Surprise Trip to Long Beach Grand Prix Kicks Off Stellar Automotive Weekend

By Elayne Bendel

Have you noticed how pop-up events often can be more fun than activities you’ve planned for months? Such was the case for me this week when a surprise invitation to the Long Beach Grand Prix opening day popped up in my email.

My friend and fellow Just Having Fun (JHF) car buff Don Yegan sent me and others a chit for a free ticket to Friday’s practice/timing runs and even offered to drive. What a deal! Who could say no? Certainly not me. Unfortunately, there were no other takers, so off we went about 8:15 for a full day of car racing magic. Thanks, Don for this great, fun day. Warning to JHF members: next year there is sure to be a run on this opportunity.

And this was just the beginning of one of the best SoCal automotive weekends of the year. Besides the festivities in Long Beach, the La Jolla Concours, annual Fabulous Fords Forever and the big Orange Plaza Classics and Hot Rod Show all are scheduled for Sunday. What an impressive lineup! I hope all of you get to enjoy one of these events.

The Grand Prix runs through Saturday and Sunday with the signature 85-lap Indy Car race culminating the action. But there are lots more on-track events. For the first time at Long Beach, this year there will be races of Historic Indy Cars featuring things you won’t see in the feature—some wingless racers and open cockpit vehicles. We arrived in time to see them taking practice laps.

Vintage cars from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s will circle the track during 20-minute races on both Saturday and Sunday. Some of the cars being featured are key parts of Long Beach and Grand Prix history, including the one 1985 winner Mario Andretti drove. But the cars are also significant to racing history buffs of all varieties.

Another vintage racer is the 2005 Newman Haas Lola driven by French driver Sebastien Bourdais that won the 2006 CART driving championship. Literally every square inch of these cars is purpose-built and extensively tested. Click here for a fascinating video by engineer Craig Hampson describing its design in detail.

A drift drive challenge and flying four-wheelers will thrill the crowd as they did us during practice for the Stadium Truck event.

IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) vehicles race on Saturday. These include the Grand Touring Prototype and GT Daytona classes, with the Prototype cars being purpose-built racers and the Touring vehicles looking more like souped up versions of street cars. The newest and most technologically advanced Prototype race cars took to the track for the first time in 2023, featuring a common hybrid powertrain for all entries that takes kinetic energy gained in braking and stores it in batteries for later use when needed. Four global automotive manufacturers – Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche have entries which pair their own unique internal combustion engines with the common electric engine.

Friday’s practice runs were loud and showy as the drivers zipped through the 1.968-mile, 11-turn circuit. Predictably the modern Indy Cars turned in the best times, followed closely by the GTP racers.

Mexican Pato O’Ward (car photo above) posted the fastest practice time among the Indy Car drivers Friday for the second consecutive year, completing a lap on the street circuit surrounding the Long Beach Convention Center in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet in 66.6874 seconds, 106.239 mph.

GTP Driver Pipo Derani (car below) turned in a quick 71.388-second lap run followed closely by Nick Yelloly at 71.397 seconds.

Away from the track there was also plenty to see. Food vendors and booths were close to the grandsands, and, yes, that is real octopus on the grill in the photo below. If you think the food prices are high, imagine what it costs to field an Indy Car or establish a Grand Prix venue—reportedly about $8-$15 million for a car and more than $1 billion to field a venue! Yikes!

The Convention Center was filled with merchandise, vintage and modern cars and a kids Fun Zone. And the Fiesta Friday concert, with DJ Ape Drums playing dance music at the Terrace Theater plaza, was also part of the fun. Congrats to the Grand Prix organizers for a spectacular event and to Mother Nature for a mild and pleasant day to enjoy it all.

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