Inside the street race that transformed a city, along with American motorsports

We’ve taken it for granted for years, and we really shouldn’t, because the Grand Prix of Long Beach stands alone as a groundbreaking event in the long history of American auto racing. Hands down, it’s the most successful American street race of all time, outlasting the imitators that followed it, including the event around the Meadowlands parking lot that I covered a couple of times. Long Beach has been contested successfully with four distinct types of racing cars. Begun in 1975 as a Formula 5000 race through the streets on the oceanfront of Long Beach, California, the LBGP has enjoyed enormous public support in the metro Los Angeles area. It’s survived evolution into a date on the Formula 1 calendar and as a fixture for CART and later, IndyCar. It’s run continuously until COVID-19 forced its cancellation this spring and Gordon Kirby, one of North America’s most respected racing journalists and historians, has covered every single one of them. He’s now written an authoritative, intensively researched account of the race’s long history, and of the man who envisioned that it all really could happen if everybody just worked and just as critically, believed.

Chris Pook & The History of the Long Beach GP tells the tale of how Pook, a transplanted Englishman with a background in travel and hospitality, pulled this all off. It’s important to remember that in the early 1970s, Long Beach was more the end of the road than an actual destination for most people. The city was ridiculed, in some corners, for paying millions to have the decommissioned Queen Mary roped to its waterfront and turned into a convention center. The original Gone in 60 Seconds of 1974 was built around a car chase through its streets. While others were guffawing, Pook took things a step further, and convinced the city fathers that a pro-level auto race through the streets could actually succeed. They were persuaded in part when Southern California racing immortals Dan Gurney and Phil Hill embraced the race conceptually, and thus provided Pook’s wild idea with credibility in the greater racing universe. What made Long Beach so successful, and so important, was that it succeeded as an event, a great big block party, along with being a compelling race. Having Mario Andretti win it when it was a Formula 1 round helped immensely. So did Al Unser Jr.’s decisive, repeated conquests of the difficult street circuit. Hollywood celebrities flocked to attend and sometimes, run in the Toyota pro-am preliminary that became a fan favorite. As the author told us this morning, “Long Beach is by far the most successful and enduring of the American street races. Chris achieved his goal of seeing the race help in the redevelopment of the city. Long Beach was a big gamble for CART after Formula 1 left, but the race, and Chris, was a key component of CART’s success during the 1990s.” Kirby, the author of biographies of Andretti, Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal and the late Greg Moore, knows of what he speaks. The book encompasses 317 richly illustrated pages with full appendices on results and the track’s changing configurations, and retails for $80.00. It’s published by Racemaker Press out of Boston, where Kirby is now working on his magnum opus, a single-volume full history of American auto racing that he hopes to complete in a full years. Racemaker is run by Joe Freeman, the author, historian and collector of historic race cars, who genuinely deserves appreciation for producing a series of lavish, meticulously researched volumes on the great heritage of motorsports in the United States. I own several Racemaker titles, and I assure you, they’re all keepers.

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