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Published on Thu, May 26, 2011

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

The No. 67 Honda Civic Si nearly clipped the author, but later went on to a first place class win.

Burning rays, steaming asphalt, smoking hot metal, and a near miss from an airborne Honda. It’s fear, loathing, and rushing adrenaline at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. As we enter Indy weekend, Editor John Grafman tells us the story from The Beach in words and pictures. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in words and pictures by John Grafman


I look at Tim, another press photographer, and he looks at me, and we both just burst into spontaneous laughter. Just moments before, the number 67 Honda Civic Si enters turn three by the fountains near Bubba Gump’s and it cut the corner a little tight and hard. Both of us have seen cars over the past three days come tight and even give the shrubs around that turn a haircut on occasion. But this Civic actually came so high up the berm that the right side of the car becomes airborne by a good two feet. This left the racer heading straight towards our post trackside with about two dozen or so feet until impact. It’s one of those moments where words are completely unnecessary. We did what comes naturally under those circumstances. We ran! Needless to say we survived. And so did the Honda. In spite of the over zealous attempt to shave a split second off the lap time and near disaster, the car driven by Shea Holbrook squeezed out a first place finish in its class. Amazing! While I like an auto race as much as any red-blooded American, I’m far from what one might call an enthusiast where every race is a reason to turn on the sports channel or head to the nearest track. But this moment with the Honda is almost a religious experience. And, this is why fans come out in thousands. Golf doesn’t really get your heart racing, and on some levels perhaps that isn’t even what some would call a sport. Aside from the sun beating down, do golfers really sweat?

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Dario Franchitti set the record for the fastest lap at 100.266 mph (70.6597 sec).

The Long Beach Grand Prix provides a very rare chance for those along the coast in Southern California to revel in motorsports. Racing piques the senses with actions, sound and smells that are far removed from what the locals typically experience. But, this isn’t just one day of fun, it’s three. This juggernaut kicks off on Friday April 15th with summer like conditions. With temps in the upper 80’s under sunny skies, we know this is going to be a crazy weekend. The track becomes hot at the un-holy hour of 7:15am. This is done not to torture those coming to enjoy the activities, but really it’s a matter of squeezing everything in. We get to soak in ten on-track events before 6:30pm. This turns into about a twelve-hour survival course for the die-hard fans and camera-touting journalists. Constant bombardment of sun and radiant heat take its toll. Sunscreen isn’t an option, this is serious. The drivers of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), and the first group of the Izod Indycar practice sessions early in the day have the advantage of dodging the scorching afternoon heat. Those trackside have it easy, the drivers are subjected to incredibly hot conditions created by the race cars, and the driving suits, as well as the physical strain. All the while, the drivers have to perform at the highest levels, and avoid colliding with the walls or barriers, or being involved in a pile-up. All of the racing series taking place at Long Beach are exciting. But, INDYCAR arguably has the greatest fan base over this weekend. By now, many of the racers in this series have become household names even among those not in the know. The open wheeled race has a couple of changes for this year. Reversing its earlier decision, INDYCAR extends the starting grid to accommodate 27 cars instead of 26, as pit row in Long Beach is longer and can handle the traffic. Additionally, the driver with the fastest practice lap times gets to pick which of the two qualifying sessions he/she wants to be in. The other drivers will be designated a qualifying group based on their practices times. All of the odd number of finishers (fastest, third fastest, fifth fastest, etc.) are in one group, and the even number finishers are in the second group.

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Mike Conway in the IZOD IndyCar winning No. 27

While the practice determines the qualifying starting positions, and qualifying sets the positions for the actual race, this is far from what determines what the outcome will be. One hour, fifty-three minutes, and eleven seconds; that span is just how long it took Mike Conway to cover the streets of Long Beach from start to the checkered flag. That might seem lengthy, but the margin of victory is only a scant 6.3203 seconds. Mike’s success is worthy of congratulations, yet when one considers this is a comeback win after a nearly career ending crash at Indy last year, this is truly an impressive achievement. The drivers did get a break on Sunday’s race as the sun and heat of Friday and Saturday turned to a heavy overcast marine-layer. By the time the race got underway after lunchtime the sky was starting to clear, but it was far from scorching.

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Ryan Briscoe in the yellow Penske Truck Rental car

Ryan Briscoe in the yellow Penske Truck Rental car did hold on to the lead twice for a total of 35 laps, but it wasn’t in the cards for Ryan. And Dario Franchitti set the record for the fastest lap at 100.266 mph (70.6597 sec) on lap 84. But even that wasn’t enough for the number 10 car to take the win, but he manages a respectable third place. Last year’s winner Ryan Hunter-Raey in the number 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda sponsored car didn’t pull off a repeat of last year, however he did hold onto the lead for two laps this year. Ryan’s performance was enough to start at second position, but sadly, he found himself number 23 at the end of the race.

