LONG BEACH, Calif. — I always get excited thinking about the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. It’s a legendary event for many reasons. And I was fortunate enough to win the race in 2011.
That was a special day for me. I had just come back to racing after a difficult rehab from my crash during the 2010 Indianapolis 500. It was a long road back and I was just getting back into racing form. But that victory, my first in the IndyCar Series, was a great way to show everyone I was back.
In terms of the street races that are part of the IndyCar Series, Long Beach has the biggest party atmosphere. You are so close to the fans, concerts are happening, parties and events are going on all around the circuit. There are loads of vendors and the fans are really cool. You always get a lot of celebrities there because it is close to Hollywood and Los Angeles.
The history of the Long Beach race is great, too. There are not many tracks we run that have 40 years of history, especially in street races. It terms of street races, it’s Monaco No. 1 and then Long Beach.
Long Beach has featured Formula One, CART and the IndyCar Series, plus sports cars and many different types of events.
I heard about the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach as I was growing up in England, but I didn’t know the magnitude of the event. I didn’t know the history of the race until I was on the top of the podium after winning and I looked down at the names in victory lane who had previously won there.
It is so cool to be a part of that history at Long Beach. Going back the next year and seeing my name etched in the pavement with the other names was pretty awesome. That victory lane experience really made me sit up and take notice of that race.
It is very neat to have done that at Long Beach. The track is very challenging for a street circuit. There are some very difficult sections of the course. For a driver, you have to put everything together to get a good lap in qualifying and have a solid car to win the race.
The year I won we got the pit stops just right and the car was really hooked up in the last 20 laps. I was able to drive around the leaders on the inside to take the lead. We just got more and more grip with the car as the last run went along. I passed people in spots that I wasn’t normally able to, and I timed perfectly. The next thing I knew I was leading with 14 laps to go. I thought, “Wow, this is cool. Just drive hard and stay focused.”
I don’t know if Tom Anderson (on the Andretti Autosport team radio) was panicking a bit, but he kept telling me to stay calm. I’m thinking I may have been the one that was the calmest on the team at that moment. They told me I had loads of “push to pass” if I needed it, but I was in the lead and pulling away at that point, so I thought that was a bit strange.
I think Tom was worried about restarts and other things. I felt under control and it was cool coming off the last corner — the hairpin. I knew then, I had won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. And the emotions came out.
We beat some good drivers that day. I passed Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe. We had some good battles in that race. Long Beach definitely stands out for me since it was my first IndyCar Series win and it came at a very cool and legendary circuit.
I usually go to Southern California a day early or so to see friends who live in Hermosa Beach and LA. It’s fun to get together with them and chat and have bite to eat. I always try to see some of my mates who live there on Wednesday night before the race.
Like I said before, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is much more than a race, it’s an extravaganza. And it’s race every motorsports fan should put on their “bucket list.”