The wait for racing cars to return to the streets of Long Beach is a little longer than usual this time around. But in the decades since the inaugural event, enough stories have sprung up around the race to fill a book – which is exactly what Gordon Kirby has done with Chris Pook & the History of the Long Beach GP. RACER.com is running a series of excerpts to help you pass the time while we wait for racing to resume. Given that’s still some weeks away though, you might want to order the entire thing…
Pook tells an interesting story about Mario Andretti selling Hyatt Hotels boss A.N. Pritzker on the concept of building a hotel on Shoreline Drive in the heart of the Grand Prix’s track layout.
“Qualifying was scheduled to start at 2 pm on Saturday afternoon and about half an hour before city manager John Dever and A.N. Pritzker, head of the Hyatt Hotels family, were walking down the pitlane,” Chris says.
“Dever introduced me to Pritzker, who at that time was 70-some years old. Dever said Mr. Pritzker would like to have a ride around the racetrack to have a look at it. We were standing next to the Lotus pit and Mario was sitting there talking to Colin Chapman and Peter Warr, the Lotus team manager. I said, ‘Excuse me, but could I borrow Mario for a minute?’ They said, ‘No problem.’
“I told Mario that Pritzker was the head of Hyatt Hotels. I introduced him to Dever and Pritzker, and Dever said to Mario that Mr. Pritzker would like a ride around the racetrack. Mario turned to me and said, ‘Can you give me five or six minutes for a couple of laps in the pace car?’ I said, sure, and we walked down to the end of pit lane just after Elm Street where the two pace cars were parked. I introduced Pritzker to Phil Hill and asked if we could borrow one of the pace cars for Mario to drive Mr. Pretizker around the track, and off they went.
“The foot crossings were still open so we had to alert everyone that there was a car coming around. Mario and Pritzker went out and they went around once, then twice and kept going for a third, fourth and fifth lap. By then Chapman was starting to complain, saying he needed Mario in the pits to get him settled in the car for qualifying. So we got onto race control and told them to do whatever was required to bring Mario into the pits, which they did with a black flag at pit-in and Mr. Prtizker was deposited right alongside the Lotus pit.
“As Mario came in and he and Pritzker were talking and gesticulating to each other. Pritzker got out of the car and thanked everyone. He said he learned more over the last 10 minutes with Mario than he had in a week. They shook hands, Pritzker wished him well and as Mario started walking to his race car Pritzker turned to Dever and said, ‘If you’ve got enough guts to tear your city up and run a race like this, then I’m going to build a Hyatt Hotel at the corner of Shoreline and Pine. I want it to look out at the Queen Mary and the Pacific Ocean.’ He knew exactly where he wanted it, no ifs or buts.
“Dever explained that it would be on tidelands and we would have to deal with the Coastal Commission. Pritzker said, ‘I don’t care. I want a Hyatt Hotel located right there.’ He said he would have his lawyers meet with the city’s lawyers the next Monday afternoon. He said he wanted to get the deal done, and sure enough Hyatt broke ground on the hotel in 1980 and completed it in 1982.
“That same afternoon in a motorhome in the paddock the AMC/Renault merger was negotiated by a French merchant bank Lazard Freres. Stan Cohen, a developer from Beverly Hills, also made a commitment to build a high-rise building at Ocean and Locust, and Mike Chopin, a local developer, got the commitment for a new building at Broadway and Pine. Chopin also got the financing for another building on the east side of Long Beach. Also, the operators of the Hilton and Westin hotel chains made commitments to build a new Hilton and a Westin in downtown Long Beach. So it was a pretty good weekend!”