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Press On Regardless    David Soares on the Long Beach Grand Prix

As this year’s racing season got underway I counted up twenty-four years since I last attended a race at the Long Beach street circuit.  I enjoyed CART as much as the next motorsport fan (a close friend’s family actually owned a team for a while), but although I maintain a certain sentimental attachment to youthful indiscretions during Long Beach’s  Formula 1 era, I have never really cared for being herded into the grandstands to bake in the sun and watch a corner through the cyclone fencing.  After great success in the eighties and nineties, the open-wheel fiasco slid into the sad oblivion of ChampCar. Wisely anticipating the end, the promoters of the Long Beach Grand Prix invited sportscars onto the bill, first Grand Am and then last year the American Le Mans Series.

Armchair racin’
While Long Beach isn’t far down the coast from my home base, last year I couldn’t get motivated to see the cars I love to watch at Sebring or Laguna thread through the chutes and bus stops of the current iteration of the “American Monaco.”  Then the 2008 season sorted itself into to an interesting two-car Audi campaign, four RS Spyders, at least three (and soon four) first- class Acuras, and the potential of a real fight between the Ferraris and the improved RSR’s in GT2.  I made the decision that if I was going to condemn the Long Beach ALMS round that the honorable thing would be to do it from trackside rather than from my La-Z-Boy, but I came to bury Long Beach, not to praise it.  To my complete surprise, instead I learned to stop worrying and love Long Beach.  Yes, spectators are still forced to sweat in the grandstands and stare over concrete walls and through fences, but it’s already old news that this year’s race was a resounding success and a fabulous entertainment for nearly all concerned.

Camp Freddy
I suppose that the first good omen was on my ride down from the Central Coast, when coming up out of San Luis on U.S. 101 I was passed by time- capsule Lamborghini P400S Miura in period perfect Peter Max orange.  I followed in my more modern motor for the next hundred miles down to Santa Barbara as the old beast leapfrogged lesser traffic, snap-crackle-and-popping on the over-run.  Perhaps not quite Rossano Brazzi on the Brenner Pass, but that cinematic V-12 sure sounded good off canyon walls as we powered in train through the Gaviota Gap made famous by Dustin Hoffman driving a lesser Italian in The Graduate.  Along the coast we passed half-a-dozen CHP-pies who simply nodded and smiled as if we were the papal motorcade; that sunny afternoon’s motoring put me in a fine mood for the rest of the weekend.  Thank you, whoever you were!

Who put the bomp ?
The race itself was terrific.  Qualifying appeared to be a Porsche affair, with the overall pole going to Timo Bernhard in a Penske RS Spyder and Patrick Pilet taking advantage of a teammate’s tow to nab GT2.  This made things look predictable to the gathered scribes and I suspect that most of us presumed P2 dominance on the street course, with the first five spots on the grid claimed by Porsches and Acuras. The race turned out to be anything but as predicted.

Morse and I had an inkling that things were not as they seemed at the post- qualifying press conference.  Each of us gave the other “that look” after Lucas Luhr left the dais, our bullshit-detectors swinging far into the red zone.  Lucas is a true Muhammad Ali when it comes to the old rope-a-dope.  After qualifying back in sixth on the grid – although a mere four tenths off of pole – Lucas began the Audi mantra of “going for the class win.”  He complained that the R10’s long wheelbase made it too hard to put down the power in Long Beach’s tight turns ten and eleven, but suggested that top speed and braking performance might make a show for the fans.  Kerry Morse then asked him straight-up what Audi’s simulations showed for the race and Lucas went all shrugs and rolling eyes – “nobody tells me anything…” Shades of “The Greatest.”

As things turned out, contrary to Lucas’ pre-race assertions, the engineers in Ingolstadt have corrected the R10’s deficiencies in fine fashion.  The front suspension was artfully revised to give more steering lock in the tight corners, picking up at least a half second a lap in race trim.  I also suspect that the ballast has been subtly shifted to improve stability under braking.  At the green flag drop Lucas went off on a tear, picking-off P2 cars one-by-one and finally forcing Pat Long in the leading #6 Penske Spyder to resort to some rather “creative” lines to keep the #2 Audi in second position until the pit stop.  Marco Werner was then able to take advantage of a re-start and clean but aggressive driving to lead an Audi one-two as the Penske Porsches faded.

David Brabham brought the Patron Highcroft Acura home in third overall with a dramatic (literally) last-minute pass of Roman Dumas in the pole-sitting RS Spyder.  Team principal sponsor Patron Tequila was also a race sponsor and Brabs’ performance couldn’t have come at a better time.  This was not simply down to luck or the misfortune of others, however.  The Highcroft car had been strong all weekend and could have repeated last year’s Acura pole but for David pushing a little too hard in qualifying.  He admitted later that, “I ran out of talent,” on a qualifying lap that his telemetry subsequently showed would have put him on pole by at least a tenth.  His do-or-die move at the end of the race was deemed clean by the stewards and a well-deserved class win and overall podium.

Behind the flag-to-flag prototype battles the GT classes were putting on an entertainment of their own.  I watched much of the second half from the Corvette pit (their wonderful pit set-up includes a bank of TV monitors and timing screens and a crew very tolerant of an enthusiastic observer in a discount fire-suit).  The engineers and crews, along with Doug Fehan on the #3 car and Gary Pratt on the #4 car, were racing against each other as aggressively as any more hotly contested class, Johnny O’Connell and Jan Magnussen coming out on top at the end.  GT2 finished in a bumper-to- bumper train at the checkered flag, with Tafel’s team manager Tony Dowe’s canny strategy on tires winning the day.  During the opening stint I wondered if Dominik Farnbacher was even trying, but as it turned out, by driving cleanly and smoothly he was able to turn the car over to Dirk Mueller in perfect condition to go all the way on the tires on which they had carefully qualified behind Pilet, Bergmeister, and Salo.

