The operative slogan in Long Beach, Calif. last week was: Why Don't We Do It in the Road? A bit crass perhaps but, in typical California fashion, straight to the point. For the first time since the late 1950s a major road race was being conducted through the downtown streets of an American city. At a time when automobile racing, because of its exotic technologies and often disastrously high speeds, is becoming more and more estranged from reality, it was a refreshing return to the roots of the sport. And if the speeds involved were not breathtaking, the action sure was.
The occasion was the Long Beach Grand Prix for Formula 5000 cars—those open-wheeled American equivalents of Europe's sleek Formula I machines. Since the collapse of the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series for big sports cars, Formula 5000 has become the premier form of road racing in North America. Although ostensibly just a preview to a Formula I race next March, the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix drew a freeway-jamming crowd of 65,000, the biggest Formula 5000 crowd in history—and most observers came away feeling that F-5000 may itself be the most exciting form of the sport.
"There's something special about racing in real streets," says Mario Andretti, whose fame comes from oval tracks like Indianapolis but whose first love is road racing. "The 'artificial' circuits have a certain sameness to them. But every race conducted on real streets has a character of its own—Barcelona, Monaco and now Long Beach."
The course in question was a twisting, swooping lash-up smack in the heart of downtown Long Beach. It measured 2.21 miles around its outer perimeter and though it nominally counted 12 corners, it actually had 13. Since racers are a superstitious lot, it was decided to split Turn Nine in half, labeling the exit bend Turn 9A. Essentially, the course consisted of two fast straightaways linked by sets of uphill and downhill chicanes.
The pit straight ran south along Ocean Boulevard, a main drag lined with shops, bars, restaurants and the porno movie theaters and bookstores endemic to American metropolises. At the very start of pit row on Ocean, the bill at the Roxy last week featured Around the World. Jody Scheckter, the young lion from South Africa who moved up to F-I after winning the F-5000 championship two years ago, had come back to the U.S. for this race. He stared at the movie marquee. "Appropriate," he said. More spicy, from an automotive standpoint, was the surface of the Ocean Straight, which was pockmarked with manhole covers and had in its center a small, almost invisible hump that could send the race cars slightly airborne at speeds of 140 mph. "It's bloody good fun running that hump at those speeds," said David Hobbs, the Englishman who was F-5000 champion in 1971. "The shops and bars and people are all a colored blur, but you bleeding well know you're in the middle of a city. It's every boy's dream to smoke his tires down the main drag, and here, we're getting paid for it."
At the end of the half-mile Ocean Straight, the cars braked severely and downshifted for a hard, 90-degree downhill righthander that slowed them to roughly 45 mph. At the bottom of the short, steep hill came another 90-degree corner, to the left this time, followed almost immediately by another righthander. During qualifying sessions on Saturday, Indy winner Gordon Johncock found this chicane the most trying of all. He never took it twice on the same line, and on one occasion hung out the rear end of his Day-Glo red Sinmast Lola almost sideways. Smoother drivers like Andretti and Scheckter handled this stretch with a subtlety that belied their high speeds. Viewed from the balconies and penthouses of surrounding hotels and office buildings, however, one could see the violent lock, counterlock of their hands on the wheel as they virtually slid through the linked bends.
A few more swoops, and the cars entered the fastest part of the course—a mile and a bit of concrete that swept past the Long Beach Arena in a deceptively gentle right-hand bend. It might better be called the Road to Ruin. In this stretch these cars, which are powered by modified passenger-car engines, reached speeds of 170 mph and the drivers' foreshortened vision became a problem. "Because of the right-hand bend, gentle though it is, you cannot see more than a third of the straight at any one time," said Scheckter. "If someone breaks and slows just beyond your line of sight, you can be into him in a flash, with little or no chance to brake or maneuver, particularly if traffic is thick." At either end of the Shoreline Straight was a 180-degree hairpin turn that could only be negotiated at speeds of 30 mph or less.
"I've never had to use bottom gear in these cars before," said England's Brian Redman, the defending F-5000 champion and point leader in this season's competition. "On this course, because of the hairpins, I'm using it twice."
Coming out of the second hairpin, the cars began a sinuous return to the Ocean Boulevard Straight that took them, finally, uphill on Pine Avenue past the Nu-Pike, a seedy amusement park replete with tattoo parlors recalling Long Beach's history as a U.S. Navy liberty town. Appropriately, off in the distance loomed the black hull and red stacks of the Queen Mary, a dead ship now, her bottom filled with concrete, her upper decks with tourists. But with the cars moving at speed, their noise filling the glass-and-concrete canyons of downtown with a roar louder than war, there was no time for nostalgia, only the exigencies of racing.
"All of the courses that run through real streets are very demanding," said Andretti. "There is no room for error, no shoulders to lean on. If you go off the road, you're into somebody's shop-window or front porch." To preclude that all-too-real danger, the Long Beach circuit was lined with 8,000-pound concrete blocks that could be emplaced and removed like pieces of a giant's Lego set.