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Long Beach revved and ready for Grand Prix week
The start of the 2007 Grand Prix
Doug Gifford
It is just one uplifting, noisy, joyful, thrilling weekend a year, when downtown Long Beach overflows with humanity as its restaurants and saloons and hotels and shops are packed and when the old city by the Pacific Ocean bursts with gaiety and pride.

It has been going on now since 1975, and spans redevelopment, the departure of the United States Navy, the razing of the original Pike, the Pine Avenue transformation, and the building of the spate of towering condominiums that dramatically has altered the Ocean Blvd. skyline.

It means laughter and fun for those inclined to drink and party, a windfall of profits for those who own businesses in the area, and the ultimate aesthetic experience for those who savor observing people.

It is, of course, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which will unfold once again this weekend and which began as a fanciful idea by a young English travel agent named Chris Pook and which has morphed into one of Southern California's most cherished annual athletic events right there with the Rose Bowl and the UCLA-USC football game.

For one memorable weekend a year, Long Beach sheds its conservative raiment, gets all garishly spruced up, and welcomes into its inner sanctum more than 150,000 folk for a raucous extravaganza of big-time car racing and myriad other titillating diversions geared to keeping the masses entertained.

As the great driver, Bobby Rahal, who will serve as grand marshal Sunday, says, the Long Beach race has become the second biggest open wheel one in America behind only the Indianapolis 500.

"The race, obviously, is good for so many of the local businesses, but it also gives our city tremendous national exposure," says Bob Foster, the Long Beach mayor. "It's a great gathering place for people of all ages and backgrounds to gather and have a lot of fun.

There are just so many things to see and do."

"The Toyota Grand Prix event and the city of Long Beach is an ideal example of what a public-private partnership should be," says Jim Michaelian, the Grand Prix boss. "Both parties work closely together to achieve strategic goals and to be successful."

So, as you get set to put in those ear plugs, lace up those walking shoes and ready yourself for four days of sustained excitement - the frenzied proceedings now actually commence on Thursday - here is what's bound to happen in the upcoming hours in Long Beach:

The Red Bull daredevil motorcyclists will elicit oohs and aahs with their daring antics Thursday evening on Pine Ave. ...

The bachelor publicist Kevin Wilkerson will once again have the dream assignment that all bachelor publicists fervidly desire - chaperoning the Grand Prix queen and her court to the various get-togethers. ...

Some wiseacre autograph hound will ask Toyota Celebrity race driver Drew Lachey if it's true, as the tabloids have claimed, that he had an affair with Cheryl Burke when they were partners on Dancing With The Stars. ...

Pine Ave. shoeshine legend James Brown will grouse about how precipitously his business falls off because of the race fans' propensity for wearing sneakers. ...

Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones will be all smiles and friendly when they - as well as Gary Gabelich posthumously - will be inducted into the Motorsports Walk of Fame Thursday, but such affability was never evident when these fierce pedal-to-the-medal chargers once competed against each other on the race track. ...

Long Beach's very own version of the Energizer Bunny, Jim Michaelian-sans brass drum, of course-will be bounding from one venue to another, overseeing all the activities he has helped create. ...

Someone will wonder why Wilmer Valderrama, Daniel Goddard and Raymond Cruz are considered celebrities, and Les Unger will wince perceptibly. Ol' Les is the long-time chief of the Toyota Celebrity race. ...

The attention span of the 18 to 35 set - notoriously short - won't drift when the Drifting cars slide around the circuit. ...

Graham Rahal will be offered a beer from an admirer, but will turn it down for legal reasons, if nothing else. The kid is a mere 19. ...

Downtown bartenders will quadruple their tips, as though it were New Year's Eve.

"I'd be living on the French Rivera if there was a Grand Prix every weekend in Long Beach," says the Hyatt Regency's Gorgeous George Copeland, who, as it is, isn't doing badly as he owns a vacation villa in exotic Ensenada ...

Signal Hill tire guru Nate Jones will be overseeing the paddock area, as he has done since the race started. ...

A few unfortunate souls will be busted for public intoxication and get to sample the culturally exquisite experience of interacting with the delightful patrons in the drunk tank at the Long Beach jail. ...

Those trying to watch their calories will eat too much and those trying to cut back on liquor will drink too much. ...

Those with sensitive skin will forget to wear hats and get sun burned and those with sensitive ears will forget to wear earplugs and will hear ringing for a few days. ... Long Beach Press Telegram

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