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MOTOR RACING | LONG BEACH GRAND PRIX

The Franchise

As Minor League Operations Have Come and Gone, the Race Has Become the City's Signature Event

April 04, 2001|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every spring, the swallows return to Capistrano, Salmon returns to Anaheim and the race cars return to Long Beach. No need to mark it on your calendar. If you live in Long Beach, all you need to know that spring is in the air are your five senses.

Smell the exhaust fumes, commingling with the aroma of suntan lotion and grilled animal flesh.

Hear the engines buzzing in the distance, like killer bees at a mating festival.

Taste the beer that flows from spigots like wine at a Bacchanalian chariot race.

Touch the celebrities playing hooky from Hollywood on a long lost weekend.

See the tow truck make a move on your car that suddenly has been deemed "illegally parked."

If it's April in Long Beach, it must be the Toyota Grand Prix, where temporary bleachers hug Shoreline Drive with a symbolism not lost on anyone familiar with this city's sporting history, consisting largely of fans temporarily embracing a team or an event before they eventual high-tail it out of town.

Follow the bouncing baseball team that began life as the Barracuda, then the Riptide, winning two Western Baseball League championships in two years in Long Beach before moving to Mission Viejo and then to St. George, Utah.

Remember the StingRays? Many locals still do, since it wasn't that long ago that the team debuted as a charter member of the women's American Basketball League, ill-fated rival to the WNBA. The StingRays were an instant on-the-court success, reaching the final playoff series in the ABL's first season, and then, just as suddenly, extinct--folding days before the ABL's second and final season.

Long Beach State once had a football program that stocked the NFL with such names as Terry Metcalf, Billy Parks, Dan Bunz, Mark Seay, Leon Burns--and borrowed one, a pretty big one, when the school lured George Allen out of retirement to coach the 49ers in 1990. Terrell Davis even played there, for one season, before the university voted to scrap football in 1991. Davis transferred to Georgia.

Once, the Rams practiced at Blair Field. Once, the Big West Conference held its postseason basketball tournament at the Long Beach Arena, now adorned by the world's largest and ugliest sea-life mural, confusing hundreds of tourists who regularly pull into the wrong parking lot, mistaking the arena and its spray-painted whales for the nearby Aquarium of the Pacific.

Inside the pseudo fish tank, on a rink of frozen water, the minor league Ice Dogs still toil, although for how much longer is uncertain. The Ice Dogs' Long Beach Arena lease runs through 2002, but the team usually plays before crowds of fewer than 4,000 and perpetually operates at a loss. Meanwhile up the freeway, the Forum, which used to have a full-time hockey tenant, is scouting for a replacement.

On any given Sunday in Long Beach, you can see sailboaters bobbing in the marina, kayakers paddling through the Naples canals, roller-bladers swatting plastic pucks at Bayshore Park, soccer players shanking free kicks at Heartwell Park. But when it comes to the spectator-sports experience, there is no long haul in Long Beach.

Or, as it is known among sports promoters who previously have tried and failed, Not For Long Beach.

Which makes the Grand Prix, now readying for its 27th year of torturing ear drums, the oddest of Long Beach anomalies. It came and it stayed. It survives and it thrives. It is a civic touchstone, operating not far from where the Spruce Goose once nested before it too, was airlifted far away. And, recently having signed a contractual extension with the city through 2010, it doesn't appear to be going anywhere else soon.

"I think the Grand Prix has been spectacular for Long Beach," says Don Dyer, Long Beach State senior assistant athletic director and a Long Beach resident for more than 40 years. "I can't imagine anything having any more effect, including the Queen Mary. The Grand Prix has been better for Long Beach than any other single event since I've been here."

Says David Simon, president of the Los Angeles Sports Council, "When you think back to the early years of the race and where it is now, it's pretty unbelievable. It's one of the two or three events of its kind in North America. From a sports standpoint, it put Long Beach on the map. Clearly, it's the biggest attraction the city has had."

Those early years were the sort that have sunk more than one franchise in Long Beach. Considerable local skepticism at the outset. Serious shortages of cash. Format changes. Course changes. Flirtations from other cities on the prowl to poach.

Yet, in a professional sports market that often looks down its nose at Long Beach, dismissing it as a poor man's Anaheim or a beach-side Des Moines, the Grand Prix has outlasted five area professional football teams--the Anaheim-incarnation Rams, the L.A.-era Raiders, the USFL Express, the indoor Cobras and Piranha--with a sixth, the XFL's Xtreme, idling on the off-ramp.

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