"Except for the straights," Andretti continued, "the course is very tight. You've got to run it on your tippy toes, no mistakes permissible. And I reckon there are at least five different textures of pavement here, ranging from gluey asphalt to slick concrete. That keeps you on your toes as well."
"It's a mean course on brakes and suspensions," said Redman. "That's going to be the story when the race gets under way. I predict a lot of breakage."
Qualifying confirmed Redman's prediction. Many cars broke on the pounding turns and hills; many more spun out or crashed into the piles of worn-out tires—50,000 of them—that served as bumpers on the difficult spots. Under the complex rules of F-5000 racing, there were to be two 12-lap qualifying heats preceding the main 50-lap showdown on Sunday. The pole for the first heat went to Andretti, who turned the top practice lap of 89.45 mph in his Viceroy-Hilton Lola T332. In the process, he edged his teammate, Al Unser, who drove a remarkably smooth 88.739 to take the pole for the second heat. Though sixth fastest overall, Redman could not break 87 mph in his Boraxo Lola and ended up in the second row behind Unser, while Scheckter, with decided engine trouble, could push his Hogan Lola to no better than the third row.
The heat races provided not only a heady dash of drama but a dollop of insight as well, both into the nature of the new course and that of a few drivers. At the outset of the first heat Andretti lost a drag race into Turn One. Three cars, led by Tony Brise, a 23-year-old English Formula Atlantic champion, driving a Lola, blew past him. There ensued a pursuit race that recalled the Andretti of old—a flat-out fire storm of a chase that demonstrated once again his �lan in cutting through traffic. Brise (as in rice) was no slouch at that game either, gobbling up one car in the hairy downhill chicane. On the last lap, with Brise just a touch ahead, Andretti pushed hard into the Pine Avenue uphill, and when Brise slewed into the upper straight he ticked the wall. Even at that, Brise held strong, aceing Andretti by a wheel's length, while Andretti came away with the satisfaction of having improved his pole-winning time and racking up a 90-mph lap for the first time in Long Beach's three-day racing history. The chase also showed that for all the "tightness" of the course, good drivers still had plenty of opportunities to pass.
Al Unser walked away with the second heat leaving Brian Redman in the dust. Redman was playing a conservative game, to be sure, and that made it all a bit boring, but it also underscored a perhaps overlooked development. This was only Unser's 12th road race. At the age of 36, racing drivers are supposed to be pretty well fixed in their habits. Thus Unser's improvement has been remarkably swift. Second only to Redman in F-5000 points this year, he came on stronger as the season wore along—a good sign.
But not good enough last Sunday. When the green flag fell for the final 50 laps, Unser was able to lead only downhill. As he hit Turn Four, Brise nipped past him on the inside, Andretti not far behind. Redman, with his Lola sporting a tougher gearbox than he had used in qualifying, lay just behind that trio in fourth place. What followed was an even more exciting replay of the Brise-Andretti duel. Andretti dogged Brise's wing like a pointer throughout the first half of the race, then snapped ahead on the sweeping right-hand beachfront straight. Redman, meanwhile, maintained his cautious tactics, content to let the leaders fulfill his prophecy of breakage.
The first to go was Unser, who ticked the wall, quickly pitted, then withdrew. In the far hairpin, Brise was now pushing Andretti very aggressively—the leaders' lap speeds were averaging 88 mph, faster than most cars had qualified.
As the race passed the midpoint Andretti and Brise began swapping the lead like the actors in the Ocean Boulevard movie theaters did their screen wives. Andretti seemed to be quicker in the straights, while Brise was able to dive deeper into the corners. On Lap 34, however, Andretti's engine swallowed a valve, eliminating him, and Brise went out on the following lap with a broken half-shaft. That left victory to Redman the Prophet. "Tough as this course might seem," he had said earlier, "it's a piece of cake compared to the Targa Florio. No donkey carts, no shotguns, only other drivers and palm trees." But how about those theater marquees?