Downtown Long Beach is a pretty, calm and quiet city happily hidden away in the dark, dirty shadow of Los Angeles. It's where thousands of Southern California residents go to live the sunny seaside life without the crowds and traffic of LA's concrete empire to the north.
Every spring the racing teams from multiple levels of competition convene on Long Beach's downtown streets to do battle on a specially laid out course forged from the same commuter and pedestrian byways used by the locals on any other day. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is an annual highlight for SoCal racing fans and surefire sign that spring arrived along the coast.
This year's edition brought the open wheel racing of IndyCar to the street course, along with the American Le Mans series. For four full days, the high rise office buildings were shook by the low shriek of high-powered engines. Two days of practice and time trials gave way to a Saturday and Sunday of major international racing.
The Long Beach tradition of street racing lends itself to a unique sports experience for fans. Visiting Daytona International Speedway or the Milwaukee Mile across the country - or tracks from Sonoma to Fontana within California - means buying a ticket, sitting in bleachers, etc.
Since the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach tears through the streets and intersections of downtown, the course runs past several restaurants, cafes and other popular spots. Those storefronts and al fresco dining joints become prime spectator real estate. Tables are staked out hours before race time, and guests have to keep that tab rolling all day long.
The windows of some downtown office buildings can see huge portions of the track, so they become impromptu luxury boxes. There are even a few spots along the course where any pedestrian can stand catch the elite machines making quick turns. It's an amazing opportunity to get up close to the heat and noise of major racing.
The American Le Mans series highlighted Saturday's action. It's a personal favorite of mine as Le Mans allows different classes of cars to compete against each other simultaneously. ALMS keeps score by total time and not laps completed, and the drivers race in teams. So, fans follow cars and teams, not drivers. This year's Le Mans race went to Klaus Graf/Lucas Luhr.
IndyCar provided the main event of the Grand Prix. Race fans might be more accustomed to seeing these open-wheel cars running the big ovals like Indianapolis. The drivers have to engage all of their skills to negotiate the powerful machines around this street course. This year's race went to Takuma Sato - his first with in IndyCar. The victory also makes Sato the first Japanese driver to win a race in the series.
While both Le Mans and Indycar move on to more traditional tracks such as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (venues more accustomed to tickets and bleachers for fans, instead of restaurants and coffee shops), Long Beach turned its streets back to the people. Hopefully, they won't mind all of those long, black tire tracks left behind by a lot of hot slicks.