few days I intend to discuss with city officials their projected plans. I do know that the proposed location would wipe out both paddocks, Turns 9-11 and likely do away with the arena. But right now, I can’t say what is going to happen.”
Gerald Forsythe, the longtime IndyCar owner who also shares ownership of the LBGP along with Kevin Kalkhoven, attended his first race in 12 years on Sunday and didn’t seem too concerned.
“I think its politics,” said Forsythe. “I think Jim has delivered a great product for a long time, and this race put this city on the map.”
Obviously, the revenue from baseball 81 times a year plus concerts would dwarf what the Acura Grand Prix brought in for three days. And it’s probably three or four years away even if it does get the green light.
But if it does happen, it would be devastating to IndyCar. Long Beach is the second-longest running venue on its schedule, and the race every driver wants to win after Indianapolis.
It’s not a great race as much as it is a great tradition and event. Unlike so many cities that have come and gone on the schedule, the LBGP is a staple of stability and honor.
It’s way too early for hand-wringing, and the ballpark may never happen at all, but if there is a vote some day, maybe the powers that be in Long Beach could take a step back and look at what’s transpired in the past 45 years. This city is the Grand Prix, and naive as it might sound, shouldn’t there be some loyalty for the facelift auto racing spurred and all these Aprils of bringing this place alive?