It used to be a favourite on the F1 calendar, but the Long Beach GP is now one of the leading IndyCar events. In a new book, a former Autosport American correspondent explains how it happened
The 1982 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was won by Niki Lauda driving a McLaren-Ford MP4/1B. Lauda beat Keke Rosberg’s Williams by 14.7 seconds, with Gilles Villeneuve taking third place in his turbo Ferrari 126C2 only to be disqualified because his rear wing was found to be too wide. Downtown Long Beach was packed all weekend but promoter Chris Pook continued to find it almost impossible to make a profit.
“Bernie Eccelstone was continuing to kill us on his price and Dan Gurney started saying that we should really look at CART,” Pook recounts. “We were up to $1.75million for Bernie plus a bunch of other listing fees and so forth. The total was close to $2million. And after the 1983 race we would be faced with paying Bernie $2.1million.
“We went to the City and said, ‘What do we do?’ We pointed out that if we had one rainy weekend we could be back in the red again. So we introduced the concept of CART Indycars to the city.
“Toyota was very good, an absolutely incredible sponsor. They supported us in just about everything we asked. The Toyota Celebrity Race on Saturday was huge and we had some of the biggest names in entertainment and sports competing.
“It took the event completely off the sports pages and put us in the middle of the mainstream media. Both the LA Times and the Orange County Register were publishing 20- and 30-page special sections devoted entirely to the race on the Thursday of race weekend and we were reaching new readers and viewing audiences never before reached by motorsports.
“And yet no matter how hard we tried, we could not make the bottom line work. Our costs were seemingly insurmountable and finally we talked to Toyota about CART and asked what they thought. Dan Gurney was doing commercials for them and he worked very hard to convince them that going to CART would be a good move.
“In spite of the popularity of the F1 event at Toyota headquarters in Japan, eventually Toyota’s American bosses said they and their dealers really loved the idea of CART and thought it would be good for them to have a field of American drivers.
“Toyota also said they were thinking about getting into racing in a bigger way and that CART might be the right avenue for them. They said we should do whatever we thought was best. They said they would reduce their sponsorship by half a million dollars if we went with CART but they were OK with the idea.
“The difference between our Formula 1 contract and our CART contract was $1.6million, which was a lot of money. We knew we would take a hit at the gate when we made the change, but we believed with the CART drivers we could build the race back up in a few years to the F1 crowd levels.
“By then we were one of the biggest Formula 1 races around the world. The paid attendance for three days was 183,000 and there was another 60,000 taking a look from the outside. So we had a quarter of a million people looking at the race and it was working for the city, the hotels and the restaurants, but it was not working for us and for my board of directors. It was a problem.”
With the framework for a contract with CART on his desk, Pook sat down with Ecclestone to see if he would reduce his price. “Jim Michaelian and I went to see Bernie in New York on Thanksgiving weekend,” recalls Pook. “We arrived on the Wednesday afternoon and met with BE first thing on the Thursday morning. I needed Jim with me because he knew all the numbers inside and out and this was going to be a numbers conversation. Bernard and a lady friend were staying at the Regency and we told him where we were with our numbers.
“‘Ecclestone said it’s fine for you to negotiate with CART. He also said you’re a cheap bastard! He said I should get more money out of you than anybody else.’ I said to [John] Frasco this was all about how much we could afford”Chris Pook
“I said you’ve got to give us a break and he said no. I told him if he wouldn’t give us a break we weren’t going to sign a new agreement with him. I said we were going to go with CART instead and told him he shouldn’t be surprised to hear that we were negotiating with CART.
“It was a strange Thanksgiving. Jim and I had a late Thanksgiving lunch in some non-descript restaurant close to the 58th Street Bridge, asking ourselves if we were making the right decision by walking away from F1. We left New York early on the Thanksgiving Friday and got on a plane to Detroit. Gurney had already scheduled a meeting for us with John Frasco and his protege John Caponigro, with the understanding that if we reached a renewal with BE, it would be cancelled.
“Within hours we hammered out a contract and almost had it completed by the end of the afternoon. Frasco and Caponigro took us to dinner and Roger Penske showed up for a drive-by just to say hello. He said he hoped we could get a deal done.
“Meanwhile, Frasco said he was reluctant to sign a deal without first checking with BE to ensure that there was not a contractual understanding in place. He didn’t want to get sued for contractual interference. He said he wanted to talk to Ecclestone and I told him Bernie was at the Regency Hotel in New York and to call him there.
“Frasco went to make the call, came back ten minutes later and said, ‘Ecclestone (pictured right) said it’s fine for you to negotiate with CART. He also said you’re a cheap bastard! He said I should get more money out of you than anybody else.’ I said to Frasco this was all about how much we could afford. We had found out from Dan Gurney that CART was being paid $200,000-$300,000 in prize money for places like Milwaukee and Phoenix-relatively minor markets compared to Long Beach and Los Angeles.
“So Frasco hit us with a $650,000 number. I said, we weren’t going to pay that. He said it was a lot less than we were paying Bernie and I said, ‘Look, you guys are a new, growing series. If we come on board it’s going to help you guys a lot with credibility and growth.’ He asked how much I wanted to pay and I said $450,000 for the first year, $550,000 for the second year and $600,000 for the third year. He came back with 500, 575 and 625. I looked over at Jim and as soon as he nodded I said, ‘Done deal’.
“The following morning we signed the deal with John and CART. Before we left I called Bernie and told him we had a deal ready to sign with CART. He said, ‘Do what you’ve got to do. You’ll regret it.’ Then he said, ‘Make sure you’ve got an out.’ I said I didn’t think I had an out and he repeated what he’d said, ‘Just leave yourself an out’.
“So I told Frasco that I needed to review the contract and have an option to have an out by 30 April. He said, ‘No way. You’re either in or you’re out.’ So I called Dan Gurney at home on the Thanksgiving Saturday and told him where we were.
“Dan said, ‘Sign the deal Chris’. So I told Frasco we would sign the contract pending board approval and he said he couldn’t wait for that. I said we didn’t have a deal until our Board had approved it. Caponigro looked at Frasco and said, ‘John, he has the right to get Board approval’. And Frasco said, ‘Okay’ and promptly left! We finished up with Caponigro and caught the evening flight back to LAX and Long Beach.
“The following week, we scheduled a board meeting, approved the agreement and verbally notified the City, taking due note that the City would have to approve the change at a later date inasmuch as our City contract specifically called for a Formula 1 event. However, the new CART agreement would come with a guaranteed three-year television commitment from NBC Sports, something that we could not assure the City we had for Formula 1.”
So it was that the 1983 race, run on 27 March, was the last for Formula 1 in Long Beach. With new hotels going up around the circuit and with Councilman Wilder’s insistence, it was no longer possible to have the track run along Ocean Boulevard. The back straight was now along Seaside Way and the front and pit straight was moved to Shoreline Drive.
“While we were somewhat devastated at losing Ocean Boulevard and Linden Hill, we quickly realised that we had new revenue opportunities,” Pook observes. “The seating behind the pits on Ocean Boulevard was very limited in their viewing and in those days there were no pitstops in F1. In fact we had trouble selling those Ocean Boulevard seats and had to heavily discount many of them in order to get rid of them.
“With Shoreline Drive, we had a vast expanse of elevated ground on the south side on which we could put thousands of seats with good viewing, not only of the cars coming down off the Villa Riviera Hairpin but also in the pits. Additionally, after a little careful thought, I asked Dwight Tanaka, who was now our Director of Operations, if we could build elevated suites behind the pits on the north side of Shoreline that we could sell for corporate hospitality.
“By race weekend Tanaka had built and installed 15 canopied, elevated suites behind the pits, which Brian Turner and his marketing team sold in no time at all. Unwittingly, we had developed a brand new revenue stream and a healthy one at that. These were the first canopied suites in motorsport and we took them that fall to the CART race in Las Vegas. Then to our surprise, we received a call from Riviera Country Club in Brentwood asking if we could build some suites overlooking the 18th Green at the LA Open the following February. Suddenly, we were in the suite rental business – all new-found revenue for the GPALB.
The final F1 race in the city’s streets was won by John Watson, who came through from the back of the starting grid to beat McLaren team-mate Lauda by nearly half a minute
“Meanwhile, we sold tickets like crazy in 1983. Because of the repositioning of the pit straight, Shoreline Drive seats were in high demand, and yet unfortunately priced at the same level as the old Ocean Boulevard seats – way too cheap! Had we realised it a lot earlier, it would have made a huge difference to our seating revenues and maybe our decision on whether to move away from Formula 1. But it was too late. The contract had been signed. Hindsight is foresight, as they say.
