TBT: Grand Prix of Long Beach
Back in December 2020, the craze on the internet in terms of iRacing was the launch of the new Grand Prix of Long Beach circuit for the online racing platform. Situated on the shoreline of Long Beach, California, the GPLB is one of the legendary temporary circuits in North America and around the world. Now, thanks to the growth of the iRacing online racing platform, gamers and eSports competitors can enjoy speeding through the streets without leaving their home.
I began this article after that time, looking at the past of the circuit and how it is related to karting. With the NTT IndyCar Series set to host its 2021 series finale there this weekend, it is now time to debut this article.
The original Long Beach Grand Prix was held in 1975, welcoming the popular Formula 5000 cars with a field of drivers that included Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Jody Scheckter, David Hobbs, Gordon Johncock, and more. The following year, Formula One made its debut on the city streets of Long Beach, and ran there until 1983. Notable F1 winners include Andretti (1977), Gilles Villeneuve (1979), Nelson Piquet (1980), and Niki Lauda (1982). In 1984, Champ Car took over as the headline division of the event at LBGP and has continued up until 2020 when the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also posted on social media have been videos showing karts racing around the Long Beach Grand Prix. While the karts you see today at the LBGP are typically rental karts set up inside the paddock for spectators to get their own thrill of speed, karts were part of the action on the track in the past. Karting has been part of the history at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, dating back to 1981. For five straight years, the sport was welcomed to compete on the city streets, between the concrete walls along the shoreline. Each of the five times karts raced at Long Beach set new karting records for racing in front of a crowd. Thousands of spectators would line around the circuit and fill the many grandstands.
The first Bridgestone Pro Kart Challenge was held in conjunction with the 1981 Long Beach Grand Prix with 30 ‘GPX’ karts taking to the streets. The GPX karts were what we call B-Stock, or twin-engine laydown karts featuring two 100cc engines. Karters were only given two practice sessions total (20 minutes each day) before having their ‘exhibition’ race on Sunday. The event was cut short (according to article in Karter News – May 1981) due to TV network schedules for the F1 race.
The quickest driver in qualifying was a young driver by the name of Scott Pruett. A lap of 1:46.924 put him on the pole position next to karting legend Terry Ives. After a thrilling but shortened main event, Brian Schaeffer reached the checkered flag first ahead of Ives and Pruett. Looking at the entry list, the majority of the drivers were from California, aside from WKA Hall of Fame driver from Michigan Jim Farr – who continues to road race today – and the legendary Lynn Haddock from Tennessee.
Stuart Rowlands provided the play-by-play at the inaugural event. Based in Los Angeles, Rowlands is an expert in national and international public relations, publicity, and consulting. For more than 30 years, he has worked with major clients including the Nobel Peace Prize, IMG, The Quebec Ministry of Tourism, Ghana Government, Honda Racing Corporation, Colgate-Palmolive, Bridgestone, Lucas Oil, MAVTV, and in his earlier career, some of the larger riots in rock music concert history.
I loved the early 1980’s. In late 1979, I had left my job at IMG in Cleveland, Ohio to return to LA and open my own PR shop. I was very fortunate to land Bridgestone Tires as one of my first clients and we were literally off to the races. Bridgestone wanted to establish itself in the tire market in the USA and had chosen Karting as its entry sport.
My job was to maximize radio, TV, and newspaper coverage as much as possible by writing releases pitching stories, supplying results and generally expanding Karting awareness to a much larger audience. For the first few months I was on-site on the West Coast and Mid-West for IKF and WKA sanctioned sprint and Enduro events working with IKF then President Doug Stokes. I met the drivers and in many cases their families, and pitched the local media gradually growing my contacts. As I now know, Karting is a grass roots sport and for most competitors this was a fun family affair competing against their peers, but for a talented few, it is a springboard or entry point to possible fame and fortune in stock cars, open wheel, and sports car racing.
In the 1980’s Bridgestone was tied very closely to Toyota as OEM tires and everywhere Toyota sponsored events, including golf (LA Open) and motor racing (The US Toyota Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix West) Bridgestone followed. As you are aware Toyota’s Celebrity race was and is a big draw at both Grand Prix and still is at Long Beach). Like Toyota, Bridgestone wanted to create their own series with potential national exposure – and so the Bridgestone Kart Series was born.
