Long Beach geared up for traditional thrills

Preparations for the 43rd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach kicked off yesterday with heroes both human and automotive. Anne Proffit was there.

It’s been a tradition for at least 20 years – the week before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (and the week of Formula DRIFT), the organization holds a media day.

It used to be a gathering for the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race competitors, with mainstream and entertainment media in attendance to interview and photograph celebrities in the paddock, but with that event dropped after 40 years, the organizers found other ways to attract and entertain media.

The Formula DRIFT racers that will begin their season this weekend were giving rides to unwitting media, throwing out tire smoke and thereby getting a little extra practice time. A few Pirelli World Challenge (PWC) cars showed up to give rides, as did two of the Lexus RC Fs which will compete in the IMSA race on Saturday afternoon.

An ex-Penske Can-Am car circulated rather slowly, entertaining with its big block engine sounds, while at the other end of the scale, a go-kart made a lap of the track. And while participants were enjoying lunch and a discussion of the upcoming races, Long Beach residents rode their bicycles, walked and skateboarded around the 1.968-mile circuit which will host the 43rd running of the GP of Long Beach.

During lunch, Josef Newgarden entertained with a remembrance of his first race at Long Beach in 2012, when all the Chevrolet-powered cars received a 10-place grid penalty as a result of Ilmor making a necessary engine modification. As a driver of the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing-Honda, rookie Newgarden found himself unexpectedly promoted to the front row for only his third IndyCar start… and then in the Turn 1 wall after rubbing wheels with Dario Franchitti.

He’s done better since, and is looking forward to a good result with the #2 Team Penske-Chevrolet next week.

So too is Scott Pruett, who was also on hand. The 3GT Racing Lexus RC Fs showed some very strong pace in a densely-packed GT Daytona class in the Sebring 12 Hours, and one hopes their handling of the bumps on Sebring’s runways is a good form guide for how they’ll behave on a street course.

For the Media Day, the Verizon IndyCar Series sent a pair of two-seaters, for 2014 Indy Lights champion Gabby Chaves and 2016 Indy Lights star Zach Veach to give rides around the racetrack. Band members of Forever In Your Mind (FIYM), who will sing the national anthem at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, took priority and all became enthusiastic converts to the sport after their two-seater experiences.

And toward the end of the day it was my turn. A more than 40-year resident of the city, I’ve been around the track in a Toyota pace vehicle with many drivers, including Kenny Wallace, Rocky Moran Sr. and Jr. and Cristiano da Matta, who passed every single celebrity car driver in one lap, laughing all the way.

But my lap with Chaves was something else. It wasn’t the speed that got to me; it was the braking that was most violent, trail-braking into the first turn, cascading through the fountain turns and hurtling back onto Shoreline Drive.

We slammed onto Pine Avenue, were able to miss the new patch at Pine and Seaside and took the back straight so quickly it felt like just a few feet had passed. Gabby made the hard right into the horseshoe that’s Turn 10 but didn’t take the hairpin at Turn 11, using the back-door to the pits to allow the next rider a chance for some fun.

I have a week to recover before the IndyCar troops roll into town. In the mean time, there’s Formula DRIFT to look forward to this weekend.