Sometime in the fall of 1973, Dan Gurney was showing a couple of visitors through his All American Racers shop in Santa Ana when he casually asked, "What would you guys think of a Formula One race in Long Beach?"
"Long Beach! Are you kidding?" I blurted out. "Where, up and over Signal Hill," I added, facetiously.
"No, right down Ocean Boulevard," Gurney said.
"That is the silliest thing I ever heard," I replied.
Harold Hogan, then with Times special events, was more gracious, commenting, "It sounds sort of like Monte Carlo, but Long Beach isn't quite Monaco."
"Where in the world did you get a crazy idea like that?" I asked Gurney.
"Some travel agent from England asked me to help him get a race there," Gurney said. "I thought he was touched in the head when he started talking about it, but the more he talked, the better the idea sounded. I think he's about sold the Long Beach city fathers on it."
The travel agent was Chris Pook.
The silliest thing I ever heard of will have its 30th running April 18, not down Ocean Boulevard but still in downtown Long Beach -- a totally different downtown.
Thirty years ago, Ocean Boulevard wasn't the businesslike thoroughfare it is today with its fashionable hotels, its World Trade Center and Wells Fargo building. Then, it was largely seedy bars, porn parlors and pawn shops catering to servicemen.
On Sept. 28, 1975, when a Formula 5000 race was held so that Pook could demonstrate to the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile that he could fulfill his promises, the main Ocean Boulevard attractions were the Majestic Theatre, showing X-rated "Sodom & Gomorrah," the Senior Citizens' Recreation Center, International Tower, Breakers International Hotel and the Prestige Apartments, where a penthouse suite served as race headquarters.
Only the Long Beach Arena, Rainbow Lagoon and an under-construction Convention Center and Auditorium were inside the two-mile track. There was no sign of a Hyatt Regency hotel.
Race day was like nothing ever experienced in downtown Long Beach. Of the estimated 75,000 spectators, about 20,000 were outside the circuit, hanging from the balconies, rooftops and windows of the Kona, the Breakers and the International Tower, many with cool drinks in hand.
It was not lost on citizens that cars were screaming at 170 mph down streets posted with a 40-mph speed limit.
The late Allen Wolfe asked in the Long Beach Press-Telegram: "Can a city whose athletic tradition is steeped in lawn bowling, checkers and day boats out of Belmont Pier find true happiness as a mecca for international Grand Prix racing?"
Mario Andretti, who proved to be the catalyst for the success of the event when he won the Long Beach race in 1977 and the Formula One championship the following year, was as skeptical as the rest of us.
"I never thought it would happen in America," Andretti said on the eve of the inaugural race, which was won by British driver Brian Redman.
True to Pook's concept of producing an "international" race, the first six finishers were foreign drivers.
It also passed muster with the FIA, which sanctioned an unprecedented second Formula One race in the United States for March 1976. Also on the schedule was the traditional October race at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Where did this audacious idea come from?
Pook said he got the idea while he was sitting in his American Aviation Travel Services office in downtown Long Beach, listening to the rain-shortened Indianapolis 500 in 1973.
"The thought came to me that we ought to hold a race, a Monaco-style Grand Prix, in Long Beach," recalled Pook, who began following his dream by inviting members of the city's convention bureau to lunch in his favorite booth at Lombardo's on Linden Avenue, just off Ocean Boulevard. It was there that he sold the idea.
"I kept going back to that same booth when I talked with Gurney, and Les Richter, and newspaper guys who never thought [a race] would happen. It was my lucky booth," Pook said.
The 555 Chop House now occupies the old Lombardo's site.
"The weather, the locale, everything was perfect, except that everybody I talked with thought I was nuts," Pook continued. "Gurney said he thought I was crazy. Richter said I was nuts. So did you," he added with a smirk.
But he persisted.
Pook had seen signs proclaiming Long Beach an "International City," and he had seen the Queen Mary berthed in the harbor, but he felt his adopted city needed more. He also knew that with his contacts, if a Formula One race came to Long Beach, he could reap a lot of business for his travel agency.
"The Long Beach Grand Prix will be more than a race, it will be a merchandising tool for the city," said the Briton, who had arrived in Long Beach in 1967 as a 26-year-old.
"The city has an identity problem," he told the Chamber of Commerce and Convention Bureau.