Long Beach is a city that holds many of Michael Andretti’s favorite memories. It was the site of his first IndyCar win, taken in 1986 at the CART Indy Car Series event held on the streets that run alongside the Pacific Ocean.
Andretti’s Kraco Racing March 86C-Cosworth DFX was the class of the field at that Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach held 36 years ago, and with his return for this weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, he has another marker to celebrate as the 20th anniversary of his final IndyCar win has arrived.
The 2002 Long Beach edition was a pivotal event in more ways than one for Andretti. A new venture was in the works as he drove into victory lane in his Team Green Reynard 02i-Honda for what would be the last time in a championship-winning career that spanned three decades.
“It’s been 20 years… my God, makes me feel old,” Andretti told RACER.
“Qualifying, I remember I had a pole lap going and I crashed. And that was the actual weekend that we signed the papers to for us to buy the Green team. I remember when I hit the wall, that was the first time I thought, ‘Oh, s***, how much is that going to cost?’”
With the crash on his fastest lap, Andretti was relegated to start from 15th on the grid in the No. 39 Reynard in the field of 20 cars. Team Rahal’s Jimmy Vasser took pole in his No. 8 Lola B02/00-Ford Cosworth entry with a lap of 1m07.742s. For the sake of comparison, Josef Newgarden’s 2021 Long Beach pole in the No. 2 Team Penske Dallara DW12-Chevy was a 1m08.224s, 0.482s slower than Vasser’s 20-year-old lap.
Mired toward the back of the grid, Andretti’s only option was to go off strategy and hope it paid off during the 90-lap contest.
“And that’s what we did,” he said. “I remember when the yellow came out, I was able to come into pits and get out in front of Vasser, because Vasser was just going real slow when the yellow came out. He didn’t bunch up. And that’s actually how I got the lead, because I was able to get in and out of pits before he made it around. So because of when the yellow came out, I remember that that’s what won the race because I got the track position and it was really difficult to pass.”
Vasser, the 1996 CART champion from California who loved the Long Beach race, was a vision of frustration and disappointment on the podium. Now-NTT IndyCar Series race steward Max Papis was third for the underdog Sigma Autosport team.
“I think [Vasser] was blaming his team because they didn’t tell him to bunch and he thought he was in the lead,” Andretti said. “It was a bit of a lucky win for us. But trust me, I’ve lost way more that way than won.”
Capping a career that included the 1991 CART title, Andretti’s 2002 Long Beach win was the 42nd of his career and the 61st for Honda and its associates from the nearby Honda Performance Development team.
With the new ownership stake in mind, 2002 would serve as Andretti’s last as a full-time driver; 2003 would welcome the renamed Andretti Green Racing team to the CART paddock and by the end of the decade, he’d take full ownership and rebrand the company as Andretti Autosport, where he remains aligned with Honda and HPD today as the defending winners of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach with driver Colton Herta.
“It’s always a big race for them, and to win there for them was huge,” he said. “I think the other story is that I bookended my career with my very first win at Long Beach and my last win at Long Beach.”
Looking at pictures of himself from the 1986 and 2002 races brought back a wave of memories.
“They were definitely very different Andrettis,” he continued. “ was in my third year, so starting my third year, to finally get a win, that was a huge one. And the way we got it was huge as well, beating Al [Unser] Jr. there – who was all over me at the end – really made it extra special. Then obviously the last one, I didn’t know that was gonna be the last one in my career. Unfortunately, it was, but you know, at that point, I was different, because I was basically getting to the end and I had a feeling that that was probably going to be my last full season of IndyCar. It was two different people.”
In the 11 Long Beach races run from 2010-21 (excluding 2020, which was missed due to COVID), Andretti Autosport has – like its owner – been a fixture at the sharp end of the field. Five wins with Ryan Hunter-Reay (2010), Mike Conway (2011), Alexander Rossi (2018, 2019) and Herta last September would suggest the team has a few secrets on how to perform at IndyCar’s second-biggest race.
“It’s probably just luck,” Andretti suggested. “But you know, I always love going to Long Beach; it’s always one of the highlights of the year and I just love the whole event. The whole vibe is always just such a good feeling there. And you know, when you go to places and you feel that way, maybe you perform a little extra better. I don’t know why we’re good there and then other places, we’re good, but we don’t get the results. It’s just like me at Toronto; I have no idea why I won seven times there. I could have easily won five Indy 500s. It’s just still the luck that you need, for sure.”