Formula Drift drivers Justin Pawlak, left, and Forrest Wang go head-to-head on Day Two of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Six months after the last race weekend in Long Beach, drivers and motorsport fans are returning to Long Beach for the 47th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, back in its usual NTT IndyCar series slot as the third race of the season.

And for the first time in 15 years, the race will be aired on network television.

After missing a race in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the race was postponed from April to September last year. In the event’s 48-year history, this is only the second time races have taken place six months apart, the other occurring after the very first in 1975.

The quick repeat of the event has not been much of a challenge for the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, according to President and CEO Jim Michaelian.

“We came out of the race in September with a significant amount of momentum, both in terms of how the event was conducted and the reaction from all of our clients, attendees and sponsors,” Michaelian said. “That afforded us the opportunity to dive right back in and begin the planning process for the race in April.”

September is about the time association staff would normally begin reaching out to sponsors and clients for the April race, Michaelian explained, so as to make it into each organization’s budget for the following year. So while association staff were wrapping up financials for last year’s race, they were able to simultaneously engage about the upcoming race with the enthusiasm following a successful weekend.

In addition to the momentum coming out of the event six months ago, the Long Beach race was recently voted the second most important race on the NTT IndyCar series calendar, behind the iconic Indy 500. The ranking was the result of a global fan survey by Nielsen and the Motorsport Network, which included more than 53,000 respondents from 147 counties.

While the IndyCar race will not have quite the anticipation and buzz of the September event, which was the final race of the season during which the championship was decided, the organization is excited for the IndyCar race to air on NBC. This will be the first time the Long Beach event will be broadcast on network television since 2007.

“It will be a postcard of what Long Beach has to offer,” Michaelian said. “Covering the race, you cannot avoid providing exposure for all the surrounding areas—you’ll see the skyline and how much it’s grown, the marina … attractions. We’re delighted that we’re going to be able to convey that to literally millions of viewers.”

In addition to the televised IndyCar race, the upcoming event from April 8-10 will see the return of Grand Prix staples, including Stadium Super Trucks, Formula Drift, the Historic IMSA GTP Challenge and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The Global Time Attack event that ran in September, however, has been replaced with the Porsche Carrera Cup.

The IMSA championship race will be aired on the USA Network, and the Super Trucks are set to air on the CBS Sports Network, Michaelian said.

The September race weekend was the city’s first major event following the spread of COVID-19, and there were various pandemic-related guidelines, including requirements for vaccine or proof of a negative test and a mask mandate unless actively eating or drinking. The ongoing pandemic and restrictions, however, did not impact attendance as significantly as the association thought it would.

“Overall, attendance was down about 4%,” Michealian said. “Quite frankly, we were anticipating … as high as 10%.”

With the sharp decline in new cases, state, county and local officials have lifted all vaccine and masking mandates. But health officials are still urging people to wear masks when at large indoor events, including the Lifestyle Expo that will be inside the Long Beach Convention Center during race weekend.

While just over 180,000 people attended the September event, Michaelian said the organization expects to return to normal levels and is on track to host about 187,000 people over the three days.

Pandemic or no, each year the association works to revamp and reinvigorate the event, Michaelian said. Race types have been used to reach new demographics, such as the addition of drifting, which is highly popular among Asians and Latinos. As new and younger fans are brought in, it’s important to keep on eye on certain trends—namely, what will keep them engaged.

“When you come into the event every year, we want people to say, ‘Wow, that’s new, that’s something I haven’t seen before. That’s something I want to experience,’” Michaelian said, adding that there is enough in the way of food, drinks, activities and racing to keep attendees entertained for three consecutive days.

Five years ago, for example, Michaelian said the organization recognized a new trend: More and more fans were forgoing assigned seats, opting instead to regularly migrate to different locations around the track. The phenomenon is largely driven by social media, he said, with people wanting to post pictures and commentary about the goings on throughout the event, rather than stay in one place.

Since making that observation, the association has not added seating to the grandstand areas, opting instead to expand its use of “party zones” and other gathering areas. This year, there will be additional party zones around the track, including one sponsored by Crown Royal on the promenade along Pine Avenue.

The upcoming event is the association’s first under its new contract with the city, which now runs through 2028. The multi-year contract has allowed the race organizer to secure long-term sponsorship and client deals, Michaelian said, which gives the event more stability.

“The future looks not only bright for the Grand Prix,” Michaelian said, “but we’re delighted to continue the relationship with the city and be a part of the growth that’s taking place here.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.