CIRCUITS: LONG BEACH

Name: Long Beach

The city of Long Beach, in the south of the vast sprawling city of Los Angeles, was not a nice place by the mid-1960s. The Port of Long Beach and the US Naval base had made it wealthy but the drab and sleazier side of the port meant that the downtown area was not much frequented. In an attempt to bring in tourists the City purchased Cunard's luxury liner The Queen Mary in 1967 and put it on permanent display in the harbor. It was not until 1974, however, that the redevelopment of Long Beach really got underway when the State Coastal Commission handed over control of redevelopment to the City of Long Beach and it was decided that there would be a multi-billion dollar redevelopment program.

It was this which attracted the attention of British businessman Chris Pook. He had come up with the idea of turning Long Beach into the Monaco of the West by holding an annual Grand Prix on the streets. Pook convinced the city that it was a good idea and in the autumn of 1975 the Formula 5000 teams arrived in Long Beach for the inaugural event. It was a tough track with drivers having to fight their cars over the bumps and through the twisty sections which led up and down from the port area to Ocean Boulevard. The race was dominated by a young English driver called Tony Brise, who swiftly got ahead of such famous names as Mario Andretti and Al Unser and seemed on course for a victory when his Lola failed him. Brian Redman survived to win.

The event was a huge success and a year later the Formula 1 circus rolled into town. The 1976 GP was dominated by Clay Regazzoni in his Ferrari but most of the press coverage was about James Hunt and his estranged wife Susy who was at the race with her new man, actor Richard Burton. In the race Hunt collided with Patrick Depailler and was so incensed that he stood beside the track waving his fist at the Frenchman. It made for headlines and the name Long Beach was splashed around the world. But the event had not been a financial success. Things were better in 1977 when Mario Andretti gave the Americans fans a victory after a stirring battle with Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter. That was the turning point and from then on the race became more and more popular. Gilles Villeneuve supplied fireworks with his drive in 1978 and the following year he won a magnificent victory.

By then Long Beach was beginning to change. The new Convention & Entertainment Center opened and by 1982 it was joined by Shoreline Village, the Shoreline Marina and Shoreline Park. The following year Howard Hughes's vast wooden plane - the Spruce Goose - was moved to a vast dome next to the Queen Mary. It stayed there until the 1990s when it was moved to Oregon, leaving its dome to become a Warner Brothers movie studio.

The racing continued each year with Nelson Piquet winning in 1980 - although the event was spoiled by a dreadful crash which left Regazzoni paralyzed. The development meant that the track had to be reprofiled but the F1 teams did not mind. They enjoyed Long Beach. In 1983 there was a remarkable race with John Watson and Niki Lauda racing from the back of the grid to finish 1-2 for McLaren thanks to their Michelin tires.

At the end of that year, however, the Long Beach organizers and F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone failed to agree on money. Formula 1 decided not to return. Pook, keen to keep up the momentum, did a deal with CART and the racing continued with the Andretti family enjoying a remarkable period of domination: Mario winning in 1984, 1985 and 1987 and Michael winning in 1986. But from 1988 Al Unser Jr. was the man to beat, winning six times in eight years. His first four wins with Galles were added to in 1992 by victory for another Galles driver Danny Sullivan and then Long Beach became a Penske track with victories for Paul Tracy and two more for Little Al. The race in 1996 opened a new era of domination with Target Chip Ganassi Racing winning for the next four years with Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan-Pablo Montoya.

The revival of Long Beach continued with the opening of the Greater Los Angeles World Trade Center in 1989 and the expansion of the Convention Center in 1994. The following year work began on a new $100m Aquarium which would form the centerpiece for a $650m waterfront development.

Long Beach was on its way to becoming the Monaco of the West.

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