The 42nd Annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach marks the continuation of the longest consecutive title sponsorship in motorsports, as Toyota begins its new multi-year contract to stay on as title sponsor of the weekend-long event, taking place April 15 through 17. While the auto company is recommitting to this role, this year will be the last for the event’s Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.


Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, which plans and manages the event, told the Business Journal that the decision to make this the final year for the popular Pro/Celebrity Race is linked to Toyota’s relocation of its North American headquarters from Torrance to Texas.

Grand Prix Association of Long Beach President and CEO Jim Michaelian shows off the official artwork for this year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, held April 15-17. The colorful poster is the work of French artist Erwin Dazelle. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)


“The corporation is moving to Plano, Texas, and with that goes a lot of the servicing and support that’s inherent in putting on a celebrity race like this,” Michaelian explained. “The decision was made [to] take this 40th event and make a big deal out of it and celebrate it for what it is, which is an extraordinary achievement. And then we’ll look at what the other options are going forward.”


Since the first Pro/Celebrity Race in 1976, the competition grew to attract Hollywood actors, musicians, sports celebrities and media personalities. Past participants include the likes of pros Parnelli Jones, Al Unser, Jr. and Bobby Rahal – whose son Graham is participating in the main event, the Verizon IndyCar Series, this year – and celebrities like Gene Hackman, Keanu Reeves and Cameron Diaz.


For Michaelian, one of the stand-out moments of the star-studded race was in 2002, “the first and only time we had two female winners of both the celebrity and the pro category,” he said, referring to Olympic swimmer Dara Torres and IndyCar driver Danica Patrick. “Having two women on the podium at victory circle accepting their laurels in 2002 was one of those real significant high points,” Michaelian reflected.


The Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race promises to go loudly, not quietly, into that good night – and with a twist. “There will be 19 past winners who will be competing together to win the final Pro/Celebrity Race, which has a certain amount of intrigue to it,” Michaelian said. Participants include: Adam Carolla, Bob Carter, Brett Davern, William Fichtner, Sean Patrick Flanery, Doug Fregin, Brian Austin Green, Ken Gushi, Eddie Lawson, Chris McDonald, Rod Millen, Frankie Muniz, Max Papis, Dave Pasant, Alfonso Ribeiro, Ricky Schroder, Mike Skinner, Dara Torres, Al Unser Jr., Jimmy Vasser and Rutledge Wood.


To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Pro/Celebrity Race, the Grand Prix Association is bringing back rock band Cheap Trick, one of its most popular previous music acts. The band, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 8, is capping off Saturday’s activities with an evening concert.


“It’s not an easy thing to replace, but that’s what we’ll do going forward,” Michaelian said of the Pro/Celebrity Race. When asked what he’s working on to take its place, he put a finger over his lips. “Shh,” he said, “I’m working on it.”


Michaelian and his team have a proven track record in finding new events to wow Grand Prix crowds. Robby Gordon’s SPEED Energy Stadium SUPER Trucks series, which debuted three years ago, has turned out to be such a crowd favorite that its presence in the Grand Prix has been expanded from just one day to events throughout the weekend. The appeal: lifted, high-horsepower, off-road trucks racing the Grand Prix track, flying off ramps and soaring through the air.


“They’re big trucks. They make a lot of noise. When they land they make a huge sound,” Michaelian said of the series’ appeal. “There is no doubt that the sound and the visuals of that series of those trucks flying through the air is very interesting.”


The Food Truck Experience at the Grand Prix is also being expanded this year, with more gourmet food trucks and additional seating. “We’re going to combine some music with that, so it’s almost going to be like a destination in and of itself,” Michaelian said.


A brand new attraction is set to provide a sky-high view of the racing activities. “Toyota is bringing in a Ferris wheel to the Shoreline Village parking lot, and people can ride the Ferris wheel free and watch the cars come down Shoreline Drive as they go by,” Michaelian said.  “It’ll be there all weekend long.”


Overall, the programming for the weekend resembles those of the past several years, with drifting competitions, sports car racing, the Lifestyle Expo and, of course, the main event, Race No. 3 of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series. The title race features a field of 22 drivers, which Michaelian said is “a full enough field to invite plenty of entertainment.”


“The highlight of the year, without a doubt, is the fact that this will be the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500,” Michaelian said, referring to the historic Indianapolis racing event that’s also part of the Verizon IndyCar Series. Because the Toyota Grand Prix is a precursor to that race, Michaelian said there is an added level of interest in the Long Beach event this year.


Ticket sales are tracking a few percentages more than last year, Michaelian said, adding that hotel bookings are about on par with 2015.


There has been a slight change to the event layout this year to create access to the Aquarium of the Pacific, allowing it to be open for the first time ever during Grand Prix weekend.


“We always try to make everybody happy here,” Michaelian said. “Even though we’ve run this race for 41 years, [now in the] 42nd year, still cities evolve, things change, and as a consequence of that we have to be aware of the evolution of the city and do what we can to mitigate wherever possible the issues that arise within the context of still being able to conduct a first-class, world-renowned event here in the City of Long Beach.”


The “metamorphosis” of the City of Long Beach, particularly in the downtown area with many new residential and retail developments completed and underway, is one of the benefits of having the event in the city, Michaelian said. The growing and changing dynamic of the city is reflected in national and international media coverage of the event, he said. “We’re very delighted to be able to share in that growth trajectory and hope to do that for years to come.”