Toyota ended its title sponsorship with the Grand Prix of Long Beach, race officials announced last week, closing out a 44-year relationship that produced the city’s biggest event.
The exit of Toyota Motor North America now leaves race officials with the task of finding a new title sponsor after the Japanese automaker’s North America division opted to not renew its contract, Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, told the Business Journal.
“It was an extraordinary relationship,” Michaelian said. “It’s unheard of to maintain that kind of partnership for that many years. In sports especially.”
Laura Pierce, general manager of motorsports for Toyota Motor North America, said the decision to pull its sponsorship after four decades was a difficult one.
“Toyota has had an incredibly successful 44-year run as the entitlement sponsor of the Grand Prix of Long Beach,” Pierce said in an e-mail. “We value the relationship we’ve built over those years. Toyota evaluates our sponsorships on a regular basis, and although it was a difficult decision, it was a strategic decision based on those evaluations not to re-new our entitlement sponsorship.”
Mayor Robert Garcia said he wasn’t surprised, given that Toyota had already moved its North American headquarters from Torrance to Texas. He added that he doesn’t believe the Grand Prix will be negatively impacted.
“A lot of us suspected that possibly Toyota would move on,” Garcia said. “Title sponsors come and go. We know that the Grand Prix is looking for a new major sponsor . . . and we’re looking forward to a good race next year.”
Pierce said the relocation of company headquarters did not play a role in its decision, noting that Toyota still sponsors the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at the Sonoma Raceway and the company’s partnership with the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. In addition, the carmaker also sponsors the Olympics.
“Toyota operates globally and, when it comes to the United States, Southern California is and will continue to be an extremely important market,” she said. “We have many customers and dealerships in California and will continue to sponsor events and actively engage with our customers there.”
The Grand Prix – formerly the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – will move forward until a title sponsor is found.
Toyota began its title sponsorship with the Grand Prix in 1980, but its affiliation with the event began in 1975 as a pace car provider. A year later, the company created the “Race for Youth” charity match race, which eventually became known as the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race before it was canceled in 2016.
Michaelian said the association has met with mostly non-vehicle manufacturers – and some automakers – about filling the major sponsorship role. “That whole market, we have not had a chance to explore,” Michaelian said of his talks with companies outside of the vehicle industry.
“It’s a lot easier for us to be doing this with the backdrop of the success that we’ve had,” Michaelian said. “Ever since coming out of the recession, the event continues to grow.” The 2018 Grand Prix drew 185,000 people, he noted.
Excluding Toyota, the annual three-day race has 34 sponsors, he said. Michaelian and Toyota each declined to say how much the automaker paid for its sponsorship.
It is not known how much the association paid to put on the 2018 race. However, the city charges the Grand Prix Association a $91,757 permit fee and $47,524 for reimbursements for administrative costs, and services such as police, fire, traffic, refuse, sweeping, sewer and inspections, according to a December staff report presented when the city council approved an agreement with the association through 2023.
In the name of transparency, Michaelian said the association sent notices to other sponsors about Toyota’s move and will send out ticket renewal letters to customers.
The Grand Prix’s attraction to potential sponsors stems from its popularity and geography, Michaelian said.
“The Southern California market is hard to reach with a singular event and we’re one of the events that afford that opportunity,” he said, adding that the race has become a generational affair.
The 2019 Grand Prix will be held April 12-14.