Twenty years ago, when Chris Pook conceived the idea of racing cars through downtown Long Beach, he brought in Formula One cars to enhance Long Beach's image as "The International City."
The Queen Mary was afloat just across the channel from the racing circuit, the World Trade Center was on the planning board, and Pook, then a local travel agent, convinced city fathers that having a Long Beach dateline on Formula One stories printed around the world would be a great investment in tourism.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach became one of the most famous races in the world.
A few years later, when the event was well established, Pook switched to Indy cars and it took on a more domestic look. The new slogan was "The World's Fastest Beach Party,"
It still fits that image, with open-wheel cars speeding along Shoreline Drive at close to 200 m.p.h., but it also has reverted to its original international look.
Eighteen of the 28 starters in today's 21st Long Beach street race are foreigners--seven from Brazil, two each from Canada, Mexico and Italy, and one each from Chile, Sweden, Belgium, Japan and Germany.
But the fastest is an American, Michael Andretti of Nazareth, Pa., a former winner and a son of a former winner, the retired Mario Andretti, who won when the race featured Formula One cars and again when it switched to Indy cars.
The younger Andretti, on his final qualifying lap around the eight-turn, 1.59-mile circuit Saturday in his Lola-Ford Cosworth, bettered his day-old record with a lap at 109.066 m.p.h. The record was 108.450 set last year by Canadian Paul Tracy.
Tracy, now Andretti's teammate on the Paul Newman-Carl Haas team, also bettered his old record with a 108.861 lap. It was the first time the team had filled the front row since the 1993 Marlboro 500 at Michigan where Mario Andretti was on the pole with Nigel Mansell alongside.
It was Michael Andretti's third Long Beach pole and earned him a $10,000 Marlboro pole award bonus. If he wins today's 105-lap (166.95 miles) race, he will collect an additional $60,000 in pole award money.
"It's nice to have the pole, but it's tomorrow that counts," Andretti said.
Earlier this season, Andretti captured pole positions at Miami and Surfers Paradise, Australia, but after dominating the early going at both races, he failed to finish.
"We're going to do what we do at each race and hope that it works out for us," he said. "I'm going to just keep plugging away and sooner or later it will also work out. It's a strange game."
Five drivers were under Tracy's old record in what emerged as one of the tightest street race fields in Indy car history. Less than a second separated the first 15 starters.
Gil De Ferran, a French-born Brazilian rookie tabbed by Jim Hall to drive the yellow Pennzoil car this year, edged out five-time winner and defending champion Al Unser Jr. for the third position. De Ferran did a 108.480 lap, Unser a 108.463.
Unser, who struggled with electrical problems during Friday's time trials when he was only 27th out of 28 starters, steadily improved Saturday and appeared to have third place secured until De Ferran's surprising lap.
"Every circuit is new to me, so it is very tough in the beginning," De Ferran said. "Fortunately, I managed to post a good time right at the end. I hope to attack (Sunday) as I always do, but of course, I must finish the race."
De Ferran won the 1992 British Formula 3 championship and raced the last two years on the European Formula 3000 series.
Emerson Fittipaldi, Unser's Penske teammate, did not fare so well. He was taken out in the morning practice by fellow Brazilian Marco Greco, damaging the front corner of his car.
"I was having a very good practice session and working on my race setup," Fittipaldi said. "I was overtaking the No. 55 (Greco) car which was going very slow into turn one. He moved over and opened the door so I started to go through on the inside. All of a sudden, he turned in to me and we had a big crash.
"It is unbelievable that this kind of driving can happen at a tight street circuit like Long Beach. It is very dangerous when a driver is not aware of who is around him."
Bobby Rahal, four times a runner-up at Long Beach and the second fastest Friday, had a bad day Saturday, first hitting the wall in practice and then blowing an engine during qualifying. His Friday speed of 108.253 was good for only sixth place after Saturday.
If history is an indicator, the winner today should be one of the Newman-Haas teammates, Andretti or Tracy. In the 11 Indy car races on the narrow Long Beach course, only twice has the winning driver started anywhere but the front row. Michael Andretti won from the seventh position in 1986 and Unser from the fourth spot in 1988.