41st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach rewind
There were seven races held during the 41st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend, but some of the biggest obstacles were making it through the social – and other – events that accentuate the racing. For a local, it was all easy peasy – except I needed a clone.
The march began on Wednesday night as Momo Italy celebrated its 50th year of operations with a social at the Federal Bar’s downstairs area, which used to be a vault of this former bank building. Momo used the evening to showcase its Momo Motorsport Pirelli World Challenge team together with the 2015 selection of automotive aftermarket and racing products. The venue was delightful, the array of helmets, fire suits, steering wheels and road- and racing-wheels outstanding.
For the seventh consecutive year, the Road Racing Drivers Club (RRDC) honored an outstanding member of the motorsports community on Thursday night, saluting three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser. The festivities included a cocktail hour outside, dinner that featured a video tribute from former broadcast partner Sam Posey (the duo were famously combative on-air, albeit with humor), photography for sale, a Randy Owens backdrop of Unser’s No. 3 Eagle Mk4 Offenhauser that he drove to his first Indy 500 win in 1968 and repartee with Bobby Rahal and Racer’s Robin Miller on the dais. Miller wore a sweatshirt depicting the celebrated No. 3.
Unser, the multiple Indy winner who earned titles at The Brickyard in three separate decades, the 60s, 70s and finally in1981, told stories throughout the celebration, most of which can’t be repeated in mixed company. To say this celebration was raucous would be putting it mildly!
As this dinner is a benefit for RRDC’s marvelous young driver initiatives, including the groundbreaking online SafeIsFast.com presented by Honda, there were numerous items available at silent auction, including the backdrop by Owens and glycee prints depicting the famous racecar. A veritable Who’s Who in motorsport attended – most of the INDYCAR drivers are also RRDC members – and the evening was both festive and familial because of that.
The same day RRDC announced that Gil de Ferran has become a global ambassador for SafeIsFast.com, lending both his business acumen and racing capabilities to the site that so beautifully helps prepare young drivers for competition with its online interactive tutorials from successful RRDC drivers around the world. De Ferran, the 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion in his final year of open wheel competition, took back-to-back Champ Car World Series titles with Team Penske in 2000-1. He’s been a successful team owner in American Le Mans Series competition as well. De Ferran will promote the website and races and events around the world, and participate in those online tutorials.
That same evening marked the premiere of “Winning”, celebrating the racing life of actor/driver/team owner Paul Newman in Hollywood. Lacking a clone, I was unable to attend that function but heard is was a good one. And racers took over Pine Avenue for Thunder on Pine for a night of fun and noise to celebrate the true beginning of Long Beach race week.
Honda Performance Development (HPD) held a media meet-and-greet prior to serving lunch at their wonderful hospitality unit on Friday. Steve Eriksen, vice president and COO at HPD discussed the fact that the company – supplying support to the Verizon IndyCar Series, Tudor United Sports Car Championship and Pirelli World Challenge – had a total of 55 engineers on-site. Wow!
In addition to the customary engine engineers, HPD has upgraded their staff to include chassis engineers as well for the new aero kits they provide in INDYCAR. And since they’ve got some larger squads like Andretti Autosport, they’ve got overall engineers to tie-in assistance between the individual teams.
After the litterfest that was St Petersburg’s initial INDYCAR race, HPD added layers of carbon to further strengthen its parts and those were at NOLA a week earlier. “In fact we’ve got photographs of endplates with giant tire marks on them where contact happened, but we did not have a single instance of parts coming off the car,” Eriksen proudly noted.
HPD made the suggestion to the sanctioning body that they tie in the rear wheel guards to the main plate in order to further secure that area and stop those guards from flying off and causing further injury. INDYCAR listened and just an hour or so later announced the adoption of that feature. Eriksen also alluded that there was very little added weight to the cars with these changes.
The Grand Prix Foundation held a Monte Carlo Night at the Renaissance Long Beach Friday night; with our work ending shortly after it began, we begged off. Living very close to the track and next to a couple of rather popular hotels, we spent a lot of time on the appropriate corners talking it up with drivers, mechanics, engineers and roadies – good fun after dinner at District Wine!
On Saturday, the big news after qualifying was the addition of Dreyer & Reinbold/Kingdom Racing to the Chevrolet entries at the 99th Indianapolis 500. Their car has Townsend Bell as driver, with sponsorship, once again from upscale clothier Robert Graham. Like last year they’ll be the sharpest crew on the grounds; it’s fun to see the mechanics dressed in clothing they try to very hard to keep clean!
The Racer Magazine party took place at a local bar later Saturday night. This writer worked on some of the earlier Racer magazines, including the first issue, but had too many friends to catch up with that I never get to see except here – so after walking more than 10 miles demurred on that one, opting for a meal at Creme de la Crepe with wonderful out-of-town friends.
Probably the most engaging aspect of the weekend was the lap that Sam Schmidt made in sponsor Arrow Technolgy’s SAM (semi automated motorcar) C7 Corvette around the 1.968-mile, 11-corner street circuit. Using his head and mouth to steer, accelerate and brake the ‘Vette, Schmidt got to drive the street course. Last May Schmidt used the same car to take four qualifying laps on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.5-mile oval.
This was a bit more intricate task with all the turns – and a bit slower – but his lines looked good and Schmidt, always the optimist, said he could have been competitive with a few more laps. The No. 1 goal for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team co-owner is to get his driver’s license in 2017. If it were anyone else, we might be laughing but it’s Sam Schmidt. Anything is possible.
That the race went off with only a four-lap caution might have made it look like a processional, but the teams likely warned their drivers that there were no more spares on the truck so behave. And they did, producing a good show for the fans and a first-time Long Beach winner in Australian-born and New Zealand-raised Scott Dixon, who now lives with wife Emma Davies Dixon and their two adorable girls near Indianapolis.
Remembering the Dixon who claimed his first victory at Nazareth Speedway and could barely make it through the press conference, this mature man with a current 36 Indy car wins is a true treasure-trove of significant commentary for any writer. Still, Dixie managed to walk through the streets of Long Beach without being recognized. Journalist Robin Miller calls him “humble” but I’d like to think he simply loves what he does and really doesn’t need superficial accolades to complete his life. It was awfully cool to see Dixon take fifth position on the all-time wins list from Bobby Unser this particular weekend.
It was good to see Tony Kanaan in fifth and Josef Newgarden, who made Firestone Fast Six in seventh place after all 80 laps were complete. It was good to see everyone still running at the close, although Stefano Coletti was 11 laps back. Just about as quickly as I completed my race story, I started seeing trucks departing up Linden Avenue to make their way to Leeds, Alabama and this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, race No. 4 in the 16-contest Verizon IndyCar Series.
On Monday, just about the sole reminders of the 41st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach were the Firestone rubber marks around the circuit, a bit of trash and empty grandstands. All streets were reopened to road traffic – until next year.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit