You’ll find Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles located two blocks off the Long Beach Grand Prix’s landmark Turn 11 hairpin corner. Not only is Southern California’s sweet and savory cultural tentpole a longstanding fixture in movies, songs and television, but it also serves as a popular destination for post-race victory celebrations — as 2021 IndyCar champion Alex Palou confirmed.
— Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) September 27, 2021
Unlike Formula One‘s marquee street race, Long Beach — which will host a grand prix for the 48th time on Sunday — isn’t nestled into the coastal hills of the French Riviera and it’s definitely lacking in opulent casinos and black-tie affairs. Ours is geared more toward the surfers and tailgate crowd.
At the annual gathering on the streets of Long Beach, we’ve got fried chicken, Patron, taco trucks, sand, palm trees, flip-flops, bands, drifting, IndyCar, IMSA’s sports car championship and historic F1 cars in the most American of events. Get to mid-April, and it’s an entire week packed with love and revelry for motor racing as our world turns its attention toward Shoreline Drive and the Pacific Ocean, a tradition that began with the inaugural Long Beach GP in 1975.
“For me, it is my Monaco,” McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown tells ESPN. “I’m from L.A. The first-ever race I went to was the 1981 [Long Beach] Grand Prix and I still have the race program. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was like, ‘There’s Mario Andretti!’ At one Long Beach Grand Prix, I absolutely fell in love with racing.”
In the same way the Super Bowl and World Cup live on bucket lists, Long Beach is a worthy addition to the roster of events that need to be experienced at least once in a sports fan’s life.
Run on a winding selection of city streets, cars weave around a manicured bed of roses that surround a water fountain featuring a statue of a dolphin. Drivers streak past a movie theater and a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Nearing 180 mph, they blast through the shadows behind the Long Beach Convention Center before emerging into sunlight and sky-high apartment buildings.
And then they navigate a tricky complex that terminates at the aforementioned Turn 11 hairpin where collisions are commonplace. If drivers can escape being rear-ended or speared in the side, though, it’s a chance to rocket down Shoreline and a beachfront flirtation with 200 mph with the titanic Queen Mary in sight as it sits docked on the adjacent harbor.
Free of pretense and self-importance, ticket buyers can get up close to the cars and drivers in the IndyCar and IMSA paddocks, pose for photos, get autographs, and do so for the price of good seats at a Major League Baseball game. Doing the same at one of the three American F1 races would require mortgaging the house, and you still won’t get within 200 feet of Max Verstappen or his Red Bull RB19. Beer and other spirits flow freely in this motorized version of Spring Break.
Long Beach also ranks as the second most important stop on the IndyCar tour.
ONE WEEK TILL RACE WEEKEND😝 Retweet if we’ll see you there!🎉 pic.twitter.com/L46Azw8k4N
— Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (@GPLongBeach) April 7, 2023
“This is the 48th year of the Long Beach Grand Prix, which is just incredible,” says 1986 Indy 500 winner and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing IndyCar team owner Bobby Rahal. “That’s a lot of time, and it’s clearly the most successful street course in North America that we’ve ever had, whether it was Formula One in the earlier days or IndyCar, it’s become an amazing event that only comes second to the Indianapolis 500 for us on the calendar.”
Rahal notes another one of Long Beach’s unique attributes: a motor racing star maker. Just as dreams run wildly unabated 30 minutes north in Hollywood as actors strive to get noticed by agents and producers, a strong run in one of Long Beach’s support races can change a driver’s life.
“My first event there was in ’77 and I saw Mario Andretti win, which of course was very popular,” Rahal says. “And then then I went back in ’78 to compete in the Formula Atlantic race, and from the drive I put in there, I got the ride with Walter Wolf in Formula 3, which led to racing for him in Formula One at the end of that year, so Long Beach has always had something extra special that makes people sit up and pay attention like almost no other race we go to.”
Having used Long Beach as a professional springboard that led to F1, Rahal returned to the U.S., and by 1984, made his first IndyCar start at the venue that transformed his career. He’d go on to race 15 times at Long Beach, and despite his big Indy 500 victory and securing three IndyCar championships before retiring at the end of the 1998 season, four runner-up finishes at the street circuit are recalled today like salt in a wound of unfulfillment.
“I’ve always really just loved Long Beach, but boy, there’s disappointments from never having won it,” Rahal adds. “Finished second a number of times, and the best year, the year I was gonna win it, was ’95 when the gearbox broke on the front straight with about eight laps to go. And that was that. Wanted it badly, but it’s the one that got away.
“It’s everything that’s good about motorsport, and of course, being in Southern California, it couldn’t be in a better spot. Over the years, I’ve always marveled about as the race got bigger and bigger, Long Beach got better and better. And so it’s really been a great partnership between motorsports and the city. Going back there each year, for just about everybody I know, it’s something that everybody really looks forward to and every team wants to win. You want to win all of them, but winning Long Beach is one nobody forgets.”
Long Beach isn’t reserved as a bucket list item for fans. Sunday’s 85-lap contest is another opportunity for those who’ve come up short or never had the chance to win the big race to settle a score.
“It’s massively iconic, my hometown race,” says Brown, who raced on the undercard in the early 1990s when he dreamt of driving for the same kind of teams he runs today. “Unbelievable history between Formula One and IndyCar, and I actually told our [IndyCar] drivers that there are two races I really want to win: Indianapolis and Long Beach.
“Long Beach is the Monte Carlo of IndyCar racing, and it’s always been that way to me. You know, I was at the Long Beach Grand Prix instead of the Russian [F1] Grand Prix a few years ago, the one Lando [Norris] almost won for us, because I had to pick which race to attend, and wanted to be at Long Beach. And just the sound in the streets … When you pull up in your car off the highway, you can just hear the IndyCars from a mile away. It’s got such a great vibe to it. So iconic.”