The music thumped, the beers flowed and the taco line stretched a dozen deep on another sun-splashed day at one of America’s great racing events: The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
But this wasn’t race day; this was just Friday, the opener of what amounts to a three-day festival of racing. With fans seemingly spread all over the 1.968-mile course, it’s not hard to see why Long Beach reached an 18-year-high in total attendance last year — hosting 185,000 people over the course of the weekend.
“It’s a place everybody likes to come to, because the energy around this place — today is a Friday, man!” said IndyCar rookie Pato O’Ward, who is getting his first taste of Long Beach this weekend. “The paddock is full, the stands are like…packed. I’ve never seen a Friday so full in my life. It’s really cool.”
The majority of people at Long Beach, of course, are not hardcore race fans. Surveys conducted by the promoters show 60 percent of fans who attend the Grand Prix watch just one other IndyCar race all year (the Indy 500, obviously).
But as long as they’re here, the fans seem to enjoy themselves to the fullest. Some are families with young children, some are couples holding hands — and drinks — and some are SoCal bros with their buddies. There are all sorts of people from all sorts of demographics, but the one thing they have in common is they seem happy. And the vibe around the track has a tangible sense of joy as a result.
“What we all love the most is the atmosphere,” defending series champion Scott Dixon said. “The fans here and the people that come out, the event the promoters turn this into, it’s a big deal.”
That’s what can happen when there’s 45 years of equity built into an event and people around the region make it an annual tradition to attend — whether they know much about racing or not.
The other part of the Grand Prix’s success is the course itself. Not only is it beautiful and centrally located in a tourist area, but the circuit is “rewarding” and “a blast” for drivers, O’Ward said.
“It ticks every box off for a driver that you’d want,” added Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was fastest in Friday’s first practice. “You’ve got the passion and the energy out there from the fans, the track is challenging you as a driver — it’s got that aspect to it that you really enjoy and you can’t wait to get back into the car.”
Friday was a fun day, thanks to the atmosphere created by all the fans. With a favorable weather forecast, the rest of the weekend has potential to be even better.
“I wonder what it’s going to be like Sunday,” O’Ward said. “I’m super excited.”