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It was an all-night celebration for Bill Auberlen.
Growing up in Redondo Beach, the 52-year-old BMW driver was surrounded by “neighbors,” as he put it, whenever he’d race in the IMSA SportsCar division at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Friends from Rolling Hills High would poke their heads out of the woodwork, and Auberlen would buy them all tickets. Twice he won the Grand Prix, and on those special nights, he’d take his shiny new trophy and gallivant with friends around the festive streets of downtown Long Beach until early morning.
In 2020, though, there was no chance for a party, with the race’s cancellation for the first time in its 46-year history because of COVID-19.
“It was depressing,” Auberlen said. “I was so looking forward to coming here. But I had hope that they’d get it resolved.”
Grand Prix Chief Executive Jim Michaelian and his team did just that — albeit in unprecedented fashion. The Long Beach Grand Prix will take place Friday through Sunday instead of its usual April dates.
It’s a financial “recovery event,” Michaelian said, after the toll that last year’s cancellation took. The president estimated 70% of the course had been constructed before COVID-19 shut down the race, leading his staff to issue refunds and ask for credits from vendors for future years.
Now, the Long Beach Grand Prix will be back in full glory this weekend with a packed slate of events, and drivers are urging fans to return in droves.
“If you’re a person from Southern California [and] you’ve never been to Long Beach Grand Prix, you should come, even begrudgingly,” Auberlen said. “Go, ‘I’m going to hate it,’ and come down and take in the atmosphere — you will become a fan.”
Here’s a guide to the weekend.
The odd September scheduling brings a never-before-seen caveat to this edition of the Grand Prix: It’ll mark the final, championship race in the NTT IndyCar Series, the premier level of American car racing.
“Ultimately, it brings a bit more significance and gravitas to what is already a significant and important event on the schedule,” said Jack Harvey of Meyer Shank Racing. “You’re going to remember what happens this weekend for years to come.”
The IndyCar race will be the crown jewel of the Grand Prix, taking place at 12:45 p.m. Sunday. Other weekend events include the experimental races: Super Drift competitions that will take place Friday and Saturday nights, Super Trucks races — complete with mid-course jumps — are slated for Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon, and a Global Time Attack single-lap speed competition takes place Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Alexander Rossi is the two-time defending champion but race fans could be treated to a duel between young drivers Alex Palou, who is 24 and leads the IndyCar standings with 517 points, and Pato O’Ward, 22 with 482 points. Veteran driver and two-time series champion Josef Newgarden is third at 469 points.
Auberlen, meanwhile, will compete with other IMSA drivers in the series' championship race at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The street race is tight and fast, with a long straight section. It’s a complex challenge of narrow corners and open space, Auberlen said.
“It’s this crazy compromise where you take as much aerodynamic off as you can to go quick down the straight, and then try to guide it right through the walls,” he said.
Racing won’t be the only draw at the Grand Prix. A 150-display Lifestyle Expo will be held in the middle of the track, with exhibits on the latest products in automotive, home, entertainment and more. The Grand Prix will also feature games and racing simulators for children, and host a concert featuring Vince Neil at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
The diverse array of events are aimed to appeal to as many demographics of racing fans as possible, Michaelian said.
“You’ve got open-wheel cars. You’ve got sports cars. Aspirational cars … then you have drifting,” he said. “So when you put that all together, you’ve got a smorgasbord of events, any one of which might be attractive to [any] person.”
A three-day general admission ticket for $100 provides unreserved seating Friday and Saturday, and entry Sunday. Another three-day ticket package guarantees reserved seating for adults Saturday and Sunday at $155 in upper rows, and $110 for lower rows. For ages 12 and under, it's $120 in upper rows and $85 for lower.
Single-day tickets are also available for Saturday, at $75 per ticket, and Sunday tickets go for $95 in upper rows and $82 in lower rows for adults.
Single-day and bundled parking are available for purchase upon buying a ticket. Three-day parking ranges from $50 to $60, while all single-day options go for $20.
Other options available on the Grand Prix of Long Beach website include paddock access and special hospitality clubs.
The Long Beach Grand Prix will require face coverings in all indoor and outdoor settings as well as proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the race.
Initially, Michaelian and others were worried that the protocols would dissuade fans. They’re finding that they’ve increased interest because people feel safer, he said.
“What we offer is a weekend of entertainment,” Michaelian said. “Fun, exciting, family-friendly kind of activity in the safest mega-event in the state of California this weekend.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.