A whiff of celebrity and exhaust has already blown into Long Beach, as it does every April with the arrival of the civic cash cow called the Grand Prix.
Actors and athletes, a model and an astronaut -- even professional race car drivers -- have already screamed around the 1.9-mile course looping the waterfront, prepping for the annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach next weekend.
As many as 250,000 racing fans will crowd the streets of downtown Long Beach between Friday and Sunday, having bought out every major hotel and high-rise parking lot for a street race advertised as "the world's fastest beach party."
"It's definitely the crown jewel of the circuit," said driver Jimmy Vasser, last year's champion, as he chauffeured yet another reporter around the track at 120 mph.
This was last week, during another Grand Prix tradition: celebrity media day. And with ride-alongs like this, and star presence uncommon to Long Beach -- except occasional sightings of native Cameron Diaz -- the odds for good press are excellent.
And that is good for the state's fifth-largest city, the size of Cleveland but ever in the shadow of L.A.
The race is international, with only two American drivers. It is televised and attracts international media: One of Mexico's most popular pro athletes, driver Adrian Fernandez, is a big draw.
This year's race also comes as Long Beach finally appears closer to finishing an ambitious, though controversial, waterfront compound of restaurants and theaters -- a project it hopes will help anchor its downtown as a bigger business and tourist draw.
With a backdrop of towering rebar and skyscraping cranes, the race course winds around what has been a shifting landscape of massive construction downtown of about 3,000 residential units, plus commercial buildings.
But the construction has not disrupted the race, beyond forcing the relocation of some of the huge grandstands that line Shoreline Drive and other spots.
The Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau and the city did not have independent numbers, but use the Grand Prix's estimate that the race funnels approximately $40 million into the city, directly and indirectly, from the private race promoter's fees to corporate sponsorships and tourism. Of the roughly 4,000 hotel rooms in the city, virtually all are sold out at premium rates for the race weekend. John Morris, owner of Mum's restaurant on Pine Avenue, in the heart of downtown, said the race draws so much business that even his patio is booked a year out.
"It is the great people-watching weekend," Morris said. "I'm not too sure how many of these people come for the race. I think it's a happening, and Long Beach has been doing it for so many years that people know it's a party.... There are a lot of celebrities -- Paul Newman and David Letterman and all the celebrity drivers."
And, he added, "It couldn't come at a better time for businesses downtown.... The economy, the war, the convention business hasn't been real strong.... So this is something we've been looking forward to. It's three weekends of business in one."
For a city warned by a financial consultant last month to slash workforce costs or face potential bankruptcy, this giant street party is a very good thing.
Crowd control and safety will be especially tricky this year, in light of the war. And the port complex just across Long Beach Harbor from the Grand Prix has been ranked as high as third on the West Coast for potential terrorism targets.
Long Beach Police Sgt. Ron Haun, who oversees the department's policing at the Grand Prix, said enough officers will be working to manage the crowd.
He said last year's attendance was down some, probably a reaction to Sept. 11, but his department is bracing for as many as 250,000 between Friday and Sunday. The largest single-day attendance is Sunday, when promoters estimate 100,000 may attend.
When the race was introduced 29 years ago, Long Beach was a starkly different place.
That first year, race banners blotted out signs for X-rated movie theaters, tattoo joints and porn parlors, and race cars zoomed around a once-great downtown, which thrived when visitors flocked to the shore and the legendary Pike amusement park. By the 1970s, the area had gone seedy.
At that time, a guy who owned a small travel agency cooked up the idea of staging a car race to attract people to Long Beach. His name was Chris Pook, and locally he is something of a legend, if not widely known outside race circles. Pook still divides his time between Long Beach and Indianapolis, where he runs Championship Auto Racing Teams, the NBA of car racing.
"We did have a crazy idea back in the 1970s of what we could do and should do," Pook said last week. Pook was honored with a plaque, embedded in a monument honoring the Grand Prix, that thanks him for crafting a race that "immeasurably changed the face of an entire city."
Whatever the exact numbers, the Grand Prix has brought enough good in the past generation that even residents who detest the deafening engines and view them as amplified buzzing flies tolerate clogged downtown streets and overflow traffic.
And those who live in the thunder of the race course can be bused, compliments of the Grand Prix, for two-day trips to the zoo and outlet shopping.
Apart from race refugees, the only creatures who do not have it so good are the fish at the Aquarium of the Pacific, which shuts down for four days in April while the race cars scream by.