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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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2005 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

 


Racing through the streets of Long Beach

Champ Cars recently returned to the streets of Long Beach and what a show they put on for their fans. Of course they’ve had a lot of time to get it right – 31 years and still going strong.

It all began with a Formula 5000 race in 1975. That set the stage for Formula One the following year, through 1983. I’d enjoyed Formula One on TV but by the time I moved to Southern California late in 1984 the Formula One circus no longer came to Long Beach. Instead, CART took to the streets. In this new era, familiar drivers including Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva, Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi raced each other on the track, and who could forget the exciting, ongoing rivalry between Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr.?

In the 90s a serious rift developed in American open wheel racing. What had been one strong series for many years was split into two – resulting in stars of CART on one side of the divide and Tony George’s upstart IRL (Indy Racing League), which claimed the Indy 500 for its own, on the other.

Subsequent years witnessed a slow, painful decline in the fortunes of CART, as the IRL attracted some of its drivers and siphoned off some of its fan base, but the series soldiered on until serious financial problems led to its re-emergence under the name Champ Car World Series. Last year marked the first Champ Car race in Long Beach. This year’s was number two.

          
                Sebastien Bourdais                            Champ Car drivers at the Port of Long Beach

The 2005 meet-the-drivers Press event was held at the Port of Long Beach. We all parked and rode a bus there. Champ Car driver Paul Tracy was a passenger in our bus.

  
FreestyleMx Tour daredevils

 

  
Cars on display, go-karts and drifting

 

 
Wrecked Pro/Celebrity Toyota racecar                                   

As exciting as Sunday’s Champ Car race always is for the fans, the weekend in Long Beach includes far more than just that one event. This year’s weekend was no exception. In addition to the Champ Car race, there was Formula Atlantic, Toyota Pro/Celebrity and Trans-Am racing, as well as the inaugural Long Beach Drifting Challenge.

The annual Automobile Club of Southern California Lifestyle Expo included many automotive and non-automotive exhibits, death-defying aerial motorcycle stunts in the FreestyleMx Tour, a variety of “fast” food and go-karts on the roof of a parking structure.

 

 

   

Between practice, the races and the exhibits, there was so much to see and do – and take pictures of, that my plan was to go Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but I couldn’t quite pull it off. After a full day on Friday, I awoke under the weather on Saturday. I stayed home and rested so that I could enjoy the racing action on Sunday.

 
Sebastien Bourdais                                                        

 

 

 

              
Paul Newman and his driver Sebastien Bourdais                            Champ Car podium                           

Last year’s series champion – Sebastien Bourdais, won this year’s Long Beach race driving a Newman/Haas Racing, Ford Cosworth-powered Lola. Soon after the race began he passed pole-sitter Paul Tracy who managed to hold on to second, scoring his 63rd career podium finish. Bruno Junqueira placed third in another Newman/Haas Lola. As a result of this race, the Nations’ Cup standings in this truly international drivers’ line-up are France, Canada and Brazil.

 
Randy Ruhlman & Greg Pickett                                                                      

 
Tomy Drissi & Moneca Kolvyn meet                                                                        

The Trans-Am race followed the Champ Cars on the track. There were at least a couple of sentimental favorites in serious contention for the win. One of them – Randy Ruhlman, won the race in a Chevrolet Corvette as his wife cheered him on. Greg Pickett, a long-time Trans-Am driver, finished second in his Jaguar XKR. Rounding out the top three was Michael Lewis of San Diego in another Jaguar.

Absent from this year’s event was Tommy Kendall, a former series champion, so it was expected that there would probably be on-track rivalry between Boris Said (of Carlsbad) and Paul Gentilozzi. However, the anticipated fireworks failed to materialize when a tire on Boris’ Mustang went flat shortly after the race began and had to be replaced. Then Paul had an accident on course and his Jaguar XKR did not finish.


Boris Said

As if his early troubles were not enough, later in the race, after fighting his way back up through the field, Boris Said brushed the inside concrete wall at the hairpin leading to the front straight. That literally happened right in front of where I was standing with my backpack full of camera equipment. The immediate result of his wall contact was another cut-down tire, as little chunks of concrete were sent flying.

Once home I turned to my videotapes of the races, expecting to see what I had missed. The Trans-Am coverage – including a shot of Boris Said’s incident that coincidentally showed me standing on the other side of the wall, would be delayed one week. The Champ Car coverage on NBC was disappointing. The television network pre-empted the first three laps of the big race because the football game leading up to the start of the race ran long. Then they stopped their post-race coverage before even interviewing the winner. Our local NBC affiliate ran an infomercial. The cable networks continue to do a much better job covering races.

As always, please share your stories and send your comments to AutoMatters@gmail.com. Enjoy the archives and more at www.AutoMatters.net. Drive safely and do join me again next time.

  

Copyright © 2005, 2006 Jan R. Wagner – #145r3 AutoMatters

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