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Fast and Famous Company

From Humble Beginning in 1977, Toyota Pro-Celebrity Race Has Become a Fixture


This event is as much Toyota's as it is the city of Long Beach's.

--Chris Pook, founder, Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.


Twenty-five years ago, Toyota was ready to introduce the second-generation Celica in the U.S.

When word got out that Chris Pook was going to try putting on a car race through the streets of Long Beach, it piqued the interest of John Cabe, a young man running the parts department for his father's Toyota dealership.

Cabe mentioned the race to Al Hagen, marketing director for the Toyota offices in Torrance, suggesting Toyota get involved. Hagen jumped at the idea.

"Absolutely," he said when Pook later asked if he might be interested.

Toyota became the official car of the Grand Prix, the Celica the pace car. In 1980, Toyota became the title sponsor, a position it retains.

Pook says the association is the "longest relationship with any venue in racing."

The original 1975 pace car is in the lobby of Toyota headquarters in Torrance and will be on display at this weekend's race in Long Beach.

Hoping to showcase their new model, Hagen and public relations director Chuck Burlingame asked Pook in September 1975 if a couple of Celicas could make a demonstration run during the Grand Prix, using a couple of high-profile drivers.

This time it was Pook who said, "Absolutely."

He arranged for Dan Gurney and former world Formula One champion Phil Hill to drive them. When Pook learned that another world champion, Graham Hill, was coming to Long Beach with his protege driver, Pook asked if a third Celica could be made available, and by race day another ex-F1 driver, Bob Bondurant, made it a four-Celica exhibition.

"It was the forerunner of the first Toyota celebrity race," Pook says. "Toyota pioneered celebrity racing in this country."

The same group ran again in 1976, then in 1977, Toyota presented its first true celebrity race with Shelley Novak, Gene Hackman, Dick Smothers and Pete Conrad driving against several professional drivers.

Since then, the Toyota pro-celebrity race has been a fixture of the Grand Prix, putting such famous personalities as Clint Eastwood, James Brolin, Ted Nugent, Paul Williams, Christopher Cross, Lorenzo Lamas, Jay Leno, Kelsey Grammer, Tim Allen and Queen Latifah in the race.

Athletes turned racers include Greg LeMond, Bruce Jenner, Ken Stabler, Joe Montana, Mary Lou Retton, Bob Golic, Tony Dorsett, Larry Csonka, Walter Payton, Mark Gastineau, Bruce Penhall, Lynn Swann and John Cappelletti.

This year's field of 18 includes entertainment personalities, celebrities and professional drivers. They will compete in a 10-lap race Saturday.

From the entertainment field:

* Melissa Joan Hart, from the ABC series "Sabrina."

* Donny Osmond, host of the "Donny & Marie" program, and winner of the 1991 race.

* Coolio, Grammy Award-nominated hip-hop artist.

* Kim Alexis, actress-model.

* Lauralee Bell, who plays Cricket on "The Young & the Restless."

* Catherine Bell, the Marine Mjr. Mac MacKenzie on CBS' series "JAG."

* Daryl Mitchell, who plays Leo on NBC's "Veronica's Closet."

* Jose Solano, star of "Baywatch."

* Daryn Kagan, co-anchor of a CNN morning show.

From the world of sports:

* Carl Lewis, nine-time Olympic gold-medal winner.

* Shaun Palmer, Winter Extreme Games champion.

* Glen Plake, hot-dog skiing champion.

* Roger Mears, off-road racer.

* Gary Scelzi, drag racing champion.

* Angelle Seeling, motorcycle drag racer.

Also entered are Mike Sullivan, a Toyota dealer from Hollywood, and Ze'ev Drori, high bidder for a seat in the race at last year's Toyota Grand Prix Charity Ball.

Proceeds from the auction helped raise close to $100,000 for Racing for Kids, a program benefiting Southern California children's hospitals. Since 1991, the race has generated nearly $600,000 for charity.

The charity race, however, won't be Toyota's only presence during the Grand Prix weekend. The entire field of cars in the Kool-Toyota Atlantic supporting race will be powered by Toyota engines, and five drivers on four teams in the CART FedEx championship race will be in Toyota-powered cars.

The CART drivers include veteran Scott Pruett and rookie Cristiano da Matta on the Arciero-Wells team; Alex Barron in an Eagle for Dan Gurney's All America Racers; Robby Gordon, a former Long Beach Trans-Am winner, in his first-year Team Gordon entry, and Richie Hearn of Della Penna Motorsports.

"Obviously, when we started out in Long Beach 25 years ago, things were quite different from today, but along the way Toyota has had a wonderful experience associated with the Grand Prix," said Les Unger, Toyota's national motor sports manager.

"We're looking forward to another 25-year relationship."


Toyota Pro-Celebrity Race

* Cars: Identically prepared Toyota Celicas.

* Qualifying: 1:40 p.m., Friday.

* When: 2:15 p.m., Saturday.

* What: 10 laps on 1.85-mile street course.

* 1998 winner: Sean Patrick Flanery.

* TV: April 25, ESPN, time TBA.

* Drivers to watch: Lauralee Bell, Kim Alexis, Coolio,Carl Lewis, Angelle Seeling, Donny Osmond, Roger Mears.

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