Coming off of a successful event in 2017, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is back – and, after being reaffirmed last year by the Long Beach City Council in lieu of a Formula One-based event, it’s here to stay. Event attendees are again in for three days packed with roaring race cars, soaring super trucks, classic muscle cars, dramatic drifting, off-track activities for all ages, and, of course, fierce competition on the racetrack.
Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Brandon Richardson)
“I think the opportunity to present a variety of different forms of racing is really one of the keys to making this event attractive,” Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the event’s organizer, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, told the Business Journal. “You have open wheel [race cars], you have sports cars, you have trucks flying through the air. You’ve got drifting at night, and you’ve got historic cars of a different era. They all have a different look, a different feel, a different sound, a visceral effect to them.”
The main ingredients for race weekend remain the same this year, with one key exception. Last year’s replacement for the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, a longtime fan favorite that was retired in 2016, was the Can-Am Challenge – a Saturday competition that brought classic race cars to the streets of downtown. This year, that event is replaced with the Historic Trans-Am Challenge, a race of 1970s-era muscle cars – Mustangs, Javelins, Firebirds, Camaros – including a couple of vehicles driven by the likes of famed racers Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue.
“We’ve replaced the Can-Am as the historic component of the weekend with the Trans-Am, which I think the public will even more identify with because those are the cars that were on the street in the late ’60s and ’70s,” Michaelian said. “They were the cars that we called muscle cars. Those are the cars that we owned as kids. And when the Trans-Am Series was going, it was really popular.”
The main event, Sunday’s IndyCar race, also promises added excitement this year thanks to an expanded pool of cars and new body work on the vehicles. “There are 24 entries, six rookies,” Michaelian said. “With this new body work, they took away a lot of what’s called downforce. And without getting real technical, what that means is that the cars are freer, looser – which means that the driving aspect of the competition has been heightened.”
Removing downforce, an aerodynamic element that causes the cars to be more stable, means that the drivers will have to work harder, Michaelian explained. “That’s a good thing in the sense that it identifies those who have the real driving skill,” he said.
Michaelian said a new element introduced last year, a welcoming area at the Long Beach Boulevard entrance to the event with a beer garden, seating and a big screen for watching the action, will return this year. “We’re not only bringing it back, we’re doing some new things in there,” he said. A small stage will be added for a lineup of contemporary acts, including street performers, musicians and dancers.
This year, the Grand Prix has a number of new sponsors for various components of race weekend. SMG, the group that manages the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center where the Grand Prix Lifestyle Expo is held, is sponsoring the event’s Friday and Saturday night concerts. “We have Ozomatli on Friday night, and The Cult is on Saturday,” Michaelian said of the lineup.
The Grand Prix also has new official beers – Coors Light as the official domestic beer, Modelo as the official import, and Ballast Point as the official craft brew.
The Grand Prix Association is continuing its various community partnerships for the event, including an expanded relationship with the Boy Scouts, who are assisting the longstanding Grand Prix volunteer group, the Committee of 300, with ushering in the grandstands. As part of the partnership, the Boy Scouts are allotted a space within the Lifestyle Expo. “We think the Boy Scouts are an integral part of the community and we wanted to showcase them at our event,” Michaelian said.
This year, the Grand Prix Association has partnered with the Long Beach Unified School District and Banc of California to bring STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students to the event (see story in this section). “The things that we do to integrate ourselves in the community, whether it’s youth or schools or [the work of] the Committee of 300 or the Grand Prix Foundation with their charitable donations, all are things that are intended to further establish or to further reinforce that relationship between us and the community,” Michaelian said.
Pictured, clockwise from top right, are members of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach staff: Steven Halley, customer service representative; Cindy Forster, controller; Cecelia Ruebel, customer service representative; Tammy Johnson, manager of customer service and ticketing; Martin Bannon, director of marketing and sponsorship; Aileen McBride, marketing assistant; Gemma Bannon, HR and office manager; Allison Wilson, manager of advertising and promotions; Jim Michaelian, president & CEO; Joey Soto, merchandise assistant; Edmund Valvao, merchandise assistant; Richard Martinez, manager of corporate sales; Chris Esslinger, director of communications; Sandy Hendrix, administrative assistant to the director of marketing; Nick Kopinski, public relations assistant, and Gordie Morris, staff writer. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Brandon Richardson)
With about 183,000 attendees, last year’s event was “a record high for the modern era,” Michaelian noted. Last year, 95% of respondents to the race weekend fan survey rated their experience as either “excellent” or “good,” he pointed out, adding, “I think that’s an indication of people’s level of satisfaction with what the event is bringing and the entertainment value and the overall impression they get of the event.”
Pre-race, free events like Roar In The Shore on 2nd Street and Thunder Thursday in Downtown Long Beach were also a hit last year, according to Michaelian. Last year was the first time that Thunder Thursday, a free community event with motorcycle stunts, race car displays, racing simulators and more, was held in front of the Pike Outlets. “We had 5,000 people down there sitting in the grandstands and mingling in that Pike Outlet area. That helped to kick off the weekend,” Michaelian said. “We’ve modified the layout so we can get more people in there [this year].”
After the Long Beach City Council decided last year to stick with the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach-run IndyCar event rather than allowing another organizer to bring Formula One in instead, the Grand Prix is now guaranteed to continue on for the next five years. As part of that agreement, the association committed to a quicker setup and take-down time for the event beginning this year.
“We waited a full week to begin installation. It used to be 60 days, now it’s 53 days,” Michaelian said. “We also delayed putting in . . . some of the safety system in front of the Aquarium. And we also agreed to remove tire marks in specific locations around the circuit, which was a request of some of the downtown stakeholders.”
“The residents and the citizens of this city need to feel proud of this event – whether they come to this event or not, it doesn’t matter,” Michaelian reflected. “But we want to conduct this event in a way that everybody says, you know what, I’m proud of the fact that our city hosts the Grand Prix. That’s important to us.”
For tickets and the schedule of race weekend events, April 13-15, visit gplb.com.