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Should F1 return to Long Beach?

March 1, 2014

Here’s a warning to the Long Beach city council: be mindful of an extremely short man with flowing gray/white hair. Bernard Charles Ecclestone will bleed you of money and laugh all the way to HIS bank.

Next Tuesday, the city council in this city, which is preparing to host the 40th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach April 11-13, will consider whether to automatically extend the current contract beyond 2015 for another five years. This contract lies with the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach (GPALB) and its head Jim Michaelian. It can also consider a request for proposal (RFP) that would include the possibility of bringing back Formula 1 to these city streets.

F1 lived here from March of 1976 through 1983, following an initial co-sanctioned late September 1975 SCCA/USAC Formula 5000 race. The initial years of the F1 race were financially precarious – and that’s being kind. Most years, until Toyota came on-board 35 years ago to become the naming sponsor at Long Beach, it was touch-and-go as to whether sanction fees would be paid and if the race would actually go on.

Former travel agent Chris Pook gets the bulk of credit for bringing racing to the moribund, former Navy town of Long Beach, where strip bars, nasty movie houses and tattoo parlors lined now pristine Ocean Blvd. He had some heavy hitters working with him like Dan Gurney and Phil Hill, both of whom raced in F1 (Hill was the 1961 champion). With their help, in some cases physically as everyone pitched in to get the circuit built in time for the 1975 contest, the show made it to the road. Michaelian, who has been with the race since it started, knows the history well and, for that reason, he’s not a fan of an F1 return.

Why not? In a word, money. The costs of putting on an F1 race are prohibitive these days; not that it wasn’t in the middle to late 1970s and into the 1980s, but now this race will break a city trying very hard to get back on its feet after the Great Recession. Until recently, Long Beach had a horrible deficit (like most California cities, after the state bled their funding capacity), which was erased by the current mayor on the backs of cuts for police, fire, education, public safety and the arts.

To go forward with an F1 race now – and maybe any time – would break the bank.

Long Beach has been making money with CART, Champ Car, IRL, IndyCar since it changed horses in 1984. The costs to produce and promote F1 would be multiplied at least four-square and the returns would be extremely small by comparison.

F1 requires permanent garages and there is nowhere near the current circuit where those can be built; F1 requires a billiard table raceway – these city streets aren’t good enough for that now and the city has been lax in repairing its infrastructure during these dismal financial times. F1 requires grand hotels – and we’ve got a few here, but certainly not enough within the general area to satisfy Mr Ecclestone and his thousands of circus-mates.

There will be a closed-door session of the city council to discuss the matter this coming Tuesday, March 4. Michaelian explained to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, “What will transpire Tuesday night is that the city council will vote on whether they wish to issue an RFP to determine whether Long Beach will continue with the IndyCar weekend and with the [GPALB], or consider another party that wants to conduct a Formula 1 race. We are asking the city to extend this very productive relationship for another five years if the RFP is denied.”

Pook, who is an advisor to Mr Ecclestone, is part of the group looking to return F1 to what was once known as Iowa by the Sea. While it’s true the city has been, as the paper put it, “modernized and revitalized by auto racing,” this change has not been at great cost to city hall.

There is a current F1 race at Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Texas, a purpose-built facility for F1 (at over $345 million); racer Leo Hindery has been trying to placate Mr Ecclestone’s desire for a New York City backdrop on F1 with an event at Port Imperial which seems to be stillborn after being on the provisional calendar from 2012 through this year but failing to make the bell at Port Imperial, New Jersey.

As one who has worked every single Long Beach race – and I live two blocks from the former Linden Leap where James Hunt drove over half the field in the first turn – I think this idea has more machinations behind it than is immediately evident. I realize Mr Ecclestone was not happy about Long Beach leaving the F1 scene and he’s got a bone to pick with this town. He’s using Pook as his representative, thinking the city council will do whatever Pook says is right.

They shouldn’t. Mr Ecclestone, an 83-year-old man who is under indictment in Germany right now and fighting court battles left and right over his financial dealings, is looking to pad his pockets even further. While Pook told the Press-Telegram that “this market is very important to him,” I’m not sure he’s on the up-and-up. And I don’t know all the financial details, but I’m figuring it would take nearly $100,000,000 to get the race started in Long Beach and, at minimum $25 million to keep it going every year.

“We’ve always met or exceeded our commitment to the city and we’ve continued to be a substantial contributor to the overall economy of Long Beach,” Michaelian said. I sure hope it continues that way.

By Anne Proffit

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