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Long Beach race a big hit with IRL crowd UPDATE By all accounts the Grand Prix of Long Beach was a success for the Indy Racing League. The IRL, which signed a five-year deal to take over the former CART event following last season, was greeted by larger crowds (than 2008), increased corporate hospitality activity and strong retail sales, according to several sources at the weekend event this past Friday through Sunday.

All this despite 11.5 percent local unemployment. Long Beach Grand Prix President Jim Michaelian said attendance was up considerably from 2008. He said 10 percent seating capacity was added over last year, but still more is needed to reach the capacity of the race’s salad days.

Traffic on Interstate 710 was more crowded and backed up than it has been since 1999 or 2000, several local media outlets reported. Hot Wheels ran out of merchandise early Sunday, according to Mattel officials, and several other merchandisers reported strong sales.

Vivienne Tondreault, who has been a volunteer Grand Prix race worker and organizer for two decades, credited the weather and the allure of IRL drivers with driving the crowd up. “The Indy Racing League has brought out new fans in droves,” she said. “The attendance is noticeably higher.”

Race organizers don’t think they got a huge attendance bump from Helio Castroneves’ participation because it was announced so late.

“We were pleased by the event, and we think there’s room for growth,” said IRL spokesman John Griffin. “The crowds Friday afternoon were pretty incredible. And we heard from race officials that hospitality activity was way up. There’s little doubt this will become a highlight on the [IRL] schedule and has the potential to be a top 5 race in our series.” IBJ.com

04/21/09 Barely recovered from the 35th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach this past weekend, Grand Prix Association of Long Beach President and CEO Jim Michaelian is already looking ahead.

"We're already looking forward to next year, taking a look at what we can add to our weekend to enhance the experience for our fans," Michaelian said as workers on Monday began clearing out the remnants of this past weekend's festivities.

Despite the economy, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach saw an increase in the number of people who came to the event over last year, Michaelian said.

Although attendance numbers didn't quite reach the association's target goal of 180,000 over the three-day weekend, it did exceed last year's attendance with more than 175,000. (Last year's attendance was 170,000, he said.)

"The good news is, in a tough economic climate, we exceeded what we did last year, and we're starting to trend upward, which I think is the best sign of all," Michaelian said.

The economic downturn did affect the Long Beach event, starting with the loss of sponsors Imperial Capital Bank and EZ Lube, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December.

However, the event recouped its cachet with new sponsors such as tobacco company Philip Morris and NOS, the Coca-Cola product that served as this year's official energy drink of the Grand Prix.

And in anticipation of the Indy Racing League event coming to Long Beach since the merger of Champ Car and IRL, organizers this year increased reserved seating capacity by about 10 percent.

But the extra seats, used to capitalize on the fans interested in seeing Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and this year's Grand Prix race winner Dario Franchitti, were added in the early summer, prior to the economic meltdown.

"But we still wanted to participate in the process of rebuilding or expanding on our seating capacity," Michaelian said. "So our challenge now is to fill those remaining seats next year."

While Sunday was the biggest day attendance-wise, the real surprise was the attendance Friday, due in large part to the 14 sponsors who offered free Friday tickets with product purchases, Michaelian said.

As a result, a significant part of that program as well as paid customers resulted in approximately 50,000 people on Friday, a 10 percent increase in attendance on that day. (Traditionally, attendance for Friday numbers in the low 40,000s.)

"(Friday) was very strong and it built as the weekend went along through Saturday and Sunday," he said.

Michaelian also reported that concession business was either up or even, but higher-end merchandise business didn't do as well as it did in the past.

"It's probably reasonable under these economic circumstances," he said. "Our merchandise sales were good but didn't match last year's and it was primarily higher-end.

"Those were the areas in which I think everybody felt the effect of what's going on," he said.

"We don't operate in a vacuum or a bubble here, and that's one of the things why we were heartened by what transpired here. Despite the news of double-digit unemployment and the economic woes going on in the region, we had by many accounts a successful event. It gives us great anticipation in terms of what the future holds because we now have become a regular stop in the IRL circuit for years to come."

Lively downtown

The event's attendance was certainly felt downtown, where many of the hotels were sold out this past weekend, especially Saturday night, said Steve Goodling, Long Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau president and CEO.

"As difficult as the economy has been, it was wonderful to see a lot of people returning for the race," Goodling said, adding that it was "an injection of adrenaline" for downtown.

The weekend's events, such as Thunder Thursday on Pine Avenue, draw people out of the Grand Prix event and down to Pine Avenue.

"It's the best four days of the year for me, and April is not my best month," said Taco Beach owner Kevan Vance. "Years before, I remember people didn't come up quite as much as they do now because of the event. I think it makes people know that Pine is here." Long Beach Press Telegram

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