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In '77, Long Beach Race Nearly Stopped

April 06, 2006|Shav Glick | Special to The Times

Mario Andretti's daring late-race pass of Jody Scheckter for victory in the 1977 Long Beach Grand Prix, then a race for Formula One cars and drivers, has long been considered the most exciting moment in the 31 years of racing on the seaside streets.

Andretti's win remains the only one in F1 by an American citizen on American soil.

More remarkable, though, was that the race actually was run.

When Bernie Ecclestone, head of the Formula One Constructors Assn. at the time, arrived in Long Beach a week before the race was scheduled, LBGP founder Chris Pook met him at the airport.

"Welcome to Long Beach, Bernard," he said. "Let me tell you what the problems are. We have no money."

There was no cash in the Grand Prix Assn. bank account, it had no credit, and union strikers had a picket line around the racetrack. The Formula One cars were at the airport, waiting to be unloaded. The FOCA fee was $800,000.

"No money, no race," Ecclestone said.

However, the little Britisher told Pook he would do what he could to help find finances.

"We were so short of cash that every couple of hours, we would run to the Long Beach Arena box office and take whatever money they had from advance ticket sales and run to the bank to cover checks we had just written," said Jim Michaelian, current CEO of what's now the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and then its financial officer. "We didn't have a dime's worth of credit."

That had been lost in midsummer when Pook and Michaelian cajoled more than 150 creditors into accepting 35 cents in cash and 20 cents in worthless Grand Prix stock on the dollar after the 1976 race had left the LBGP more than $425,000 in debt.

"Bernie went to bat for us, even though at the time we didn't have the money to cover the sanction fee," Pook recalled in an interview this week.

Ecclestone wanted the race to succeed. He knew the pulling power the publicity of a Monte Carlo West would have throughout the world's racing community. A month before he arrived in Long Beach, the Englishman had already saved the race once.

"When it looked like the Coastal Commission was going to eliminate us, I was in San Francisco for the meeting and called Bernie and told him that the race was about to be killed," Pook said. "I explained the situation, he thought about it a minute, then said calmly, 'Don't worry, leave it to me.'

"A couple of hours later, he called back and said, 'It's all handled.'

"He had called Prince [Paul Von] Metternich, the Austrian president of Commission Sportive Internationale, at the time the governing body of world motor sports, and explained the situation.

"The Prince called the U.S. Embassy and said it would be a travesty if a state commission could cause cancellation of a major international sporting event like Formula One. Someone in the embassy called the State Department, who in turn called Gov. Jerry Brown."

The vote was expected to be 9-3 against granting permission for the race, but the balloting was delayed until the following morning.

"I was expecting the worse when they convened in executive session," Pook said. "Thirty-five minutes later, they came out and announced the vote as 9-2 with one abstaining. For the race."

Sometime later, Pook learned that six of the commissioners had been appointed by Brown.

So, construction started on the street course, positioning the concrete barriers, installing the screening, bringing in 60,000 seats, all the things necessary for a street race.

"One morning, I arrived at the course and there were 150 union pickets marching with 'Grand Prix Non-Union' signs," Pook recalled. Again, he turned to Ecclestone.

"Bernie said, 'Tell them you'll sign an agreement to be a union house, starting in 1978. Trust me, they'll agree to it.'

"So that's what I did. I went to a union meeting, explained my case, and they told me, 'We'll let you continue to use scab labor for the rest of 1977, but you will sign an agreement to be union next year.' I agreed, and before I got back to the office, the pickets were gone. We became a union shop the next year and have been every year since."

First National City Bank, which was using Formula One to publicize its new traveler's check program worldwide, was the race sponsor. Ecclestone saw that as a wedge to save the race.

When the LBGP Committee of 300 held a reception at the Long Beach Yacht Club during race week, Ecclestone approached Fred Stecher, Citicorp president, and said, "Mr. Stecher, I hear you have 5,000 guests coming to the paddock Sunday and another 400 in your suites. What if I told you they were going to very disappointed because, unfortunately, it looks as if there will be no race."

Ecclestone explained the financial problem.

"About twenty minutes later," Pook recalled, "Stecher asked for a meeting and said, 'Don't worry, there's going to be a race.' He said First National would lend the LBGP enough to help save the race, but only if the Grand Prix board would do the same.

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