The city of Long Beach was only about an hour and a half drive from my office in Beverly Hills. As a town it had always seemed a bit seedy and old fashioned. But on that weekend March 1981 Long Beach itself was bedlam and as the BBC later named it “the Monaco of the New World”. Full of noise and flags and banners waving in the offshore breeze, the F1 cars timing and practice filled the air with sonic booms rebounding off the skyscrapers on Ocean Boulevard.
Although not the main attraction Karts at Long Beach were an attractive addition to the weekend’s event. Not as noisy as F1’s they fitted nicely into the “show.” Bedded down off to one side of the pits the Bridgestone Kart Series was ready to launch. I was excited but worried about the Enduro’s ability to be able to stay out of the concrete barriers and envisioned plenty of ‘yellow cautions and perhaps a ‘red.’ 20 Enduro Karts – all twin 100cc Yamaha engined driven by the best young Karters in the country were for the first time ever to compete on the same Long Beach street course as the big boys. The F1 stars were out checking out the Karts with which many had honed their own skills on. Racers like Mario Andretti, Alan Jones, Jody Scheckter, and Emmerson Fittipaldi were seen wandering around in the Kart pits. As was Alain Prost who like Fittipaldi grew up racing Karts.
To be honest I was absolutely frazzled. I had been in Long Beach for most of the week, but I knew Saturday was going to be different and awfully hard. I drove down early Saturday morning knowing that I was announcing the Kart race as well as looking after my Bridgestone clients in the sponsors tent and making frequent runs to the press room to ensure that all the writers and broadcasters had their Karting media kits.
At the same time, I wanted to be a part of the Kart action and following an indigestible media breakfast of orange juice, lukewarm coffee, and bagels I rushed over to the Kart pits in the hope of saying hello to my new racer friends such as Kathy Hartman, Lynn Haddock and Scott Pruett. However, all were making frantic adjustments and apart from a wave or two I gave up and headed back to the broadcast booth which I think, if I remember rightly was a trailer located on Pine Avenue.
I had made my absolute broadcasting debut the previous October at the Kart Race in Watkins Glen. I was a feeling a bit cocky that Sunday morning since I had secured a local newspaper front-page story on the Kart race with great exposure for Bridgestone and had just shown it to my clients. After my meeting, I wandered over to the broadcast booth looming over the start/finish line. With the Kart Race about to start (it must have been about 11:00am) I wanted to make sure that both announcers had press kits and everything about Karting they needed). In fact, I expected to sit behind them and coach them as needed. I approached the announcers, handed them yet another media kit which they leafed through. One of them turned and said “so you know about Karting then? I said yes. With a smile he said, “take my chair, we are just going off for a quick lunch before the F1 warm up starts.” I was shaking inside. “Are we on live” I said. “We sure are” he grinned “We are broadcasting to 3 local radio stations and by the way there are 30,000 fans in the seats. Good luck!” Anyway, I called the race as I saw it, and nobody threw stones as I exited the booth so I must have done an OK job.
Armed with my book of Karter facts and driver bios I presented myself to the Race Steward in charge of the Broadcast Booth – a mobile home trailer located on Shoreline Drive. The steward sat me down at a large fold out table with a TV monitor and a microphone luckily on a long lead. The monitor showed the racers line up and I began my broadcast. All seemed well for the first few laps as Terry Ives, Brian Schaeffer and Scott Pruett among others did battle from the get-go. Without warning chaos erupted. Someone had cut off the TV feed (I found out later it was yet another lunchbreak) and my monitor went blank.
Now I was in trouble – I couldn’t leave the booth but I also couldn’t leave our race with ‘dead air’ for all the fans. As I’m sitting there flailing my arms, the Karts roared by my trailer window and over the start finish line. I rushed over to the window, but it was at an awkward angle to the track. I wrenched it open and leaned out – I could just see the track. Doing the best, I could, I captured the leader’s names and kept talking. Lap after lap went by and suddenly the steward tapped me on the shoulder “They’re calling the race early – they are running out of time,” he screamed (he had to scream as with the window open the noise was unbelievable). The Karts roared by me one last time and then there was an eerie silence. I called what I thought was the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place runners and sat back down at the table absolutely exhausted. The rest of the weekend was a blur.
