Long Beach roars over Indy Racing League

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Maybe California is more prepared to embrace the unified world of open-wheel racing than the birth place of the sport—Indianapolis.

In Indy, emotions over the Indy Racing League-Champ Car split run deep—as do the scars of the battle which traces its roots to 1995.

In Long Beach last weekend it was more an attitude of live and let live. You could almost hear the crowd of 170,000 which streamed into the Shoreline Village and the surrounding waterfront racetrack over the three-day weekend saying in unison, “bygones.”

Not even the $9.75 beers and $8 hot dogs could stifle the jubilation among race-goers.

“We had a hell of a time,” Ed Gomez, a die-hard visiting from Colton, Calif. told the Contra Costa Times. “Awesome race and an awesome weekend.”

The Los Angeles Times called the 36th Long Beach Grand Prix a “marketing megaphone for the city.”

An almost perfect storyline evolved for the IRL with American Ryan Hunter-Reay emerging victorious, and dedicating the victory to his late mother. But Hunter-Reay’s nationality might be a bigger issue in the Heartland than it is on this nation’s Left Coast, where race fans marveled at the international collection of personalities comprising the IRL paddock. The match seemed to fit perfectly for Long Beach, known to locals and visitors as the “International City.”

What wasn’t a perfect match was this: Long Beach’s 13.5 percent unemployment, one of the highest in all California. Home to part of the nation’s busiest seaport complex, the beachfront city was hit hard by the global recession. It saw container traffic at its port drop 22 percent last year. Still, California race fans turned out in solid numbers.

The Indianapolis 500 attendance and its economic impact on the surrounding area still dwarfs the Long Beach Grand Prix. But far too many people stay away, chosing instead to grumble over a past that can't be changed.

Long Beach business owners, meanwhile, were effusive in their praise of the race and series.

“It’s like three New Year’s Eves in a row for us,” Steve Colvin, a longtime bartender at Alegria Cocina Latina, a Mexican food restaurant on Pine Avenue, a short walk from the race, told the L.A. Times.

Long Beach officials estimated the race had a $35 million economic impact on the region.

Even the stars turned out for the race and surrounding events, including rapper JayZ, actors Mark Wahlberg and Keanu Reeves and extreme sports star Tony Hawk to name a few.

The Hollywood stars and sun-tanned Californians don’t know Tony George from his mother and three sisters. They only want to see fast cars and the people who pilot them at break-neck speeds. And that probably has a lot to do with the acceptance of the sport in Long Beach.

And it shows in the way the drivers are embraced. No one got more attention last weekend from Californians—long known for their love of the hot rod car culture—than Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick. Hunter-Reay, a California boy, also was roundly supported.

So the fourth IndyCar race is in the books. Now back to the Midwest, where the IRL paddock will tee it up for the RoadRunner Turbo Indy 300 in Kansas City May 1.

The Indianapolis 500 follows May 30. Back-to-back ABC broadcasts capped off by the granddaddy of all open-wheel races should give series officials lots to anticipate.

Coming off the glowing reviews in Long Beach, it should be a glorious month of May for a series in need of a boost.

But there are still lots of big questions for this series.

The biggest among them may be this; Are the Midwest legions who made IndyCar open-wheel racing the most popular racing in the U.S. and a rival of Formula One two decades ago ready to forgive and forget?

Or will the live-and-let-live sentiment die as the series travels from west to east?

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