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What Those 200,000 Fans Know About Watching Races

April 04, 2001|MIKE KUPPER

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is back for its annual appearance Sunday on the Southland sporting scene.

Over the weekend, more than 200,000 of your friends and neighbors will trek to the temporary track hard by the Queen Mary to take in the sun, the sights and, of course, the racing. The promoters bill it as the world's fastest beach party.

And you say you couldn't care less? That you know nothing about auto racing, don't care to learn and couldn't possibly stand all that noise?

In that case, maybe you can find a nearby library.

But if you're even the least bit intrigued, if you've noticed that more people go to car races than to other sporting events and you've been wondering what you're missing, maybe it's time you found out.

Racing is different from most other sports because most of us didn't grow up driving competitively, as so many of us grew up playing football, basketball, baseball, softball, tennis, golf, volleyball, soccer. . . . So right away, there is a foreign element to this racing stuff.

On the other hand, how foreign can it be? Most of us get in a car and drive somewhere every day. And who among us has not, on occasion, considered that driving might possibly offer something more than simply getting from one place to another?

Racing also is different from most other sports because of its inherent danger. Not just danger of injury, danger of death.

Dan Gurney, as good an all-around driver as this country has produced, called racing "a cruel sport" after an accident in which a spectator was killed.

Gary Bettenhausen, whose driver father was killed in a racing accident, whose driver brother lost an arm in a racing accident, and who himself is living with a myriad of souvenir scars collected in racing accidents, scoffs at what other sports have to offer.

"We put it all on the line every time we go out there," he once said, and obviously that risk is an underlying part of the sport's lure, both to drivers and fans.

Cynics, in fact, accuse fans of going to races hoping to see wrecks, the more the better.

Fans respond that the cynics know not whereof they speak, since they have never experienced a hold-your-breath race start, with a full field of cars diving into the first turn, or the beauty of a smartly executed pass by a driver who has been setting it up for three laps, or the exquisite precision of a pit crew getting its car back on the track with a full fuel load and four new tires in 12 seconds.

The fact is, if you're going to be a racing fan, you have to accept the danger. It's not what it's all about, but it does come with the territory and it's as close as the next turn.

What auto racing is all about is simple, every bit as simple as a footrace or a horse race: A group starts together and the first competitor to reach the finish line is the winner. The difference is, car races are much longer than track events or horse races, and that makes them a little harder to keep track of.

Keeping track, however, is important. If you don't know, at least approximately, how far along the race is, and which are the contending drivers, the proceedings will be largely indistinguishable from those at rush hour in a freeway interchange. Once you have an idea what's happening, though, an understanding that--unlike the drivers in a freeway interchange--these drivers are all trying to get to the same place and that time is of the essence, things become clearer.

Simple things are often the best, and the simplest way to keep track is usually the best: Watch the lead cars.

Cars line up according to their qualifying speeds, thus the fastest cars are at the head of the field.

Lots of things happen back in the pack but, usually, they have little to do with determining the winner. A notable exception is a fast driver in a fast car that qualified poorly or for some other reason had to start toward the back. A charge through the field by a driver in that situation can make any race a memorable event.

Generally, though, the action worth watching will be provided by the lead cars. Up front, the passes for position are obviously more important than those back in the pack, where you might be watching one lapped car passing another.

It's a good idea, before the race begins, to familiarize yourself with the car numbers and colors of the top qualifiers. That makes them easier to identify when they go by you at speed.

At some oval tracks, it's possible for fans to watch cars all around the course, which makes for ideal race watching. On a street course such as Long Beach, though, that's impossible. The best you can hope for is a corner or a straightaway leading into a corner. The idea is to sit as high in the stands as possible, giving yourself a chance to watch the cars coming into the turn or straightaway and then leaving.

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