Sunday in Long Beach started with a thick marine layer that hung around most of the day. It was see-your-breath cold at the Grand Prix of Long Beach track, and cars sported condensation contrails as they zipped around the course.
The Firestone Indy Lights cars had a 15-minute warm-up at 8 AM in preparation for their race at 11. The crowds were a bit thin that early in the morning but filled in pretty nicely as the day went along.
While waiting for the Lights to start their engines, I attended a press conference presenting five-time Cy Young Award–winning pitcher Randy Johnson as a photographer. Johnson studied photography in college and since his retirement from baseball has now jumped into photography with both feet. He was at the race as a guest of Team Penske and said he enjoyed having a chance to learn about other professions as well as talk with professional photographers who have been shooting racing for decades. He’s also shot NASCAR and NHRA events, and when asked if he’d be shooting more IndyCar races, he said there was a good chance of that and that if anyone happens to see a seven-foot photographer on pit lane later this season, that would probably be him. Johnson seriously lives up to his Big Unit nickname — one of the racing photographers asked him if he realized he was the first subject of a presser all weekend whose face was actually fully visible over the microphones. That got big laughs. A couple of guys sitting near me wondered if Danica would be available for a photo op with him.
After the Johnson press conference, I wandered through the new Fan Village, which is a much-improved experience for fans and potential fans alike. The National Guard has a large area there with physical activities, exhibits and a show car. Dan Wheldon’s BHA/Curb/Agajanian William Rast car for the Indy 500 was also on display. Verizon had an impressive interactive setup showcasing IndyCar content on their various devices and also has simulated racing that fans can participate in. There’s a new, modern stage for Q&A sessions, and big signboards spell out the day’s activity schedule. There was a big line-up to sign up for a photo op with Danica Patrick and Dario Franchitti, neither of whom was there in person at the time. I didn’t have time to get more details on how that worked, but it was the most popular spot in the Village. There are numerous check-in locations for INDYCAR Nation members (and there were lines at some of them), a chance to take your photo with a Mario Andretti stand-up for use on Facebook, and the merchandise in the INDYCAR Store represented a strong upgrade in quantity and selection. Kudos to INDYCAR for talking a big step forward in upgrading the fan experience. I didn’t have a lot of time to interact with the displays, but I look forward to doing so at Indianapolis.
It was a day for first-time race winners. Conor Daly, the 19-year-old son of Formula 1 and Indy car driver Derek Daly, won his first race in Firestone Indy Lights competition, continuing his strong showing in the IZOD IndyCar Series feeder system. Daly also runs GP3 in Europe and will spend the summer there before returning to FIL in August. In the big cars, Andretti Autosport’s Mike Conway completed a fantastic comeback from his horrific crash at last year’s Indy 500 by winning his first IICS race. Conway has shown flashes of speed in the IndyCars but often didn’t get to the end of races. This time he made the most of the opportunity — after several late-race melees involving cars in various areas on the track, Conway found himself behind leader Ryan Briscoe, who he picked off six laps later. It seems clear that Conway has arrived and will be a driver to contend with from now on.
It was a day of awful starts. The FIL race start was waived due to improper alignment, and the IndyCars essentially ignored the double-file format and melded into a single flow of cars going into turn 1. (However, they also completed the first lap without incident.) The restarts were the same most of the race — until lap 66, when Helio Castroneves took out teammate and fellow race contender Will Power.
It was also a day of penalties for Paul Tracy, who was dinged for avoidable contact for spinning Simona de Silvestro, then was dinged again for a pit speed violation. Tracy’s 2011 debut saw him near the back of the pack all day as a result. Some wondered if Helio would also be penalized for turning Justin Wilson around, but Helio delivered a self-penalty when the contact with his teammate put him out of contention.
And yes, EJ Viso introduced his machine to a wall during the race. He’s averaging two wrecks per weekend at this early stage of the season.
Overall, the 2011 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was a bit of a parade for the first two-thirds of the race, but once the pile-ups shook things up, the race became an exciting dash to the finish. With a deep, competitive field, I think we can expect more racing action like this to break out as the season progresses. As an event, Sunday’s paddock and grandstands seemed fairly full, but I saw only the front straight. It would be interesting to hear official numbers for the weekend — I heard varying opinions from people I asked about their estimation of the health of the attendance. Long Beach is a jewel in INDYCAR’s crown with its long history and past success. It’s important to the Series that it remains just that.