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A Viewer's Guide / Grand Prix of Long Beach

Sputtering Start

Pook Had to Steer Through All Kinds of Road Hazards in 1977 to Turn Race Around

April 01, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is the most famous and successful street-course motor race in North America and, in attendance and recognition, is second only to the Indianapolis 500 in importance in Indy car-style racing.

More than 125,000 people are expected for Sunday's 105-lap race around the 1.59-mile course through the seaside streets of Long Beach. Starting Friday, more than 300,000 spectators are anticipated for the three days that go with the third race of the CART FedEx championship series.

It wasn't always this way.

In 1977, the third year of the Grand Prix and the second as a Formula One event, the future of the race was in serious jeopardy.

Chris Pook, who started it all, remembers the days when his dream nearly became a nightmare. The scenario went something like this:

* There were 186 creditors who were owed $394,270, money the Grand Prix Assn. did not have.

"We restructured our debt by offering them 35 cents on the dollar, plus 20 cents of worthless stock at the time," Pook recalled. "All but three agreed to the deal. The three took us to small claims court and won. If the others hadn't agreed, we'd have had to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy and there'd have never been a race.

"Mike Brown, our biggest debtor--we owned him about $90,000 for grandstands--later joined our board of directors, and we still do business with about 60% of the group."

* During the debt negotiations, a citizens' group from Long Beach sued, claiming that city funds were being used to support the race. They sought an injunction to halt work, but Pook and the city demonstrated that such was not the case, and the injunction was not granted.

"We won the suit, but it took time and energy just when we didn't need another aggravation," Pook said.

* Two weeks before the race, with construction just beginning, the building trade union decided the workers should be unionized and threw up a picket line. Construction was halted until Pook convinced the union that starting the following year, the workers would be unionized.

"Later, we found out that union leaders thought we were bluffing, that we had plenty of funds, but when they came down and looked around, they learned how desperate we were," Pook said. "From then on, they have been very supportive and all our workers have belonged to the union ever since."

* Even though two races had been held, and the Coastal Commission had given its approval before the 1975 race, environmentalists opened a case. At issue was the placing of grandstands on the ocean side of Shoreline Drive.

"That might have been our scariest moment, even more than fighting off debtors," Pook said. "We had to go to San Francisco to face another battle with the commission. We won that one, 6-5. Just a shift of one vote could have shut us down."

* On Wednesday of race week, two days before cars were to start running, Pook picked up Formula One boss Bernie Eccelstone at LAX and told him that the LBGP didn't have the prize money. No money, no race, Eccelstone said.

"First National City Travelers Checks Citicorp had come aboard that year as the race sponsor, so I called [Citicorp President] Fred Stecher and told him our plight," Pook said. "He said he'd underwrite what we needed with a loan. We were desperate, the cars and drivers were already here, and the course was up."

* Thursday afternoon, Pook called a board meeting and asked every member to write a check for $14,000-$24,000 to cover the note guaranteed to First National.

"It was one of the longest days of my life," he said. "I was up most of Wednesday night, trying to figure out how we were going to repay the note, and still keep my board comfortable."

* At 1 a.m. Friday, Pook was told that the safety crews, who had been buttoning up the course all night, had begun to leave in exhaustion.

"I got out of bed and went down to Ocean Boulevard," he said. "Things were a mess. In the first two years, Ocean Boulevard had been closed so crews could do most of their work Wednesday night and Thursday, but this year we didn't get the street closed until 6 p.m. Thursday, which just wasn't enough time.

"The guys who were left were bone tired, and to top it off, someone had stolen half the U-bolts used to anchor the fencing to the poles. So there were no workmen, and no equipment. I called city officials and explained the situation and they began calling volunteers from different departments. Someone else found some U-bolts, so we could go to work.

"I was cinching up a fence at Ocean and Pine with another volunteer, when he suddenly looked at me and said, 'Aren't you the guy who's putting this whole thing on?' When I nodded yes, he yelled at four of his buddies who were standing there watching and told them to pitch in, that if the boss man was working, everyone ought to.

"The more city workers showed up, some just to see what was going on, the more the spirit of accomplishment took over and it was kind of like a house-building party. We finally finished the job about 7 a.m."

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