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Vroom Boom

Chris Pook's Plan to Bring the World to Long Beach Has Been a Success for the Race and the City

April 01, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1967, a 26-year-old Englishman named Christopher Robin Pook settled in Long Beach and opened the American Aviation Travel Services. Across a lagoon from his office, a view of the majestic Queen Mary, once the pride of Britain's Cunard Line, kept him from feeling homesick.

What concerned him, however, was Long Beach's image as Iowa West. Despite the Queen Mary, the Long Beach Arena and the proposed Pacific Terrace Convention Center, much of downtown Long Beach was tacky and uninviting, catering mainly to patrons of porno movie houses and Navy bars.

"The Long Beach motto is 'International City,' but what is there to attract tourists or conventions?" Pook asked of the city's convention bureau. "What's international about it?"

The answer came to him while he was listening to the 1973 Indianapolis 500 on the radio.

"Why not put on an international race, a Formula One, on downtown streets, the way they do it in Monte Carlo?" he asked himself.

"The weather, the locale, everything was perfect," he recalled the other day. "Monte Carlo had proven that racing next to the ocean was exciting for both drivers and fans. I was positive it would work here."

First, he contacted members of the Long Beach Convention Bureau and outlined his plan.

"You must be nuts," they said.

Undaunted, he contacted Dan Gurney, who had recently retired after a legendary career in Formula One to build race cars in Santa Ana.

"You must be crazy," Gurney said.

Next was Les Richter, then running Riverside International Raceway and the man who had brought NASCAR racing to the West Coast.

"What are you, nuts?" Richter responded.

Nevertheless, Pook drew up plans, persuaded Gurney, Richter and Formula One champion Phil Hill to work with him, talked the city into giving up Ocean Boulevard, the main downtown thoroughfare, for three days for a street race, and planned his event.

"What I sold them on was that Long Beach needed something to stimulate tourism, conventions, things like that," Pook said. "We needed to project our image worldwide. The Queen Mary hadn't done it. I told them they had a nice arena, but needed customers. Actually, I was still thinking about how much business it might bring to the travel agency."

Before F1 authorities would grant a race date to Pook, he was told to put on a lesser race to prove his sincerity, and showcase the course. So, he scheduled a Formula 5000 race--the cars looked a lot like F1 cars--for Sept. 28, 1975. Workmen were still installing fencing and tire barriers the morning practice was scheduled to start, but on Sunday--race day--the high-rise buildings along Ocean Boulevard were crammed with people gawking out windows at the sight of race cars whizzing through the streets.

There were 40,000 paid customers and probably as many more eavesdroppers watching as another Englishman, Brian Redman, won what truly was an international race. Foreign drivers took the first six positions.

Formula One came the following March, bringing such famous drivers as defending world champion Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Clay Regazzoni and the popular American, Mario Andretti, in one of Vel's Parnelli Jones' cars.

No longer Iowa West, Long Beach had become Monte Carlo West.

The 1976 race was a success outwardly, but the immense cost of transporting cars, drivers, crews and equipment from Europe drowned the Long Beach Grand Prix Assn. in a pool of red ink. Before the 1977 race could be held, there was a debt of nearly $400,000 to pay, plus an additional $350,000 to F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone for the race purse.

The first thing Pook did was sell the travel agency.

"It became apparent to me that putting on a Grand Prix wasn't a 90-day job, as I had originally envisioned," he said. "I soon realized it was going to consume all my time, day and night."

Working with him from the beginning has been Jim Michaelian, who was comptroller in 1975 and is now executive vice president.

It took some desperation tactics from both of them to save the race in 1977, but the turning point for the Grand Prix, and perhaps the entire downtown future of Long Beach, was Andretti's winning the 1977 race.

"When Mario won, it give American fans a rooting point, and the next year when Mario won the world championship, the Long Beach Grand Prix was off the hook," Pook said.

"What may have been even more significant than his winning the race was when Mario took the chairman of the board of the Hyatt hotel chain, A.N. Prideker, for a couple of laps around the track in a pace car.

"When Mr. Prideker got out of the car, he turned to the city manager and said, 'If this city has enough courage to put on an event like this, then I've got enough courage to build a Hyatt Regency Hotel right here.' "

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