Back to its traditional Spring running, the 2022 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach brought West Coast race fans all of the excitement we’ve come to expect from this iconic street course on the Pacific. From crazy Stadium Super Trucks jumping off ramps to the clouds of smoke generated by drifters, there was plenty of entertainment to go around. Oh yeah…and then there was some world-class racing too.
A tradition at the Long Beach Grand Prix, the weekend’s top attraction was INDYCAR, America’s premier open-wheel racing class with an international driver line-up piloting 1700 lb. cars with over 600 horsepower. After the street-circuit season opener at St. Petersburg, where rookie Scott McLaughlin went from pole to checkered flag, it was time to see if the young hot-shoe from New Zealand would pull a repeat. “Not so fast,” said Colton Herta, the youngest driver to ever win an Indy event, who went on to earn the coveted pole position on Saturday.
But while Colton stayed in the top three for 56 laps, he then drifted wide and hit the concrete barrier exiting turn 9. At the time, last year’s champion, Alex Palou had just pitted relinquishing the lead with two-time champion Josef Newgarden. After a “Penske Perfect” pit stop, Newgarden exited pit lane just feet in front of Palou and danced on cold tires for the next few turns while Palou came along more than once trying to regain the lead. Newgarden pulled off an incredible display of talent until his tires warmed up, and drove it home for the checker.
Equally competitive, and sometimes more exciting due to the “paint-swapping” is the IMSA series, North America’s top-tier sportscar racing league. With production car racing being its foundation since the 1970s, this weekend’s action included GT Daytona (production-based cars), GT Daytona PRO (factory-backed teams), and the wild and exotic Daytona Prototype International class (DPI).
After completing the two premier endurance events of the year (Daytona 24 and Sebring 12), it was time for a complete change of pace…literally. The sprint race at Long Beach is all about qualifying, perfect pit stops, and maintaining a blistering pace for the 1-hour and 40-minute street fight.
The Daytona Prototypes are technological wonders who ran lap times within 1 to 2 seconds of the IndyCar. The longshot of the weekend for DPI was the 01 car of team Cadillac, piloted by drivers Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande.
They had previously scored a “last in class” at both the Daytona 24 and Sebring 12; not exactly what the GM execs in Detroit wanted to see. But were they really the long shot? Truth be known, Sebastian has three overall wins at Long Beach so anything was possible.
Sure enough, he qualified on the pole and led the first 5 laps of Saturday afternoon’s race. Then a minor bobble in the hairpin left him up against the wall, struggling to find reverse. All of the other DPIs passed before he could get back underway leaving the Canadian furious. Determined to hand his car over to his teammate with a chance to win, Sebastian fought his way back to first by lap 29; one of his all-time best drives.
His team-mate Renger van der Zande fought hard to stay in the lead through three different restarts; no small feat in itself. When the checker dropped, the “last in class” had redeemed themselves with an overall win; case closed.
Just a few seconds slower in pace is the GTD PRO category which provides plenty of “big buck” battles among car manufacturers. It’s quite common to see the factory Corvette team duking it out against the likes of Porsche, Aston Martin, BMW, and Lexus. Qualifying unfolded predictably with the Corvette C8.R of Antonio Garcia and Jordon Tayler taking the pole just ahead of the Pfaff Porsche 911 GT3R of Matt Campbell and Frenchman Mathieu Jaminet.
Entering the weekend as the GTD Pro class leaders, the No. 9 Pfaff Porsche’s dreams of extending their points lead vanished in an instant when a wheel nut from the leading Corvette flew backward into the Porsche’s front radiator during a pit stop; day over. Lady luck for the “Heart of Racing” Aston Martin Vantage GT3 came on lap 46 when a pitstop under full-course caution allowed them to cycle to the lead which they held to earn a first-in-class. The Lexus RC F GT3 and Corvette C8.R finished second and third respectfully.
And it wouldn’t be Long Beach without a salute to the past. This year’s historical class highlighted one of IMSA’s most glorious periods, the GTP cars of the 1980s. From a decade when “creativity” in design still existed, IMSA’s GTP warriors included the famous Porsche 962, Jaguar XJR10, and the short-lived four-rotor Mazda RX-792P. As it turned out, Porsche factory driver Patrick Long was invited to drive the 1988 “Leyton House” Porsche 962, which he placed on top of the box in both Saturday and Sunday’s exhibition races.
McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown brought out his sexy Jaguar XJR-10 and finished 2nd in Sunday’s race. And who doesn’t like the sound of rotary mayhem produced from the short-lived Mazda RX-792P? Tom Long piloted the beast on both days putting in very respectable times of low 1:25s. Looking ahead, would the Masters F1 group ever grace this weekend?
It’s hard to believe the Long Beach Grand Prix is approaching its Silver anniversary in a few years. So many changes in both the cars and course layouts have transpired since those early days of running in what was at the time, a seedy shipping port. “If you can dream it, they will come” couldn’t be truer of the event founder, Englishman Chris Pook.
Having attended the Monaco GP, Formula One’s crown jewel, he was determined to do the same in America. The inaugural race was held in September 1975 as part of that year’s Formula 5000 schedule. The following year, he convinced Formula 1 to come to Long Beach which laid the foundation for decades of growth to follow. While INDYCAR will always be anchored by the INDY 500 oval spectacle, Long Beach is clearly its gem of the West.