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Construction of Aquarium Brings First Major Changes to Course Since 1982


It is still the most successful street race in the world, but the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has a vastly different look today from its first race 25 years ago.

In 1975 and for the next seven years, the race ran down Ocean Boulevard, the city's main street where today there is a row of fine hotels, the World Trade Center and the Promenade.

The original two-mile course, longer than today's 1.85 miles because of Formula One regulations, started on Ocean, dived down the hill on Linden Avenue, wiggled its way back to the International Tower and Villa Riviera where Shoreline Drive begins, swept along curving Shoreline to the Queen's hairpin, where it did a 180-degree turn that led to Pine Avenue and up the hill to Ocean.

Since then, the circuit has had several face lifts, the most notable in 1982 when it left Ocean Boulevard to run its entire course on the flat lands where a landfill had replaced a lagoon. For several years the cars raced through the Hyatt Regency garage.

This year there will be another distinctive change, taking the course off Shoreline to the left, instead of the sharp right-hand turn used in the past. From there, it will sweep down Aquarium Way and around the Dolphin Fountain, main entrance to the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Construction of the aquarium, which opened last year, is responsible for the new changes to the course, which had undergone only minor changes since 1982.

There was a report, when the change was announced, that the fish would undergo a series of sound tests to acclimate them before the full-throated roar of the turbocharged CART car engines. However, aquarium officials later decided it was unnecessary.

"The changes should offer a great spectacle for television," said Dwight Tanaka, LBGP vice president of operations. "The cars will literally dance around the fountain."

Tanaka is the man who choreographs the course, designing the 11 turns, the runoff areas, the safety barriers and the grandstands.

His budget is $1.8 million for 1.85 miles lined with 1,800 concrete blocks weighing 8,100 pounds each, 10 miles of tightly strung cable and 250 crash barriers, each made with 64 old tires.

The budget also includes construction of 21 grandstands with 63,000 seats, six spectator pedestrian bridges, 12 television-photo towers and 61 VIP suites.

"Times have changed," Tanaka said. "We were so poor in 1978 that we had the span for a bridge--one bridge--and not enough money to build staircases."

Tanaka was given nine weeks to complete the job, using four foremen and 30 experienced workers.

"When we are finished, we will have literally built a city within a city. We will have an infrastructure capable of supporting 300,000-plus people and a street circuit where race cars can safely operate at speeds well over 200 mph."

Once the race is over, the entire facility will be torn down, the equipment inspected and stored on a nearby seven-acre site, awaiting the 26th race in 2000.

"I think the changes will be well accepted," Tanaka said. "The new course will offer a different challenge because it requires a left-hand turn off Shoreline Drive after all these years of a right-hander.

"This will give it a longer front stretch down Shoreline, which will allow for higher speeds, but going into Turn 1 the drivers will have to brake hard to turn left and go around the aquarium's parking structure. Next year we plan to have VIP hospitality suites on top of the five-story structure."

Four new turns, all within sight of the main entrance to the aquarium and the Dolphin Fountain, will make for picturesque viewing areas.

"We did a lot of formal planning, working with city officials and Aquarium personnel, before we started work," Tanaka said. "That was important from an operational standpoint regarding such things as the impact on parking, the ingress and egress for spectators and officials, and where we should place the grandstands to get the best views of the course.

"One of the biggest challenges we've had over the years was adapting to the new skyline of the city. When the race started 25 years ago, there was no skyline to speak of, just the Breakers Hotel and the International Tower. There was nothing south of Seaside Way, where the Convention Center and Auditorium are today."

Dario Franchitti, one of the favorites in Sunday's race, took a ride around the new circuit and said the drivers should welcome the changes.

"The new segment looks good," Franchitti said. "It looks like it has more character. It's more flowing than the old course. Instead of a 90-degree turn [off Shoreline], it is more gradual. It should make for more passing places."

There will be more changes next year when the Queensway Bay Project, a $1.1-billion development, takes over the open land west of the course.

The Long Beach race pioneered the use of 12-foot-long concrete blocks to define the race course. Previously, steel guardrails, the kind seen on freeways, were used.

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