Long Beach: Steph’s Saturday thoughts

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on April 15, 2012 9:52 am

It’s hard to come by a much nicer day at the track than what we had today for the Saturday festivities at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. There was hardly a cloud in the sky, and the warm sun was nicely tempered by a constant cool breeze (maybe a touch too cool at times, but this Canadian wasn’t complaining). A person first arriving today would scarcely have believed that there had been near-monsoon weather yesterday.

(By the way, I asked around and learned that the last time there was rain during a race weekend at Long Beach was back in 2004 when weather caused the pro/celebrity race to be shortened by one lap.)

It’s funny how the stories of some days are best told by splitting things into categories while others are better explained chronologically. Today was a chronological day.

After a positively idyllic drive up the PCH — the skies were clear enough to offer views from Catalina Island right across to the Rockies, a sight I’d never witnessed before — my toddler and I pulled into the track this morning in plenty of time to get parked and get a grandstand ticket purchased for tomorrow before settling in for the morning practice session. As I mentioned yesterday, I decided on grandstand 6 for tomorrow’s race, so I stopped at a ticket booth on my way in this morning. Since the grandstand was near the gate where we entered and practice was pretty close to starting, I decided we’d head there to check out our spot.

To be honest, I was pretty disappointed. It’s on the end of the grandstand closest to turn 1 but it’s on the second row from the bottom (the highest they had, they said), and I’ll need to stand up to see over the barriers to catch any of the action on the far side. Plus, both of the screens nearby are at somewhat awkward angles from our vantage point. That’s what I get for not buying a ticket ahead of time. It’s at the end of a row, at least, which will make things a bit easier while wrangling Little Miss Squirmypants. (It’s important to find positives.)

The details of the session are available in More Front Wing’s Event Summary, among other places, so there’s little point in rehashing those. Here’s a quick review: lots of cars went off-course, and little useful running was done. One observation that might be worth making, though, is that it only took me about two minutes of sitting and listening to the cars at speed to be able to pick out the sound of a Honda backfiring — it was that distinct and that frequent. Going into turn 6 (one part of the course I can see very well from my seat), the Chevys and Lotuses were handling the downshifting for the approach smoothly, but the Hondas were as noisy as all get-out.

By the end of that session, I had a baby who was sleeping in her carrier and wanted to keep her that way so that she could have a rest, so I decided to take a little walk around to the turn 1 end of the track to watch the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race. I was curious to check out a different vantage point, so I may have used my credential to get access to a grandstand that I wasn’t really entitled to be in. (Shh — don’t tell anyone.) For anyone planning to be at the track for all three days, a reserved seat in grandstand 40 offers excellent views of turns 1 and 6 and is well worth the investment — though I’m not sure anymore that it would be my first choice. (Read on.)

The Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race is always good for a few laughs, and this year’s was no exception. Those little Toyota Scions look like they’re hanging on for dear life as they get wrenched around the corners, and the questionable skill level of some of the celebrities often results in some clown car-like antics. Excuse me for not remembering names (I wasn’t exactly taking notes for this one), but my favorite move was the one where someone tried to block another car coming out of a turn, wound up way wide and into the wall, then overcorrected and came back across into the car that he’d been blocking in the first place and dragged him along into the opposite wall. The best part? The perpetrator continued on, and the innocent bystander had his day ended. Fun times. Another driver whose day was effectively done early was Bryan Clauson, who missed a points-paying USAC sprint race to participate in the Pro class. He had a solid start but took a dive into the tires about half way through the 10-lap race and wound up last in class. In the end, Adam Carolla was the victor among the celebrities, and Fredric Aasbo was the first pro across the line. (I’ll confess to having to look both of those people up using Google when I got home.)

After that, it was time for Maddie and I to grab a quick lunch before qualifying. We were already in turn 1, which meant we could capitalize on one of the things that makes Long Beach such a great event: we had our choice from nearly a dozen restaurants ranging from independently owned operations to national chains. As we’d spent several hours at Chili’s the day before while waiting out the rain, we opted for Outback this time around. The meal was exactly as one would expect from Outback – and that’s not at all a bad thing. One very interesting thing I did notice while we were eating: an INDYCAR representative was going around to various tables asking people to take marketing surveys. He skipped me because he saw my credential, unfortunately — I would have loved to get a better idea of what kind of questions were being asked. As it was, I tried to be nosy as he interviewed the diners around me, but it was difficult to focus while trying to convince my daughter that eating food is more fun than throwing it. I got the sense that the questions revolved around the sorts of things one would expect, though, such as what brought people to the event, what drivers interested them, where they were from, and whether they’d return or recommend it to others. I wasn’t aware this was something INDYCAR did at all, though, so I found it surprising and encouraging to happen upon it.