If it quacks…..
The ALMS put on a great show for the Saturday afternoon festival crowd, but it was more than a terrific race.  The series management couldn’t have asked the competitors for anything less, as this is a critical time at Long Beach with the upcoming transition from brawny Champ Cars to the reedy machines of the IRL.  With growing manufacturer involvement, international sportscar racing is coming on strong in 2008 but the promoter treated the ALMS like a fifth-rate support series behind lame-duck (make that dead duck) ChampCar, Toyota Pro-Celebrity, Atlantics, and Formula Drift (a novelty promotion somewhat akin in my mind to Joie Chitwood’s Hell Drivers – a nice IRL connection).  It was positively insulting that the series was relegated to a 7:15-7:30 am Saturday morning raceday warm-up.  Several teams simply didn’t bother to show up and force crew members to sit around for seven hours until the race.

In spite of this shabby treatment, in what I suspect is probably going to be seen in retrospect as a bold move, ALMS CEO Scott Atherton has inked a five-year deal with LBGP promoter Jim Michaellan for the series to race on the Long Beach street course on Saturday.  It was evident at Atherton and Michaellan’s Friday press conference that the deal had been inked with the details still to be worked out.  The two men appeared to be posturing and countering on the dias even while making their announcement to the assembled media.  Atherton pounded home his mantra of promoting a series with serious and substantial manufacturer involvement and the resources which that brings to the table.  He insisted that he is not interested in the ALMS ever being a “support series” and that he has no intention of further expansion of the current joint dates with the IRL.  Those dates are based on either important markets in Southern California and Detroit or due to the importance of St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio to series partner Honda/Acura. These events must be treated by promoters as “true double-headers.”

In response, Michaellan gave a true Hollywood shrug – in effect saying, “show me the money.”  He pointed out that Riverside has been gone for a quarter century and that the Southern California audience has forgotten about sportscar racing.  Politics have fixed his circuit and the corners and passing zones aren’t going to change.  Finally, his event is first a “happening” and second an auto race.  His large crowd of repeat customers have a short attention span and tend to drift off to the bars and restaurants up the hill after the first round of pit stops.  An hour and forty-five minutes is about how long they’re going to sit on their hard grandstand seats before their butts tire out, so the sportscar race is never going to be an endurance race.  Before Saturday’s race, Michaellan wasn’t offering any concessions over Formula Drift to America’s premier international racing series.

Saturday’s terrific race went a long way toward staking a claim to equal status with open-wheel at Long Beach.  On Thursday, the Long Beach Press-Telegram ran a pre-race interview with LBGP founder Chris Pook. Pook was asked about the successful transition from Formula-1 to CART in the early eighties.  A lot of people felt that the crowds wouldn’t show up any more without the Europeans but Pook found that Mario Andretti and company brought “name recognition” and that “name recognition” is what brings the casual fan through the gate.  I have to agree with his assessment  The ALMS brings another kind of “name recognition” to the table: “Ferrari,” “Porsche,” “Corvette,” and to a growing extent, “BMW,” “Audi,” “Mazda,” “Viper,” “Aston- Martin,” and “Acura.”  These names don’t just come with fan recognition, they also come with marketing and promotional budgets.

The other major press event on the Friday before the race was the Acura/de Ferran Motorsports introduction of Gil de Ferran’s co-driver Simon Pagenaud and principal sponsor Panasonic ELS Surround.  The marketing savvy and synergy of American Honda and its suppliers and partners was evident.  I had the pleasure of being joined for lunch by Patron Highcroft Racing principal, Duncan Dayton.  I was happy to find that Dayton is as much an enthusiast as any reader of this website, except that he possesses the resources and drive to realize his dream of putting together a first-class sportscar racing organization.  I asked him about Acura’s plans for the future.  Dayton revealed that Honda has a comprehensive long-term strategy for their Acura brand in sportscar racing that will become evident as the marque is grown internationally and its offerings are expanded in North America and worldwide.  This strategy includes going to Le Mans to win and the continued strong support of its four ALMS squads.

The carnival of animals

This kind of manufacturer support is why Long Beach needs the ALMS and the ALMS needs Long Beach, whatever we may ultimately think about racing sportscars on street circuits.  Manufacturer involvement brings huge marketing and promotion clout to the table at a time when other industries are pulling back from motorsport.  It is a simple fact that those manufacturers are not going to ignore a major market like Southern California or a “happening” like Long Beach simply because the circuit lacks the high and medium-speed corners best suited to sportscar racing.  As ALMS Chief Operating Officer Tim Mayer pointed out, the lap-length at Long Beach is comparable to some other traditional circuits visited by the series and the long Shoreline straight emphasizes straight-line speed and braking.  The cars can race.

That’s why I’ve learned to stop worrying and love Long Beach, with its concrete chutes, miles of chain-link, hairpins and bus-stops, and wandering hordes of L.A. fashion-victims.  I think that the old fox of Tafel Racing, Tony Dowe, put it best in a conversation with Morse, “It is what it is.  Now let’s get on with it!”

                                                                   David Soares
                                                                     May 2008

sportscarpros Soares Says

David Soares