More security at event following Boston bombings
LONG BEACH -- Scott Pape brings a certain cachet when it comes to evaluating what a typical Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach looks like.
The 50-year-old Pape, an Orange resident, has been attending the race since the late 1970s when the street circuit hosted Formula 1 racers such as Gilles Villeneuve, Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet.
So, with organizers forced to step up security due to Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, Pape took a good look around the merchandise and food booths sprawled outside the Lifestyle Expo at the Long Beach Convention Center.
He was among several veteran race fans who said they didn't notice more security than normal on Friday, the first of the 39th annual Grand Prix's three days that caps off Sunday with the IZOD IndyCar Series race.
"Maybe they're behind the scenes," said Pape.
That's probably the case, according to Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell.
This weekend, McDonnell said, "You will see an increased presence by uniformed officers and we will have undercover officers there as well, but we still need the public's help. "
Police have adopted a "See something, say something" motto for the weekend's three-day event, the city's largest of the year.
Security screeners may also more closely scrutinize items brought to the track, in particular backpacks.
"The bulk of our security plan did not change because of Boston, we modify the plan after each race to make it better each year," he said. "We feel very comfortable that this will be a safe event. "
McDonnell added that there have been no credible threats related to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Grand Prix Association of Long Beach president and CEO Jim Michaelian said expected good weather has officials hopeful that attendance could reach typical levels of about 175,000 spectators.
"It just depends on how much walk-up we have," Michaelian said.
The high temperature on Friday was 86. Sunny skies and 80 degrees is the forecast today, according to the National Weather Service, and fog Sunday morning should give way to partly sunny weather and a mild spring high of 72.
An improving economy also has race organizers hopeful.
"That would seem to be working in our favor despite the tragedy in Boston," Michaelian said.
This year's event features seven races, including the first night racing in the Grand Prix's history when the Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge takes to the streets Friday and Saturday.
Friday afternoon, race fans were turning out by the thousands to watch as drivers from IndyCar, Firestone Indy Lights, the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race and others took turns practicing on the track.
Alan Randle, a Santa Ana resident, prefers the first day's more relaxed atmosphere.
"The practice day is great because it's not too crowded," said Randle, 65, and a United Kingdom native.
Abraham Villalbazo of Long Beach was rained out last year when he came to the Grand Prix's first day.
"It looks more alive today. There are definitely more people," said Villabazo, 18. "And it sounds pretty amazing. "
The racing is definitely loud, with sound waves from turbocharged engines and mufflers choked by downshifts bouncing and echoing from surrounding buildings and bridges.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is the longest-running major street race in North America, shifting over the years from Formula 1 to Championship Auto Racing Teams, Champ Car and in 2009, the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Pape, the race vet, has seen all the turnover, so how much has the Grand Prix changed over the decades?
"Believe it or not, not too much," said Pape. "It's sort of a beach atmosphere. I like checking out the girls and the cars. "
Grand Prix tickets are still available at gplb.com or on a toll-free ticket hotline, 888-82-SPEED (827-7333).
Staff Writers Kelsey Duckett and Rick Orlov contributed.
Contact Staff Writer Eric Bradley at 562-499-1254