Mike Conway en route to 2011 Long Beach win - Anne Proffit photoEnlarge Photo
It's load-in day at Long Beach with the IZOD IndyCar Series, American Le Mans Series, Toyota Pro/Celebrity race, Firestone Indy Lights Series, Pirelli World Challenge Series and Formula DRIFT teams setting up camp for the 38th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach over the weekend.
With six serious races, a pair of concerts, the option of public go-karting, checking out the Exposition at the convention center and parties, parties, parties on tap this weekend, the longest-running street circuit contest in American open-wheel history is a contagious affair.
For those interested in racing, the elongated weekend begins on Wednesday with Indy car driver Graham Rahal Foundation kart race that includes celebrities and benefits charity. Rahal is one young driver who always gives back to the community; he organized a benefit auction for the survivors of Dan Wheldon and continues to raise money to benefit others.
While Team Penske won the first two Indy car events at St Petersburg, FL (Helio Castroneves) and Will Power's second straight victory on the Barber Motorsports Park road course in Alabama, things won't be quite so easy for them here at The Beach. This is a circuit that has bitten every member of Team Penske's cadre, most recently last year when pole man Power got caught up in Castroneves' exuberant try at passing a quarter of the field in the first turn.
That left the door open for Mike Conway, who had just returned from injury and a poor pit stop earlier in the contest; he won for Andretti Autosport last year, and is this year driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, again with Honda power. Conway knows taking a second straight victory on these tough streets, comprised of a difficult 1.968-mile, 11-corner obstacle course is anything but easy. But he's sure going to try.
Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe, who drove here last year for Newman/Haas Racing, has a tough battle ahead of him. During Monday testing at Infineon Raceway Sears Point up the coast, Hinch lost a Chevy engine so he'll have to take that nasty 10-position grid penalty once Firestone Fast Six qualifying is complete on Saturday afternoon. While Andretti Autosport won here the last two years with Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay, that grid penalty could bring a world of hurt.
Can we count out Chip Ganassi's quartet of drivers? Ganassi owns five victories on the streets of Long Beach, including one by current driver and reigning champion Dario Franchitti. Rahal, Scott Dixon (second in points) and Charlie Kimball all have the street smarts to give Honda-powered Ganassi No. 6.
Another former winner in the field is Sebastien Bourdais, driving for Dragon Racing with Lotus power, who took victory on three successive occasions. He's been among the more mighty and consistent Lotus drivers - as is Oriol Servia, who got caught up in the Castroneves 'problem' last year in Lotus DRR's Dallara - but will have to use all of his talent to give a surprise or two, as he, also, has a 10-spot grid penalty after an engine change (following the Barber race).
Other longshots include Simon Pagenaud's Honda-powered Sam Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports entry, Alex Tagliani's BHA Lotus-engined mount and JR Hildebrand of Panther Racing (Chevy).
While the weather reports are dismal for the start of festivities, it's never rained on the premier event in the Long Beach weekend and I doubt it will rain again this year. We could, however, have showers on Friday and/or Saturday that could shift the field a bit, which would make it even more interesting for fans in the stands and for those watching the excellent coverage on NBC Sports.