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Grand Prix caps another successful weekend in Long Beach
It was poetically fitting that the 27-year-old driver from England, Mike Conway, who survived a horrific accident at last year's Indianapolis 500 and who was in 22nd place after 30 laps, would emerge victorious Sunday in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

After all, all sorts of other surprising developments also unfolded in this city's highest profile attraction that once again turned out to be a successful festival of racing, eating, drinking, laughing, cheering, frolicking and people-gazing.

For one thing, the weather, which had been clear and warm the previous two days, turned cool and marine layer gray until the sun finally broke through shortly after the proceedings commenced at 1:29.

Alas, that was too late for the parachutists -- their jump was canceled -- and even delayed the F-18 flyover about 10 minutes.

When the two jets finally appeared overhead under the cloud cover, they were no more than 800 feet above ground in an exciting close encounter for the shrieking turnout of 70,000 that upped the three-day total to around 175,000.

For another thing, the president/CEO of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Jim Michaelian, known as the Energizer Bunny because of his vigorous manner and boundless enthusiasm, could barely stand up throughout the day, much less walk, because of a serious back spasm that also negatively impacted his left leg.

"I've never felt so debilitated in my life," said Michaelian as he limped through the pressroom afterward holding on to chairs as he grimaced in pain.

And yet another unusual occurrence was the sight of a five-time Cy Young winning lefthander with 303 career victories, Randy Johnson, busily shooting pictures of the action.

"This is not the first time I've used a camera in Long Beach," he said. "When I was attending USC and majoring in photography, I came down to the Long Beach Arena a couple of times to shoot events for the Daily Trojan."

"I don't think I'm going out on the limb by saying Randy is the tallest photographer to ever work our event," cracked publicist Gordon Morris of the 6-foot-10 Johnson.

And then there was the race itself with Conway earning his first IZOD IndyCar Series triumph after 23 starts in what was a memorable climax to a stirring comeback from that frightening final lap Indy 500 crash last spring that left him with a fractured leg, a broken back and an uncertain future.

For much of the off-season, Conway hadn't found himself a ride until Michael Andretti finally decided to sign him to his Andretti Autosport team.

It turned out to be a wise move by Andretti, whose organization also won last year's race with Ryan Hunter-Reay.

It wasn't a totally joyful afternoon for Andretti as his son, Marco Andretti, made a serious driving miscalculation when he slammed into Sebastien Bourdais as the two sped out of the pits, causing an accident that knocked both men out of the competition after a mere 27 laps.

"My fault ... I'm sorry," Andretti could be heard saying over the cable TV feed.

"What the (expletive deleted)," replied an angered Bourdais, who wound up finishing last in a race that he has won on three occasions.

While the climate never matched past meteorological levels of a race that began in 1975 and never has been disrupted by rain -- the temperature was 62 at the start and was 65 at the end -- the circuit swarmed with thousands of people enjoying the various offerings.

In the Convention Center's main exhibition hall, they were pitching car wax, pain relief medicine, potato chips, sunglasses, golf clubs, cutlery, erectile dysfunction drugs, T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, bicycles, fitness machines, soft drinks, pistachios, motorcycles, solar energy, the California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Marines, etc., etc, etc.

In the arena, kids were having a blast watching the BMX Pros' cyclists and skateboards perform their dangerous tricks, as well as participating in various jumping and leaping activities on those inflated bounce castles.

There was a prominent Long Beach grownup, Bob Foster, its revered mayor, who also had a blast when for the fourth straight year he took a brisk lap around the lap in one of his cars.

This time it was in his recently purchased two-seater XLR V Series, 2006 Cadillac with his friend Ross Riddle, a Long Beach shingle roof mogul.

"Almost crashed on turn one," he said. "Got it up to 110 miles an hour, on the straightaway but should have gone faster."

As always, Foster was in Victory Lane afterward to present one of the podium drivers with a trophy.

A year ago, he gave it to the third place finisher Will Power, but, clearly, ol' Bob is moving up in the pecking order among those who make such vital decisions for the Grand Prix Association.

This time it was Nick Sramek, president of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners who handled the third place duties, presenting Dario Franchitti with his honor.

And, after Firestone Director of Motorsports Allen Speyer, gave runner-up Ryan Briscoe his award, Mr. Foster proudly walked out to the Victory Lane stand amid the clicks of cameras and claps of fans and bestowed the winner, Mike Conway, with his prize.

"What a great day for Long Beach," said Foster, whose most enjoyable time, easily, came during his fast tour around the 11-turn, 1.968-mile lap.

It wasn't a great day for poor Jim Michaelian, although a slight smile crept across his face when he mentioned the attendance figures.

"The energy and enthusiasm and crowd count are going back to the days when we had all the teams together," he said. "This turned out to be a great day." Long Beach Press Telegram

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