American motor racing got its start on real streets more than 70 years ago, but somewhere along the winding way it lost that sense of actuality. From 1904 to 1921, crowds of as many as 250,000 car-crazy fans looked on in ecstasy as monstrous, 16-liter Locomobiles and Panhards careened through downtown Queens and Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Santa Monica at speeds of more than 100 mph. You could sit in a saloon, sipping nickel beer and wolfing pigs' feet from the free lunch, and watch bold men risking their lives on the very pavements you walked each day on the way to work.
Then along came oval tracks and artificial road courses to remove automobile racing from the realm of Everyman's experience. But next week in Long Beach, Calif. street racing returns. And it may well be the most stirring event in American motor sports since the days of Barney Oldfield and Willy K. Vanderbilt.
The occasion is the first annual U.S. Grand Prix West, a full-bore Formula I race, the third of the current World Driving Championship series. The best of the international road-racing drivers will be on hand, just as they were in those primeval Vanderbilt Cup races, and for all the culture shock that has occurred in the intervening years, they won't be going much faster, on the average, than their predecessors.
What gives the race its special tang is the fact that it runs through the heart of a real, live, American metropolis. Remote from the electric excitement of big cities, most modern road circuits have a sterility about them, compounded of concrete and infinitely repetitive billboards. By putting a road race downtown, you may slow the speeds but you accelerate the action.
Long Beach, for example, is a mere 20 minutes (at legal speeds) from Los Angeles International Airport and less than that from Disneyland, provided the ears on your Mousketeers hat don't cause too much drag with the top down. From the elegant new Pacific Terrace Convention Center, which lies at the heart of the Long Beach race circuit, a strong-armed martini drinker could flip an olive pit down one of the stacks of the Queen Mary, the city's main tourist attraction. Or at least he might think he could, so large does the great black hull loom in the background.
The two-mile-plus circuit is a delight both to drivers and spectators. Competitors who sorted it out during last fall's inaugural Formula 5000 race liked the constant challenge of changing road surfaces and contours—rough and slick, uphill and down, curve and straightaway—while race fans freaked on the new sounds and perspectives afforded by the constant variability of a "real" racing environment. Particularly gratifying was the overhead view from the many high-rise vantage points that stud the circuit. From ground level, modern race cars with their low profiles and wraparound helmetry look like so many outsize HO-scale toys being run by remote control. But gazing down into their cockpits from balconies that rent for as much as $1,500 during the race weekend, one can actually see the violent wrench of steering wheels and pump of pedals that produce the smooth line of "effortless" speed. It affords a sense of the human element often invisible in the sport.
Equally fascinating are the vignettes of city life that are part of the scene. The pigeons that roost on the Heartwell Building, a rococo revenant of the '30s that hulks above the Ocean Boulevard straight, swirl in red-eyed panic each time the snarling pack whips past. The California-cool kids in cutoffs rattle their skateboards through parallel back alleys in a vain, laughing effort to keep up with the race cars. There are the Navy bars and locker clubs and tattoo parlors of the Nu Pike, just athwart the Pine Avenue uphill section of the course, where in the old days a sailor could get anything he wanted—from drunk to killed to an homage to Mom engraved on his biceps—in no time flat. Oldtime racing cars roll past on parade, from Bugattis to a Talbot-Lago, and their drivers are celebrities of yesterday, the likes of Indy's Pete DePaolo or Phil Hill (page 58). It's all there, behind the blur of speeding, sophisticated cars and drivers hell-bent for glory.
The easiest comparison, of course, is with Monaco—the only other Grand Prix race through actual city streets. But every city has its own actuality; Long Beach possesses a gritty, sun-washed charm that has nothing to do with Monte Carlo, princesses and effete European airs. It and its streets are strenuously American—and one concludes, finally, that Barney Oldfield would heartily approve the venue. Though he would doubtless regret the price of the beer.