Karts returned to the LBGP in 1982, this time as an official race under the Bridgestone Pro-Kart Invitational Race. A total of 40 made up the field for the April event, on a revised circuit from the previous year. The opening corner ‘Queen’s Hairpin’ was at the end of Shoreline Drive was replaced by a right-hand 90-degree corner that led into a new section of the track that led up to Ocean Boulevard. Changes were also made at the other end of the circuit, increasing the overall length of the course. Scott Pruett proved to be the driver to beat, securing fast time in qualifying with a 1:55.917, clearing the field by over one second. Lynn Haddock challenged Pruett early in the main event after qualifying fourth, but a spin at turn 7 put him behind. Pruett went on to score the victory with Haddock able to climb back up to second ahead of Terry Ives. Tom Hunter Jr. was fourth with ‘Mr. Daytona’ Randy Fulks in fifth.
One of karting’s legends is Randy Fulks, a karter since the 1960s who continues to race today. Fulks made his first start at the 1982 event, racing again in 1983, suffering an engine failure during the main event.
The reason I raced at Long Beach was because I qualified through the Pro Kart Race around the Phoenix International Raceway oval the weekend before. They reserved spots for select drivers and had 15-20 open spots. It was about 60 twin-engine laydowns racing for 45 laps round the oval in front of fans there to watch the IndyCars. My fourth-place finish at Phoenix gave me a spot to race at Long Beach.
Racing at Long Beach was unique, and made you feel important. Like us little karters were something special pitted alongside the Formula One cars. The crowd felt like we were at the Indy 500. They would cheer us on, even though they had no idea who we were. It was a difficult track to drive, but certainly one to remember. It was not just another race, it was an event.
Another track change for the Long Beach Grand Prix was highlighted for the Bridgestone Pro-Kart Invitational, and competing for a third year, was made to feel as part of the show and no longer the circus sideshow. Much of that was due to being part of the Formula One paddock area rather than a line of vans parked along Shoreline Drive. Track sessions increased with three 15-minute practices, one untimed, two qualifying, a warm-up and the 16-lap main event. With the multiple qualifying sessions, the driver was assigned the lap time based on which set of tires they ran for the main event. Haddock had the quickest lap overall in his second session – 1:50.267, but elected to race the tires run in the opening session which was slower, thus giving Pruett the pole position. Driving to a second straight victory, Pruett enjoyed the top position on the podium at the end of the main event. A 19-year-old Tod Spaude (TS Racing) made the trek from Florida to finish second after battling with Haddock early on. Mechanical issues dropped Haddock out of competition however. Despite a spin on the final circuit, Scott Kuntze ended up finishing third but missed the podium not knowing his finishing position.
A podium finisher that year – Scott Kuntze was one of a few to race in all five events. He is part of a karting family, in which is mother was the official score keeper and his dad was the race director. Both were heavily involved with the Southern California Karters organization that assisted in the karting side of the LBGP. The Kuntze family remains in the sport with his son among those as a racer and industry member Kyle Kuntze.
The 1983 event was actually the best year and the final time with Formula One. We were given even more track time as we were much more than just blip in the schedule. In fact, it was the first year we did the LeMans-style start right there on Shoreline. It was a rolling start in 1981 and moved to a standing start in 1982 with the old start/finish line. Walking out onto the straight with thousands of race fans really amped us up. The race began with me getting a bad start, falling way back and after I got rolling, the pace was there. I began passing karts lap after lap, but had no idea what position I was in. My crew was trying to signal me what position I was in each time I passed, but with the tall walls and the fencing, seeing them was next to impossible.
On the final circuit, I had lost my brakes and spun around. I kept the engines running and was able to continue, reaching the checkered flag. I was just happy to finish with a good pace, and rolled around to where the flagged us off the track, not thinking I had made the podium. When I got back, I was questioned as to why I did not continue around with the other top finishers to join the podium ceremonies. There wasn’t a thought of finishing on the podium when the checkered flag waved, just excited about passing as many karts as I did. Instead, my dad stood in for me during the ceremonies. I was however put on a golfcart to the media center where we were questioned by local, national and international press about the race. It was a bummer but I got to leave with the trophy, prize money, and memories of racing at Long Beach. I went as a kid to watch and being part of the event all five years was a dream come true. I was just a club racer at the time, and to go to a pro race like this, and be competitive with the fast guys from around the country who won everything meant the world to me.