“On race day, Sunday, March 27th 1983, about half an hour before the morning warm-up I was in my little office behind the new elevated pit suites by the Toyota bridge and there was a knock on the door. It was Bernie. He said, ‘Chris we can’t leave here. We can’t NOT be here. We helped you build this. How about $1.5million for prize money for the next three years – no increases?’
“I said, ‘Bernard, I can’t do it. I’ve signed a contract with CART. It’s done.’ He said, ‘You can’t do that. Break the contract.’ I said I wasn’t going to break the contract. I said Frasco would sue us big-time. Again he said, ‘I don’t want to leave here’. I said he should have said that when we met in New York. He said, ‘All you American guys, you all want to push the window’. I said, ‘What are you talking about? You push the window more than anyone. I learned it from you. You are my mentor.’ He said, ‘You’re making a big mistake. If you told me you were in that bad financial shape I would have bought you guys.’
“There was silence. I could say nothing and he turned and walked out. It was over. All the reasons I had pitched Formula 1 back in 1973 were walking out of the door and I vividly remember thinking whether I had made a terrible mistake. Only time would tell.
“After the warm-up Frank Williams and Ken Tyrrell came to me and asked why they weren’t coming back to Long Beach. Then, all the team owners came, one by one, [Ferrari’s] Marco Piccinini included. They were all devastated.”
The final F1 race in the city’s streets was won by John Watson, who came through from the back of the starting grid to beat McLaren team-mate Lauda by nearly half a minute. Rene Arnoux finished third in a turbocharged Ferrari.
“The headline in the LA Times on Monday morning was, ‘Last Formula 1 Grand Prix in Long Beach’,” Chris recalls. “That was the worst headline we could have had. Shav Glick liked Formula 1 and he wanted F1 to stay in Long Beach. The last paragraph of his story said next year CART Indycars would race in Long Beach with American drivers and Budweiser beer rather than international drivers and champagne.”
It was a tough transition but it wasn’t long before CART was drawing just as big and even bigger crowds to Long Beach than F1 as the race established itself as the most important event on the Indycar schedule outside the Indianapolis 500.
“Bernie said a number of times that losing Long Beach was his biggest mistake,” adds Pook. “He also said he underestimated me and didn’t believe I would stand up to him. It really made him mad at me and we barely talked for two or three years.
“We had become good friends and I had learned a tremendous amount from him. Maybe I was too tough and hard at times, but I had to make the company survive. People I knew and people I didn’t know had put their hard-earned savings into an idea. It would have been easy to walk away so many times, but I could not. Failure was not an option.”
Many years later with the benefit of hindsight Ecclestone looked back fondly on Formula 1’s eight years in Long Beach. “When we went there the town was pretty rundown,” Ecclestone recalled. “So I was happy that it worked out so well because at the beginning it wasn’t the ideal place to be. But the town began to undergo some redevelopment and I thought it was a good event. I always enjoyed going there. Chris and I got on very well. It was strange because with Chris and me it was like we were working together very naturally.
“It was difficult when we couldn’t work out a new deal and he went with CART. It was painful for us and I think it was painful for him but in the end it worked out well and I was happy for Chris that it was a successful move for him. But it was sad for Formula 1.
“At the beginning it was difficult for Chris to make it a financial success but it got better as time went on. Formula 1 launched the Long Beach race and made it a successful event and I’m very happy with that. I enjoyed working with Chris and I enjoy his company today from time to time.
“I think we were all lucky because back in those days the whole Formula 1 thing was much different than it is today, much more enjoyable for everyone involved in it. In those days the drivers and the teams all got on well together. It was a big family and everyone helped each other as much as they could until the flag dropped and the race started. Up until then, we all helped each other.
“I remember one race where we didn’t have any qualifying so [Lotus boss] Colin Chapman and I put the grid together. We put our heads together and decided who would start where and it worked. But you could never do that today. The way things work now anything like that would be impossible.
“Over the years many street races have come and gone in America,” Ecclestone concluded. “But Long Beach has continued and it’s good for racing that it has survived all these years and thrived as an event.”
To order Chris Pook and the History of the Long Beach GP in the UK please visit Racemaker Press’s UK distributor Hortons Books at hortonsbooks.co.uk
US readers should order from Racemaker.com