|Mario Andretti made Long Beach when he outdueled Jody Scheckter and Niki Lauda in the 1977 F1 race.|
The Long Beach Grand Prix was struggling financially, its long-term viability in doubt, in 1977 when Mario Andretti delivered a dramatic victory. On that day he became the first American to win a Formula 1 race on American soil.
LBGP founder Chris Pook credits Andretti's triumph with saving the event, taking it from shaky to firm ground. The racing event through the streets of Long Beach runs for the 38th time this weekend, by far the oldest race of its kind in America. It has become a festival of fun with speed and sunshine. The American Le Mans Series is the feature event on Saturday, the IZOD IndyCar Series on Sunday.
The Andretti legacy at Long Beach isn't limited to 1977. Pook's organization was having problems turning a profit despite raceday crowds of 80,000 for F1 in the early 1980s. The contract with F1 ended following the 1983 race and F1 deal maker Bernie Ecclestone was being difficult in negotiations, as he's been known to be. Pook looked for a series that would allow the LBGP to make money and signed a substantially less costly deal to bring CART, then in charge of IndyCar racing, to Long Beach in 1984.
The next year was a nervous time in Long Beach. After eight years of F1, organizers wondered: Would the public accept a series that had traditionally run on ovals? It was the first IndyCar-style race on actual public roads since 1920 at Elgin, Ill.
|Long Beach 2002, Michael Andretti's last CART IndyCar win. He got his first CART IndyCar win at Long Beach as well|
Andretti had returned from F1 to run full-time in CART in 1982, and he led all 112 laps in a victory that first year. The crowd was down slightly and Andretti's popularity brought it back to F1 levels by the next year. Andretti's 1985 triumph at Long Beach sent the race into a growth period that lasted over 15 years.
The Andretti family wasn't done at Long Beach. In 1986, Michael, in the second race of his third full season, out-dueled Al Unser Jr. for his first IndyCar win. The massive crowd, estimated at 90,000 including those non-paying fans who watched from roof tops and apartments, roared at every turn in the closing laps. Unser caught up in the heavy braking turns, but could never get underneath Andretti to make the pass.
It became the day the next generation took over in IndyCar racing. Unser went on to win the race six times, including four in a row. Michael Andretti's 42nd and last IndyCar win was at Long Beach in 2002. More on Tim Tuttle's article at SI.com