Found within his new book ‘Chris Pook & The History Of The Toyota GP Of Long Beach,’ the founder of the great American street racing event shares an amazing number of stories within its 320 pages.
Written by Gordon Kirby — who covered the inaugural race in 1975 — for Racemaker Press, Pook’s life is captured in the heavyweight hardcover book starting with his upbringing in England before sharing tales of how the famed Southern California race came into existence.
The book’s formal launch was meant to take place this weekend during the 46th running of the Long Beach Grand Prix, but with its unfortunate cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pook (pictured, top, ahead of 2019’s IMSA race in Long Beach) spoke with RACER on Thursday to bring a few of its stories to life during an extended conversation.
“Basically, when I launched the idea of copying Monte Carlo really, that’s all we did,” he said. “The city folks looked at me and said, ‘What sort of qualifications do you have to do something like that?’ Obviously, I had not thought that one through thoroughly and I said, ‘Well, you know what, I’ll try and get Dan Gurney involved here and see if he’ll help with this project!’
“It was strictly just right off the seat of my pants I blurted out that comment to them; that was a magic name to them and they said, ‘Well, OK, let’s get him in here and see what he has to say.’ I was really at that point, if you will, [where] the bluff was almost called.”
Gurney, among the most influential men in motor racing, whose nearby All American Racers shop in Santa Ana was a massive contributor to Southern California racing culture, was the perfect name for Pook to present to the city’s council members. The only problem for the Briton was Gurney had no idea who he was, or that his clout had been used to stoke the Long Beach Grand Prix conversation.
Pook’s next move was a nervous phone call to pitch his crazy idea to the Big Eagle.
“(The receptionist) said, ‘Can I tell Mr. Gurney what this is about?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s about turning the streets of Long Beach into a Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit.’ And she said, ‘Could you just repeat that one more time for me?’ So, I repeated it and she just said, ‘Well, one moment,’” he recalled.
“I sort of sat there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen now?’ And then all of a sudden the phone just lit up with, ‘This is Dan Gurney, what can I do for you?’ From there on, he was on board. He listened for a few minutes and he says, ‘Well, that sounds exciting. Why don’t you come talk to me some more about it.’”
The event’s debut in 1975 featured Formula 5000 cars, and the following year, Pook struck a deal with Bernie Ecclestone to bring Formula 1 to the streets of Long Beach. In time, the savvy former head of F1 would push the price of hosting the series beyond Pook’s breaking point.
“Bernard was building Formula 1,” he said. “He had his vision for Formula 1 and he was building it and they were transitioning from the days when the race circuits used to pay starting money to the race drivers and the car owners, to where Bernie was able to package all the drivers up and the teams up and then go to the organizers or the venues and get fees, demand for money and transportation.
“In 1976, I think the first Grand Prix cost us $575,000 or something in that area. And all of a sudden, we got up to 1983 and we’re paying $1.75 million. And these are the days before major corporate sponsorship, before you had all this corporate hospitality and things, and ticket prices were very, very reasonable — you could go to a baseball game for five bucks.”
Despite F1’s popularity at Long Beach, the costs become untenable. By 1984, the CART IndyCar Series — which sprang to life after Gurney called for team owners to break from USAC and form their own championship — was ready to take over the show where its modern successor, the NTT IndyCar Series, remains today.
“In the LA market, which is one of the toughest entertainment markets in the world, you’ve got to be competitive with your pricing,” Pook continued. “So pricing, we tried to edge it up to pay for it, but sooner or later the costs of improving the circuit…. Bear in mind that as Formula 1 was growing, the cars were getting more expensive, [and] the demands on the circuits was getting more and more expensive, the safety demands were getting increased and the technology was coming in, and you had to spend all this money every year on upgrades.
“Having almost gone broke after the 1976 race, we were working our rear ends off with the place being packed. We’d have like 97,000 people in the joint on Sunday, and 85 or 86 [thousand] on Saturday, and 65, 70 [thousand] on Friday. We were finding ourselves only making about $100,000-$200,000 profit.
“One bad day, one bad weekend, and we would’ve been toast. We would’ve been completely upside down. So we basically agreed with Bernard to disagree. And Dan, if you recall, was one of the founders of CART….”
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Enjoy the rest of the conversation on ‘Chris Pook & The History Of The Toyota GP Of Long Beach’ below: