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The Franchise

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


It has been a Southern California fixture longer than the Clippers, longer than the L.A. Marathon, longer than the life spans of the Galaxy, the Mighty Ducks, the Sparks and the Avengers combined.

"I don't have to tell you how tough it is in Southern California to maintain a sports team," says Chris Pook, founder of the Long Beach Grand Prix and president of the Grand Prix Assn. of Long Beach. "If you're the Dodgers or the Angels or the Lakers or the Clippers or the Kings--or, I guess, the Ducks--it's OK. But once you get out of the top tier of sports, it gets difficult. I mean, Major League Soccer, in all the markets where they thought they'd be a huge success, I think they're doing OK.

"So it's tough in Southern California if you're not in the top league. That's why Long Beach has had several minor league teams [that have struggled]."

Pook believes the Grand Prix has lasted because it's "a unique product in Southern California that started in '75, and I think over the years we have built a relationship with the city. That's really important. And we built a relationship with our fans. I think the bottom line is, as a result of those relationships, we've been able to be reasonably successful."


Little-known fact about Long Beach:

The city almost had the Angels.

When Gene Autry was looking to move his team out of Los Angeles and into the suburbs in the early 1960s, his first option was Long Beach.

Autry liked the location, midway between Los Angeles and Orange County, with easy freeway access. The plan was to build a stadium on property that is now El Dorado Regional Park. Negotiations between the Angels and the city progressed until hitting what appeared to be a minor snag: What to call the team.

The city demanded the team be called the Long Beach Angels.

Autry, thinking the name sounded too minor league, insisted on the Los Angeles Angels or the California Angels.

The city held out for Long Beach . . . and that was the deal breaker.

Anaheim, which later would have no trouble selling its soul--and any chance for an NBA future--to bring in Disney's Ducks, was more flexible. You want the California Angels, Mr. Autry, you've got 'em. Come on down.

Just like that, the course of major league baseball history was forever altered. There are no ancient Indian burial grounds beneath El Dorado Park, to the best of anyone's knowledge. Had the Angels moved to Long Beach instead of Anaheim, who knows? Donnie Moore might have struck out Dave Henderson. Mark Langston might have won the playoff against Seattle. Gene Mauch might have swept the Brewers in '82. Pennants might be flying over the heads of Long Beach baseball fans today.

"That sounds like something Long Beach would have done," says Dyer, laughing at the city's fateful fit of stubbornness.

A decade later, Pook went to the Long Beach city fathers with an idea much more outlandish: Let's say we run a Formula One street race through downtown Long Beach, just like they do in Monte Carlo!

The city's initial reaction: Who let this crazy Brit out of his padded cell?

"It was a hard way to go," Pook says. "No one had ever done modern-day street racing on the scale that we were doing it."

And in Long Beach, no less. In 1975, the downtown area was notoriously seedy, resembling the morning after an all-night drunken sailors' brawl.

"Must we go there?" Pook says when asked for a description of downtown Long Beach then.

"It was pretty bad. There were a lot of people sleeping in doorways. A lot of interesting ladies would say good evening to you. . . . It was in pretty good decay."

The city had a serious need for redevelopment and Pook, a travel agent working in Long Beach, was interested in exploring new ways to bring business, and tourists, to the city.

"Long Beach made a decision in the early '70s, when its oil revenues were depleting, to become a convention and tourist destination," he says. "The problem was that apart from the Queen Mary, it had no real hotels and no one really knew where Long Beach was. If you're going to become a convention and tourist destination, you have to have an identity. You have to have hotels for people to stay in.

"I basically said, 'This is going to take 10 or 12 years to get this thing going, to get those hotels built. It's going to take a huge amount of money, if we slug it out the normal method. If we really want to get attention and be aggressive about redevelopment and really make this place into a destination, then let's do something outrageous. Like running race cars on the streets.

"There was nothing novel about that. Monte Carlo had been doing it and using that as a marketing technique for years. So what we really did was copy Monte Carlo."

From a public relations standpoint, "Monte Carlo West" was an upgrade over "Iowa By The Sea," any way you looked at it.

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