The Long Beach Grand Prix came back in 1984 with a new look as Formula One left and the CART PPG Indy Car World Series took over as the headline event. It was the season opener for the program, won by eventual champion Mario Andretti. Thanks to the continued support of Bridgestone, the Pro-Kart Invitational returned for a fourth time, and this time racing for money with a $10,000 prize purse paid to the top-10. A ‘fourth time is a charm’ for Haddock, as the driver from Tennessee secured the victory for the first time, beating out 35 other drivers who took the green flag. Haddock piloted his Margay machine to a wire-to-wire victory in the 20-lap main event for the $3,500 payday. Jeff Nelson of Invader landed on the podium in second with Vince Puleo in third aboard an Emmick.
The winning chassis for Haddock, and in four of the five events at the Long Beach Grand Prix, was Margay. One of the long-standing American chassis manufacturers was a big part of road racing during that time, and continues to support racers in all forms under the ownership of Keith Freber.
I don’t know if you can put it in words. It elevated karting, and the perception of karting in the world of motorsports dramatically. Karting was the warm up act for F1! And what was even better, it was a form of karting that was purely U.S., developed and promoted here in the U.S. It wasn’t an import formula that was trying to be forced on a wary participant base. Twin engine, 200cc laydown enduros with full bodywork…and they were driven by the best drivers of the era, maybe the best in karting ever. No spec engines, no spec tires and the drivers were every bit as much mechanic, tuner and engineer as they were driver. If you were considered one of the best, you raced at Long Beach. If you wanted to race the best, you found your way to Long Beach. The results sheets are impressive.
Bridgestone not only supported the event financially but they also put some serious marketing muscle behind it as well. Then you had the PR and marketing/reporting efforts of Ron Black and Doug Stokes that really spun it up. It took the sport from underground status and put it on the national motorsports stage.
Karting returned as did CART in 1985 for another April weekend in Long Beach. A field of 40 drivers were in the paddock for the Bridgestone Pro Kart Invitational with all eyes on Haddock. One of the few drivers to compete in all five events, and as the defending champion. Haddock set the quickest lap of practice and qualifying, putting in even more focus for the rest of the drivers to attempt and bring down the defending champion. Early in the main event on Sunday, Haddock was challenged by host of drivers. By the midway point, Haddock established a solid lead and eventually earned his second straight victory at Long Beach. The fight on track was for second with Nelson and Spaude. In the end, Spaude reached the line ahead of Nelson with Ives and Rick Williams completing the top-five.
Lynn Haddock remains a vital part of karting here in the United States with his role under IAME USA and Superkarts! USA. From here in North America, to around the world – including the 1978 world karting championship with Lake Speed – Haddock has experienced it.
Karting at the Long Beach Grand Prix was more publicity than anything ever for the sport at that time. We had something similar when ESPN first started and covered the PKA event in the last 70s. In fact, that was one of the first productions ESPN did before they became what they are now. At first, it was just an exhibition, but it began a great relationship with the sport and Bridgestone tires. The event grew from there. Many of us, including myself, did not take it seriously until later. The first two years I borrowed a kart and then after that, began building a kart specifically for that race. As a driver, it was an event that you just had to be there, which was a challenge as it was an invitational-only event, so you had to earn it. What made it so prestigious was just that arena, racing on the same track as Formula One in front of thousands of spectators. It wasn’t like going to any other track. We considered it our ‘Monaco’ of the USA.
These are just a few stories from the five opportunities that karting enjoyed as part of the Long Beach Grand Prix. Many other historical names took part in the event, including Hartman, Speed, Sellegren, Hargens, Ito, Harper, Araki, Zartarian, Holmboe, McMurray, and others. It was an event that left a mark in many lives and solidified the sport of karting during the early 1980s. Below are a few YouTube videos and links regarding karts at the Long Beach Grand Prix.