With lunch taken care of, it was time to find a place to watch qualifying. I decided to test my theory from yesterday that turn 11 isn’t somewhere I’d want to watch a race from. Getting there from where we were meant walking along the outside of the frontstretch, which was an area of the track I hadn’t visited before. There’s a large, permanent foot crossing that goes over the track shortly before turn 1, and when we’d walked underneath it, the change in atmosphere was almost instant. While the turn 1 area was largely populated by — how do I put this delicately? — the sorts of people who clearly prefer the formalities of a sit-down meal, the other side of the bridge had more of a street carnival feel. There was loud music blaring from busy beer tents, people dancing their way through the crowds, an a section that appeared to be an entire parking lot set aside for food trucks (I tried to remember a few of the names, but The Shrimp Pimp and the Breezy Freeze are the only two that my brain kept for some reason). If you like your racing to come with a cold beer in one hand and a smoked turkey leg in the other, turn 11 and the pit straight are where you’ll find your people.

This is kind of an aside, but it’s at this point that it occurs to me to point out that there are a great many excellent viewing areas for general admission tickets at this track. You’d probably need to arrive very early to stake a claim on the best ones on Sunday given that the place is as busy as it is, but there’s no lack of options, and some of them are even elevated so you can see over the heads of the people in front of you. The grandstands offer better angles and more comfort, of course, but don’t decide not to come to Long Beach just because you can’t afford a three-day grandstand seat. You’ll find you have options when you get here, I promise.

Anyway, I used my credential to get myself into a place where I wasn’t supposed to be again (tsk tsk), and I’m convinced I found the best seats in the house. When I said yesterday that sitting in turn 11 didn’t interest me much, I assumed that those seats would be mostly obscured and would really only offer a view of the exit of 11 and pit in. I was so wrong. From most of grandstand 24 and the top right of 25, you can see the exit of 9, all of 10, the apex and exit of 11, and pit in. It’s breathtaking. The only downside I found was that I didn’t have data coverage in that corner of the track and therefore couldn’t tweet during qualifying, but unless you’re a crazy blogger type like me you shouldn’t be caring about such things. I’m not sure there’s better money to be spent on seating at a street course. (Gee — maybe there’s a reason this event has been around for 38 years.)

Again, the qualifying results are easy to find, so I won’t go over them here. In fact, qualifying was probably a lot easier to follow at home than it was at the track. The track announcers did their best to explain the deal with all the penalties, but following drawn-out explanations when there are cars going by every few seconds is next to impossible. On top of that, I thought Newgarden had made it to the Firestone Fast 6 right up until Hinchcliffe wound up on track — this could have just been a comprehension failure on my part, but I think this was actually a detail that was missed by the track PA team, which is a shame.

Aside from that, there were two major points I noticed. One: Simona’s engine was making an awful racket when she came off 11 and ducked into the pits. I’ll be really surprised if she doesn’t wind up needing an engine change, though as of now I haven’t seen anything official. Two: Dixon ran most of round 2 with his gearbox on fire. The weird part is that he ducked into the pits with it almost straight away and then left again almost as quickly and ran at least three more laps. I heard later (though unofficially) that he ignored a black flag to do so. It will be interesting to see whether anything comes of that.

Being cognizant of the fact that my toddler’s patience was running justifiably thin by the time qualifying was over, I had to choose the rest of the afternoon’s activities judiciously. (She loved the race cars, by the way. She seemed to get the most out of it when we were in turn 11 and they were going a little slower. Each time one went by, she would wave bye-bye and then shout “more, more, more!” She sure didn’t fall far from the tree.) The ALMS race was clearly out of the question due to its length, so we headed for the convention center to make a quick visit to the tweet-up before heading home.

We had a bit of time to kill before the event started, so we wandered around the convention center to look at a few things we hadn’t seen. One area I’d totally missed initially was the Long Beach Arena, which houses two very oddly matched things: the Family Fun Zone (which is little more than a bunch of bouncy castles and a temporary tattoo stand), and the Firestone Indy Lights paddock. I feel kind of bad for them — they’re in such an isolated spot that I can’t imagine they’re getting many visitors.

We weren’t able to stay at the tweet-up for long, but in the brief time we were there one thing was clear: Bryan Herta Autosport is bringing tweet-ups back in a big way. That should surprise no one, of course, given that the incomparable Monica Hilton is the PR rep for that team this season. The event was well-organized, there was a ton of swag, there were driver Q&As, and there was a very good turnout already by the time we had to leave. It was great to see some old friends and make a couple of new ones. I wish we’d been able to stay longer, but I have no doubt everyone had a fantastic time.

It’s time to call it a night — we have a big day tomorrow! I can’t promise I’ll be able to tweet much during the race with a wiggly toddler on my lap, but please give @MoreFrontWing a follow just in case. And our west coast correspondent Bash is on-site as well — she can be followed at @SpeedFreakBash throughout the day. We’ll both have wrap-up posts to close out the weekend as well. Here’s hoping all goes well for what promises to be a very interesting race!