Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach

Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach Preview: O’Ward Trying To Win Championship

Automotive racing fans around the world know the Grand Prix of Long Beach as one of the best street courses because of its unique setting and impressive history. The 46-year old race weekend will add to that legend this weekend.

Even though the landscape is the same on the mile-long street course that winds through downtown and past the ocean, the 2021 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is being hosted in September for the first time in history. Racing starts Friday and concludes on Sunday.

“Our fans have waited a long time for this and we’re going to put on a great show for them,” Grand Prix Association of Long Beach President and CEO Jim Michaelian said.

Seventeen months ago, the Grand Prix was canceled just before it’s usually scheduled spring kickoff to the racing season because of COVID-19. The pandemic also canceled and plans to host it again in spring of this year. It was the first time the race had been canceled since 1975, and there wasn’t a guarantee that it would be able to come back at all.

After the Grand Prix Association relied on the federal Payment Protection Program and understanding vendors who stayed flexible to sustain the financial losses, this weekend the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach will make its triumphant return with fans in the Shoreline grandstands for three days of racing from a variety of circuits.

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The marquee race on Sunday will be the final NTT IndyCar series race of the season, meaning the series championship will be decided in Long Beach for the first time ever.

“It’s just a cool event because it has so much history and a really cool track that’s well done,” driver Pato O’Ward said. “It’s a well-executed event.”

O’Ward, 22, is in a heated battle with Alex Palou and two-time series champion Josef Newgarden to win the NTT IndyCar series championship after the 17-race season. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Palou currently sits in first place but Arrow McLaren SP’s O’Ward is right behind him in second where a top showing in Long Beach will win him the crown.

Despite being one of the youngest drivers in IndyCar, O’Ward said he’s not surprised by his success.

“I’m really hard on myself and I expect to compete at the highest level,” O’Ward said. “It’s never been a question if I can do it, it’s just a question if I have the tools to do it. Do I have the right people behind me to do it together? Because at the end of the day it’s not just the driver doing it. You need a car that’s capable. You need people who are capable of giving you good strategies and good pit stops. It’s a team effort. I feel like when I’ve had that I’m always a contender.”

O’Ward was born in Mexico and grew up racing across about a dozen different series for a variety of teams before he won the Indy Lights title and made his IndyCar debut in 2018.

“All of that experience in different cars, tracks and series… I think that’s helped the way I adapt,” O’Ward said. “I think I’m very quick to adapt to certain circumstances.”

Although O’Ward has only raced in Long Beach once before, he knows how important the week of practice and qualifying is to success on the narrow streets.

“The changes you’re doing have to be going in the right direction in order to help yourselves to qualify as high as you can because if you’re going the wrong way you can spiral down into a black hole really quickly,” O’Ward said. “This track is all about track position. You have to start at the front if you want a shot to win.”

O’Ward added that his team is in a good frame of mind with their eyes on the prize this week, and that he’s not feeling the pressure.

“We’re all just really looking forward to getting down to executing and scoring points that hopefully will make us come out on top in the end,” O’Ward said.

The last time IndyCar was in Long Beach in 2019 at the 45th Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach, Alexander Rossi became the first repeat champion on the course in 12 years. Rossi’s margin of victory, 20.23 seconds, was the largest margin of victory in Long Beach since Al Unser Jr.’s 23-second win in 1995. Rossi was the fastest qualifier Saturday and was happy to have pole position going into Sunday.

Once again, IndyCar isn’t the racing that’s happening this weekend as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the Super Drift Challenge, the Historic Formula Atlantic Challenge and Robby Gordon’s SPEED Energy Stadium SUPER Trucks all return over the three days.

An addition to the schedule is the fastest lap competition called the Global Time Attack which will feature twenty modified street cars trying to set the track record.

The Saturday night concert outside the Terrace Theatre is also back as Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe headlines the festivities.

Off the course, the weekend gets started on Thursday when Willy T. Ribbs and Oriol Servia will be inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame located on Pine. This is the 15th annual induction ceremony and it will honor Ribbs and Servia for being longtime veterans. Ribbs made his American racing debut at Long Beach in the Formula Atlantic Series in 1978, and Servia came to America from Spain in 1998 to join the Indy Lights series that also raced in Long Beach.

Two-time Long Beach race winner Michael Andretti and Tokyo Olympics silver medalist Rai Benjamin will serve as Grand Marshals.

“Long Beach was always a special place for me as a driver and has grown to be even more special now as a team owner,” Andretti said. “Some of my fondest career memories came from here. We really missed the race and all its fans in 2020 and are thrilled to have the opportunity to return this season.”

JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.