The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach returns this week — and it’s here to stay for a long time.
The three-day weekend event is more than just a race. Yes, fans will take to the track on Sunday, April 10, to watch Southern Californian Colton Herta try to defend last year’s Long Beach win. But apart from the main race, there’s drifting and truck jumping and, for non-race rans, there’s booze-ladened party zones and food trucks. For families, there’s a lifestyle expo, a classic car show and a kid zone, among other events and activities.
But outside the races and the attractions, the Grand Prix is an investment. As thousands parachute into the city, they’ll eat at local restaurants, shops at local businesses and party at local clubs. It’s the city’s largest economic driver — a yearly financial shot in the arm.
It’s one of the reasons the City Council agreed to extend its contract with the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, ensuring it remains a mainstay at least through 2028.
“The Grand Prix is a hallmark of our city and I was happy to see us extend our commitment to supporting the race for years to come,” Mayor Robert Garcia said in an emailed statement. “Long Beach is proud to host this great event, which brings thousands of visitors and fans to the city and bolsters our economy.”
For the Grand Prix Association, said president and CEO Jim Michaelian, remaining in the city is an opportunity to grow the race in a “desirable destination” and a chance to expand an event its customers enjoy. And for the city, the event is indeed a fun one for spectators — but its also a smart financial investment.
The Grand Prix generates $63 million for the Southern California region. More than half of that, about $32 million, goes to Long Beach, said Johnny Vallejo, the city’s acting director of economic development. It also supports more than 600 year-round jobs in the local region, with around 350 in Long Beach.
When the pandemic hit, shuttering business and crashing multiple industries, Long Beach felt an acute hit from having to cancel the Grand Prix in 2020. And while he doesn’t yet know how much money the September race generated for the city, Vallejo said, it did see around 180,000 attendees, more than the association expected — but still about a 4% decrease from the 2019 Grand Prix.
Michaelian said he expects to top the 180,000 mark again this year, a prospect both the city and local business leaders are excited about.
Pandemics notwithstanding, such a prospect should be bankable for most of this decade. While the contract extention the council approved earlier this year reduced set up and tear down time beginning in 2023, and prioritizes the 2028 Summer Olympics, it also made the Grand Prix Association a stakeholder in future development discussions on portions of the race track.
The Grand Prix, in some ways, is also an opportunity to market the city’s burgeoning downtown area, Vallejo said. For years now, the city has been investing in its downtown area, regularly opening new housing developments and hearing proposals for others.
Long Beach has a sprawling downtown plan to build housing and mixed-used developments, including the old City Hall grounds, which was recently received the OK to become a new moderate-income housing complex. Just last week, the city celebrated the grand opening of Shoreline Gateway, a new 35-story mixed-used development in the heart of downtown.
Every year through 2028, the thousands who parachute from outside the region to visit downtown Long Beach for the Grand Prix, Vallejo said, will see how the downtown area is changing and improving.
“I hope they appreciate” it, Vallejo said by phone last week, “and see us as a place they may want to live, work or be entertained.
“From the city’s perspective and an economic development perspective,” he added, “the Grand Prix is an opportunity to get a bunch of people in the city and to get a bunch of eyes on downtown.”
The Grand Prix Association’a new stakeholder role, per its contract extension, allows it to be involved in discussions if parts of the race circuit need to be removed for development. If the city does choose to develop on parts of the race track, like the so-called “elephant lot,” it would have to notify the association.
There will always be “significant interest” in property near the city’s coastal and downtown areas, including around the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, Vallejo said. But there has not yet been any real development consideration for any of those properties on the race circuit, he said.
“We hear lots of hypotheticals of what could occur at that space,” Vallejo said, “but it would have to be a process that includes the city, residents and community.”
The association looks forward to any development discussion, Michaelian said, and in the past, has been able to accommodate developments in the area.
Another accommodation the association may need to make will come at the end of its contract with the city, when the 2028 Summer Olympic Games roll into Los Angeles. If the schedules for the Grand Prix and the Olympics conflict, the association and city have agreed to negotiate “in good faith” to accommodate the latter.
For Michaelian, the economic benefit the Grand Prix provides the city and local businesses is important for the event’s future — it is a community-based event, after all — but he’s also concerned with creating a fun event for attendees.
“This event needs to be very capable of adjusting as time goes on,” he said.
Every year, Michaelian said, his staff reviews what went well and what didn’t. They use surveys and other tracking methods to gauge attendees’ thoughts and prepare accordingly for the next year. That means figuring out, among other things, whether spectators liked the live concerts or enjoyed the races.
The Porsche Carrera Cup, for example, is a new race this year, one Michaelian said he hopes is attractive to guests. Party zones, sponsored by big alcohol brands like Don Julio, Crown Royal and Modelo, were another major addition. Party zones are areas where guests over the age of 21 can move freely to get drinks and watch the race rather than be confined to a stadium seat, Michaelian said.
The Grand Prix needs to be innovative in order to both attract and retain customers, