On The Road – Long Beach

Sebring winning Acura on the grid at Long Beach. [Photo by Eddie LePine]

By Eddie LePine

I have just returned from my annual trek to the West Coast to cover the Long Beach Grand Prix. Long Beach is totally unique among the events I cover and it is hard to describe to anyone who has not experienced it for himself. The glitz, the glamour, the crowds, the cars, the stars, the color and the excitement are unlike any other race on either the IndyCar or IMSA schedules. Long Beach Grand Prix President and CEO Jim Michaelian and his staff put on an event that is second to none, not only in the US, but also the world. Picture Monaco, with passing opportunities!

The Long Beach Grand Prix is so much more than just an IMSA and IndyCar race event, it is a gathering of the racing world to celebrate the history of motorsports. The race week starts with a few “must see and do” events, the first of which is the RRDC (Road Racers Drivers Club) Legends dinner, held on Thursday. This year’s honored guest was none other than Three-time World Driving Champion Sir Jackie Stewart and it was great to see Jackie looking so well. Always gracious, Jackie took time to chat with a lot of the people who attended and I was fortunate to have had a short conversation with him and pose for a photo. Also at the dinner was another World Champion and driver who I am pleased to call my friend, the legendary Mario Andretti. I have known Mario for many years and every year at one event or another it is always nice to be able to catch up. Mario Andretti and Jackie Stewart – true legends in every sense of the word.

Second on my list, I attended the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame ceremony, which this year honored Katherine Legge and Takuma Sato. Sports car fans are certainly well acquainted with Katherine’s road racing credentials and she will be suiting up this year for a shot at the Indianapolis 500. Takuma Sato was also honored, and it was nice seeing him recognized for his many years of contributions to motorsport – including two Indy 500 wins and a win at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Finally, a favorite of mine is seeing the historic IndyCars running on the streets of Long Beach, and this year the HMSA (Historic Motor Sports Association) put together an outstanding field of historic cars. Perhaps my favorite was the 1966 Eagle owned by Rob Dyson and driven by Formula One, Sports Car and IndyCar veteran Stefan Johansson – what an outstanding piece of history. Another beauty was Johnny Rutherford’s 1974 Indianapolis winning McLaren M16 piloted by none other than Tony Kanaan. A total of 17 historic IndyCars took part in two separate races to entertain the large crowd on hand at Long Beach.

For IMSA, Long Beach was a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree departure from the first two races of the year, the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. We went from the longest two races on the IMSA schedule to the single shortest. In addition to the short 100-minute length of the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship race, the grid consisted of only the GTD and GTP classes on the streets of Long Beach, due to paddock and grid limitations. For sure, people were a bit disappointed in not seeing the GTD-Pro cars race, for that meant that the Pratt Miller Corvettes in particular were not on hand (they have a lot of fans on the West Coast). Also missing were the popular Pfaff Motorsports McLaren and kid’s favorite ‘Rexy’, the dinosaur liveried Porsche run in GTD-Pro by AO Racing. All of the classes of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will be back together shortly at the Laguna Seca round coming up in May.

That being said, the IMSA race on Saturday was fabulous as usual, with more people on hand in the stands than I have ever seen previously at Long Beach for the IMSA race. It was Cadillac’s day to shine, as the #01 Cadillac GTP of Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande took the overall victory with a brilliantly quick pit stop where they elected to take no tires, jumped to the front of the field and went on to win over the pole sitting #31 Whelen Cadillac which was driven by Pipo Derani and Jack Aitken. The Porsche Penske’s #7 and #6 finished third and fourth, followed by the Proton Competition privateer Porsche 963 piloted by my friends Gimmi Bruni and Mike Rockenfeller (good going, guys!)

Of their .0564 second victory Cadillac driver van der Zande said: “It was quite cold, then the sun came out and it started to warm up. We left it to the last minute to decide. They made the right choice for sure (regarding not changing tires). Strategy won this race. The tires were kind of gone at the end, it was quite slippery. But I’m very proud of our team.”

In GTD, it was an all Lexus show with the pole sitting Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 taking the win with drivers Parker Thompson and Ben Barnicoat sharing the victory.

Ben Barnicoat, in praise of his co-driver Parker: “He crushed it. Track record, and he was faster than me in the race too, so I might have to look out for my seat in the #14. He’s definitely one of the up and comers He’s got a bright future and I’m lucky to drive with him now. He’s going to achieve great things, that’s for sure.”

While I was winging my way back to Florida on Sunday, the IndyCar race was run, with possibly the best IndyCar driver in history Scott Dixon taking the win, after a stellar drive and once again saving more fuel than the other drivers to secure the victory.

The biggest fireworks were to happen this week, after the race had been run, when it was discovered that Team Penske had been caught cheating by having access to “Push to Pass” when no one else in the IndyCar field did. The cheating was discovered during the IndyCar warm up session on Sunday morning at Long Beach when due to a technical issue push to pass was not activated for the field as it usually is during warmup. However, despite not being activated by race control, the Penske cars were observed, via telemetry, using push to pass. Oops. As such, Josef Newgarden’s victory at St. Pete was taken back and all three Penske cars were excluded from the St. Pete results. No word yet if other penalties are in the works for the team.

More on the fallout on Team Penske’s actions upcoming, stay tuned for more inside information.

In the meantime, see you at the races.

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