An IndyCar season without the Long Beach Grand Prix is almost as depressing as it is unfulfilling, because it’s the second most prestigious race on the schedule, and a touchstone of spring that is entering its fifth decade.
Losing this year’s LBGP to the COVID-19 virus was a tough pill to swallow, but if it got kicked to the curb again in 2021 it could have had tragic implications for the longest-running street race in North America. That’s why moving to the date to late September is the best thing that could have happened for a race that changed the complexion of a city, and gave IndyCar a solid foothold on the west coast.
“Nobody knows exactly what situation is going to be in late September, but we think it’s going to be much more attractive than April,” says Jim Michaelian, the president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach who has been a key cog in this event since its inception in 1975. “We’re looking forward to the September/CDC guidelines, and they’re saying by the time we get into late summer and early spring, we should have significant mass inoculations. We’re hoping for the best, because we want full participation.”
From restaurants to rock concerts to sporting events, California is locked down like few other states, and the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach was facing alternatives that didn’t excite anyone.
“It’s tough here, we’re pretty much shut down compared to a Georgia or Florida, and we were given a tiered structure of having no fans or up to 25 percent capacity, and quite frankly neither of those were viable,” continues Michaelian.
“People come here to have fun, and if you have so many restrictions that they can’t go into the paddock or walk around the Expo, they’re not going to come. And I’d rather not run than people come and be disgruntled.”
But moving from April to September required a little more than a couple of phone calls, especially since the LBGP’s appeal is that it offers IndyCars, sports cars, vintage cars, drifting and Stadium Super Trucks in its non-stop entertainment format.
“The first thing we had to do was clear the convention center, because they had a couple of conventions that were booked in late September,” says Michaelian.
“So they helped us out, and then we had to see about the motel availability. Then we had to meet with IMSA, Robby (Gordon, SST creator) and the historic race people to make sure we could pull this off and deliver exactly what we’d promised for April.
“Everyone was so accommodating, and it was a unifying effort on behalf of the city and all the series to make it work.”
With IMSA set to run Laguna Seca on September 10-12 and then being asked to come back for Long Beach on September 24-26, there could have been a problem since teams would either make two trips out west, or have to stay for two weeks. But the sports car set agreed to the date change to keep one of its most popular venues on the schedule.
For IndyCar, things couldn’t have fallen into place much better. The season will end with a three-week west coach blitz of Portland (September 10-12), Laguna Seca (September 17-19) and Long Beach. Having the season finale at a place with fans, tradition and atmosphere is also a big plus, and the only downside is that the Acura LBGP will now be shown on NBCSN instead of NBC network.
“The positives were significantly higher than negatives,” says Michaelian. “Acura has been a power of strength, and when we told them about possibility of September they were excited, because they have two product reviews coming out in late summer.
“The odds on getting network coverage in September is tough, but at certain point we had to say that’s one sacrifice we’re going to make. And I think it was offset by the fact everything came together.”
Unlike NASCAR, whose tracks are supported by big TV money and therefore don’t rely on spectators to survive, paying customers are imperative for IndyCar’s tracks to stay in business. Very few venues could afford to lose their race for two years running.
“That’s why we made such an effort to reschedule in 2021, because April was not a positive alternative,” says Michaelian. “We deliberately wanted to make a concerted effort run this race this year, because you don’t want to lose contact with fans, sponsors, exhibitors. Two years is a long time, and people look for other options. There is no way we can run this event without fans, a significant number of fans, or without hospitality.”
As for ticket sales? “I can’t start ticket sales until I get a better feel on how many people we can put in the facility,” he says. “A lot of people already have tickets so they’ll get first priority, but I don’t want to deal with refunds again. I want to sell as many tickets as we can, but not until I get an accurate percentage on what will be allowed.”
Whether it was Formula 5000, Formula 1, CART, Champ Car or now IndyCar, the Long Beach race has never been rained on, and its annual mid-April date was designed by the weatherman. What does Michaelian expect in late September?
“Could be a little warm, but not oppressive thanks to the water, and I think it’s an attractive time,” he says. “We ran our very first race on September 28, 1975, and hopefully this September 26 our fans will be able to enjoy Long Beach like they have for 45 years.”