HPD Blog

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Racing Times: Grand Prix of Long Beach

Jim Murphy is a former pit-lane announcer for both the CART and IndyCar Radio Networks. He is a reporter covering both CART and the Indy Racing League. After almost five years away from the sport, he returned for the Grand Prix of Long Beach, and here are his thoughts and impressions:

By Jim Murphy

It had been a few years since I last visited the Grand Prix of Long Beach and I wasn't sure what to expect. Since my last visit, the track had changed, the drivers had changed, and even the series running the event had changed. Twice.

However, I immediately realized that one thing had not changed - this was the Grand Prix of Long Beach, and it was nothing less than the annual renewing of vows in America's love affair with the automobile. From the Lifestyle Expo sporting environmentally responsible eco-cars to the high energy, smoke belching, no-redeeming-quality-other-than-it's-fun-to-do Drifting events, this was a celebration of the automobile worthy of the Southern California tradition.

I arrived in town with concerns. Would the state of our economy cast a cloud over the weekend? Would the event be a shadow of its former self? Would the racing, thrills and star power of years past be lost, blown aside by the winds of time? The answer to all, I'm happy to say, is, absolutely NOT!

Driving in from the airport, I heard ads on the radio talking about the race-the anticipation built. Pulling off the 710 Freeway, I saw banners and signs-there was a feeling of electricity. Walking to the track I heard the Indy Lights cars in their morning practice session-my pace quickened. The first sight of a car barreling up Pine Avenue under full song-the adrenaline began to flow.

Throngs of people filled the paddock, the stands, the midway, and the exhibit hall. Bright sunshine poured down from clear skies, casting aside for many economic gloom and all-but-the-minimal clothing. The scent of sunscreen, the sounds of high-energy music and the sight of the inflatable King Taco cried out, "This is Long Beach!"

The annual Pro/Celebrity race is as much a signature part of the weekend as the headline Indy Car event. Once again, this race did not disappoint those who have come to count on it. Oh, there was some fine racing. Don't get me wrong. But the Pro/Celeb race is really the world's most elaborate demolition derby, providing numerous opportunities to take perfectly good tricked-out street machines and reduce them to kit form, to the adoring hoots and hollers of the assembled masses. It just doesn't seem to be Long Beach without the King of the Beach, Al Unser Jr., behind the wheel. Unser led the charge in the Pro Division, slicing through the wanna-be's, taking the lead, and then checking out, finishing ahead of Celebrity driver Keanu Reeves.

"Whoa."

Once again, Little Al was on the podium in Long Beach. He's spent so much time there that I think he probably owes the city taxes.

Which brings us to Helio Castroneves. His recent troubles with the I.R.S. kept the Dancing With The Stars champ from dancing with the cars during the off-season. After his "not guilty" verdict was handed down on Friday morning, Team Penske wasted no time in putting Helio into a car the next day. I was particularly pleased to see the IndyCar Series make reasonable accommodations to bring Helio up to speed as quickly as possible. They allowed him some Saturday morning hot laps in a Honda Accord Pace Car, followed by a full session of practice, as opposed to the half-session in split groups for everyone else.

Helio responded well, and with his team's help, landed himself a top-10 finish in his first time in a race car on a track layout he had only driven for the first time a day earlier.

But the real measure of Team Penske's preparation was the Verizon Wireless ride they had standing by for Will Power. Aside from being one of the two flat-out best-looking cars on the grid (Luczo Dragon's #2 USAF machine was also stunning), the brilliant black and chrome machine was impeccably ready for Will Power to step into after he climbed out of Helio's #3 on Saturday morning.

How well-prepared? Pole Position prepared. What about on Race Day? With a Penske crew brought in from its sports-car team, Power and Company overcame a non-functioning radio to race themselves home in 2nd place. They would have won, but there was a certain determined Scotsman who was literally unstoppable.

Dario Franchitti was just plain hooked up. Aside from getting jumped at the start, Franchitti drove the wheels off his Target Chip Ganassi machine. Or, more precisely, he did the exact opposite. While other drivers found themselves slipping and sliding under acceleration, the rear of Franchitti's car was firmly planted in nearly every corner for all 85 laps, yielding him acceleration off the corners that proved to be unmatched by anyone else.

While I'm on the topic of racing, I can't help but appreciate the parity in this year's season to date. There was a time in IndyCar, not long ago, when, unless you were running for Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti Green, you were like so much meat by-product, filling out the field. In Champ Car, the races belonged to Newman Haas unless something seriously wrong happened.

Under a unified banner, all those teams are competitive, but so many of the smaller teams are taking the fight to them in an impressive manner. Justin Wilson, E J Viso, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Raphael Matos have Dale Coyne, HVM, Vision and Luczo Dragon, respectively, all sticking their noses into the mix in competitive ways, not only in qualifying but in late-race situations.

I noted that Andretti Green Racing really showed its experience this weekend. While the team struggled for speed during qualifying (Marco Andretti didn't even make the first cut), the team used solid strategy and superior racecraft to make the most of its day, landing Tony Kanaan on the podium and Danica Patrick fourth.

Late in the race, Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe drove up under the rear of Target Chip Ganassi's Scott Dixon under caution, punting the defending Indy 500 champion and stalling him on the main straightaway. Briscoe continued on, but not until Roger Penske radioed to him, "What HAPPENED out there?", echoing the sentiment of 70,000 of my closest friends.

Then, Long Beach public address fixture Bruce Flanders came on the P.A., his ultra-laid back, beach-dude baritone proclaiming, "Ahhh, I know what happened. Ryan Briscoe must be driving one of Paul Tracy's old cars."

The 35th Annual Long Beach Grand Prix is behind us now. The name Franchitti will go down in the history of the event with names like Andretti, Unser, Zanardi, Vasser, Power, Tracy, Bourdais, and Piquet. No asterisk. No footnotes. No disclaimers.

This was a full-on edition of the event that we have known and loved for years. It may have been a few years since I last was here, but I don't plan on missing next year's.

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