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A Viewer's Guide / Grand Prix of Long Beach

In Thr Driver's Seat

Six-Time Winner Al Unser Jr. Knows His Way Around the Track at Long Beach, so Buckle Up and Read On

April 01, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nobody has driven the Long Beach Grand Prix faster than Al Unser Jr.

Nobody has gotten into and out of the turns more quickly, has handled the traffic better, has mastered the line you need to drive to get the most out of a lap on the streets of Long Beach.

He has won six times, and his 1994 victory was the fastest ever on the temporary track, 105 laps at an average of 99.283 mph.

Here's how he did it, and how he plans to do it Sunday:

"Going down [the main straightaway] into Turn 1 is the fastest part of the track. You get speeds of 180, 185 mph. Our cars have six-speed gearboxes in them, so you're in sixth gear, and on Turn 1 you go from a very wide race track to a very narrow track and you're down into second gear.

"I guess my braking point would be that intersection in front of the Hyatt. I don't know what the name of that street is [Pine Avenue], but once you pass that, you're going to have your hands full to slow it down in order to make the turn.

"Going into Turn 1 is a key passing area, and going into [Turn] 7 is a key passing area. Pretty much everywhere else is single file, and if you try to make a move anywhere else, it can be costly.

"Between Turns 2 and 3 [a short chute], I tried to pass Nigel Mansell there one day [in 1993] and ended up breaking my front end, locking wheels with him and taking myself out of a race that I could very easily have won.

"Turns 1, 2 and 3 are 90-degree turns in second gear, and you go to third for Turn 4 [a mini-S turn that is actually 4 and 5], which is a real critical corner because it gets you out onto the backstretch. If you can get through that turn real good, your top speed at the end of the back straightaway is going to be up, so you really need to get through that turn well to have a good lap time.

"The back straightaway, you go up into sixth gear again and it's like a long drag race. And then you make the turn, I guess that would be Turn 6. There's a good passing area right through there. There's a lot of passing that goes on there . . . but there's also a lot of people that go off into the runoff area.

"You're hard on the brakes for that turn, and you have to be careful because the surface is very ripply and on race day, it's extremely slippery through there. . . . It's a really neat corner because the bumps knock the back end out and you have to make sure not to get jerked toward the wall.

"The next corner [7] there is a second-gear corner, and you enter it real close to the wall, let the car go out a little, then bring it back real tight again to the wall to set up for the hairpin.

"The hairpin [8] is a first-gear corner, and that's an important corner also, because how you get through there determines what your straightaway speed is down here. The hairpin leading out onto Shoreline Drive is very important. You accelerate onto the front straightaway, up close to the wall on the exit.

"Really those are the only corners, two sets. Then it's just a couple of really long drag races."

The Long Beach Grand Prix will get a face lift with a newly configured track next year. Unser's success at Long Beach notwithstanding, he welcomes the change.

"I'd like to see it a little more difficult than it is," he said. "This kind of layout makes for a great show because it's extremely hard to get away from second place. The driver wants to make it a terrible show. His best race, as he'll describe it, is, 'I go out and never get challenged all day and lap second place.' But for the fans, that's a bad show.

"You want to see passing for first place. The track makes it difficult to exploit an advantage you might have on everybody else."

Even if you do know the quickest way around it.

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