Despite the upheaval surrounding the 2008 Long Beach Grand Prix, it is still quite a draw in this normally quite California town. That’s good news for Indy Racing League officials, who have their eyes on this historically strong open-wheel racing market. This is the last weekend the IRL and Champ Car will race separately, with IRL drivers heading to Japan while Champ Car drivers tackle the street course at Long Beach.
Still, Long Beach organizers expect more than 200,000 fans for the weekend events, and more than 100,000 for the Champ Car race Sunday. And the community still treats the drivers as stars. At Tuesday’s Los Angeles Lakers games, several Champ Car drivers were greeted warmly by a packed house at the Staples Center. Drivers were special guests of Jeannie Buss, Lakers vice president of business operations, and rubbed elbows with the likes of Denzel Washington, Andy Garcia and tennis great Jimmy Connors.
The outpouring has been so great, it has caught the eyes of officials in Vancouver and Portland, who have intensified lobbying efforts with IRL officials to gain a spot on the only open-wheel schedule that now matters. Interest from those cities is no small matter. Terry Angstadt, president of IRL’s commercial division, recently told IBJ that New England and the Pacific Northwest are two key growth markets.
The importance of the Long Beach race and market has not been lost on IRL boss Tony George. He’s flying to California after Saturday’s IRL race in Motegi to watch the event and meet with Jim Michaelian, president of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach. Michaelian told reporters this week in Long Beach that he was recently invited to Indianapolis in early May to discuss continuing the race under the IRL banner. With open-wheel roots dating back to 1975, Long Beach officials are keen to continue that tradition. George, having watched fan interest and sponsorship sales tick up the last three years at Long Beach, also wants to see the relationship cemented.