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Danica Patrick's No. 7 came in 7th

It just so happens that Danika Patrick’s number 7 car came in in seventh place. She has again shown she is a solid player at Long Beach. Nevertheless, it is always tough for her to accept anything less than a podium finish. Another female on the streets is Simona de Silvestro in the number 78 Nuclear Clean Air Energy/HVM Racing car. Her superb fourth place just weeks earlier at the St. Petersburg race couldn’t be replicated. In that race her car was working perfectly, but Tony Kanaan’s experience kept her tied-up behind him. This race Tony found himself in eighth and Simona fell to twentieth. Paul Tracy, with a long history here only managed sixteenth place in the number 8 Dragon Racing - Ralphs Grocery racer. Helio Castroneves in the number 3 Auto Club of Southern California car did only a bit better finishing twelfth. The field contains six rookies, and all but one finished. Kudos go to James Hinchcliffe in the Sprott/Newman Haas Racing 06 car as he came just shy of the podium with a fourth place finish. This year all of the competitors ran on Dallara Chassis, Firestone Tires, and Honda Engines. However, the word is we will see some variation on this formula next year. Indy might take the headlines, but the American Le Mans Series has to take some kind of award for giving fans the most bang for the buck. ALMS provides five races in one. Now that’s value, and the excitement is priceless. This is also the most progressive race series in its use of alternative fuels and energy sources. The five options are GTL (gas to liquid) diesel, E10, E85, hybrid, and isobutanol (blended with gasoline). The Green Challenge and Michelin Green X awards take into account how clean a car is (as in how green it is), how fast, and how efficient. Ultimately, the scoring for these awards allows for an entirely new way to define the winner of an auto race. Even more importantly, with a little luck these awards will help influence the way in which production cars are headed, and convince consumers that there is more than one way to skin a cat. For the layman, casual grand prix fan, and sun worshiper, the diversity in the types of cars running in this series is really what turns the indecisive attendees into full-on, race-going aficionados. One of several common threads that bind all of the various cars together is the combination of sights, sounds and even smells. If you are looking for something louder you either have to stand in front of a stack of Marshell amps, or at the end of the runway at LAX.

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The Melo and Vilander driven bright red Ferrari F458 Italia

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The GT class brings to the track familiar faces, which everyone can relate to. On the streets of Long Beach we are reveling in the sights of a BMW M3, a couple Corvette C6.Rs, Ferrari 458s, Jaguar XKRs, a Lamborghini Gallardo, and a Porsche 911 RSR tearing the course up. These babies range from 450 to 500 horses, and have a minimum weight of 2,480 pounds. Similarly, the GT Challenge group is comprised of 450 horsepower Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars, which are based on the garden variety GT3 RS. Both the GT and GTC class features cars that are not too visually different from their production brethren. However, these cars are far from the stock versions that would commonly be found meandering through Long Beach on any other day. Driving alongside these are the purpose built LMP1, LMP2, and LMP Challenge racers. While it can be a bit confusing watching five races simultaneously, it nevertheless is stimulating. Where else can you see a Chevy go up against a complete-from-the-ground-up, purpose built, prototype race car? We all have thought about it, but at ALMS you can live the dream. The LMP1 cars range from 475 horsepower to 575. Minimum weight is approximately 1.985 pounds. These are produced by numerous manufacturers, including Audi, Peuguot, HPD (Honda), Lola, and others. On a good day these racers can hit nearly 200mph, and can hit 100 from a stand still in a scant 3.2 seconds. The LMP2 cars are a down-size version of the LMP1 cars. Still made by multiple companies, these have 450 to 500 ponies, and a top speed of 170 mph. The LMP Challenge cars all use the same chassis, ORECA-Courage FLM09 prototypes. These can also reach speeds of up to 170mph on the 430 horsepower engines. The chassis is carbon fiber, and the tires used on all cars are supplied by a single manufacturer, Michelin. To assist in keeping order in the universe, or at least in the ALMS events, a color code system for the numbers and lights on the cars. The lights used on the side of the cars also provide an indication as to what place the car is in. Maybe the only downside we see in ALMS is that so many classes in one race means that only a few cars in each class can participate. Limited space is an issue on the streets of Long Beach. On the bright side, most of the drivers have a solid chance of coming out on top. The race on Saturday is blistering hot. The action is, of course, supposed to be hot, but the air temp during the day is bordering on 90F (32.5C). Fortunately, the green flag is about 4:30 in the afternoon, and the worst of the summer-like heat begins to abate.

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Above: Graf and Luhr in the Muscle Milk Aston; Below: Smith and Dyson in the Mazda

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This year’s LMP1 pits the #6 Aston Martin B08 Lola against the #16 Mazda Lola B09. The team of Graf and Luhr* in the closed-top, Muscle Milk Aston capture the checkered flag. Smith and Dyson* in the Mazda pick up second.

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LMP2 teams of Bouchut/Tucker* #33, and Tucker/Diaz* #055 both in Honda/Lola racers came to play, but the 33 car proves to have the right stuff for a win.

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The LMPC final results have the silver, blue, and black ORECA number 06 taking first, followed by the X-Men sponsored #89, and then the Green Dot #63 car.

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The diversity of models makes the results from the GT class intriguing. First place goes to the #56 BMW M3 GT driven by Mueller and Hand*. Second is the #4 Chevy Corvette Z of Magnussen and Gavin*, which is followed by the Melo and Vilander driven #62, bright red Ferrari F458 Italia.

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The GT Challenge is the final class of the series. The BSR sponsored Bleekemolen and Pappas* driven #54 Porsche passes the checkered flag for first, and the black, Battery Tender car #23 of driven by Sweedler* and Keen capture second. Rounding out the top three is the Roscoe’s House Of Chicken And Waffles sponsored #77 car of Stanton and Potter*. *Starting driver

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