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All revved up for a day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

It's a party in the sun for spectators and addictive fun for drivers. And it's in Long Beach.

April 21, 2013|Chris Erskine
  • LONG BEACH, CA. --APRIL 19, 2013: Comedian Wanda Sykes signs autographs after racing in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity event on Saturday in Long Beach.
LONG BEACH, CA. --APRIL 19, 2013: Comedian Wanda Sykes signs autographs… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

I've tumbled down another rabbit hole, wound up in Long Beach, which isn't a worst-case scenario, though close. The cars here all need mufflers, the young fans need more clothes. What kind of sordid little event is this?

Indy car racing had always been pretty much a mystery to me, then it split off into two separate circuits, then NASCAR got huge (overwhelming it), then suddenly the big names aged out of the sport. Or worse, died.

Sure, more pretty-boy drivers came along, but they seemed like robots. It was sort of like pro golf — except not quite that robotic.

So why am I down at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach?

Because auto racing is the most fun you can have with your clothes half on.

Yep, from what I can tell, this Grand Prix appears to be a clothing-optional event, a Woodstock with mag wheels.

What a relief, this sunshine. Last year's rain was pure misery. Grand Prix queen Stephani Costanza remembers taking a lap in a hydroplaning pace car and demanding to be let out.

"I was scared to death," she recalls.

It's worth noting that they don't hold this race on a track. They hold it downtown, by the aquarium and the Hyatt, along the same boulevards you might find yourself some idle summer day before realizing: "YIKES, I'M IN LONG BEACH? GET ME OUTTA HERE!"

I kid you, Long Beach, because I care. You're not so bad. In many ways, you are more functional, more fun, more manageable than your big-city neighbor. And you've got this amazing little rally each spring.

Listen, I know not where the Long Beach Grand Prix fits in the whole scheme of things. All I know is that the Indy 500 also features these open-wheel beasts, but that's 200 laps on a banked course. This is a two-hour race on flat city streets — past Shoreline Village, loop-de-looping around the fountain — by the same drivers, fighting for the IndyCar series.

From what I can glean, the season began in March and has almost 20 such events — some street races, some raceway — and it ends back here Oct. 19 in Fontana, after which a champion is crowned based on points.

That's a pretty good SoCal presence: two stops out of 19 total races. After this weekend, off they go to Brazil, then Detroit and into summer, two or three events a month.

It's a world I only pretend to understand — much like the rest of the world. But I do appreciate it. Because the other day, I took a couple of laps around the two-mile trapezoid and am now convinced that if everyone in America got one thrill ride around a racecourse with a pro at the wheel, it would threaten to become our biggest sport — bigger than sex, bigger than embezzlement, bigger almost than football.

Driver Oriol Servia explains:

"In a street race, you have to be aggressive . . . you have two hours, with two or three pit stops, 30 people working together as a team per car.

"That's what makes you addicted," the Santa Monica resident says. "Every two weekends, as a team, you just put it out there."

Know what makes me addicted? Addictive stuff.

Such as the Grand Prix's ground-shaking growls. (Auto racing is the only sport that needs a rabies shot.)

Or the entertainment areas, where the drinks flow, the music plays. Celebrities prepare to circle the course in their souped-up Scions. Gear heads wander amid the Porsches in the Le Mans paddock.

Along the water, it feels 10 degrees cooler, and you can almost hear again. There are food trucks and miles of merchandise. Tecate beer runs in vast, cold rivers.

Of course, the race is the thing, and it's hard to overestimate what the Grand Prix has meant to Long Beach, in terms of its downtown resurgence. When it started 40 years ago, promoters used to cover up the tattoo parlors and sailor bars along Ocean Boulevard.

Today, Long Beach can barely contain its Grand Prix good fortune. Party yachts grace the harbor. Party girls fill the busy Mai Tai Bar. The late-afternoon sun catches the palm trees square in the jaw.

Back on the track, the offspring of Andretti and Rahal work behind the wheels. An alum from "Dancing With the Stars" (Helio Castroneves) is one of the favorites.

Sure, the race is the thing. But best suntan wins.

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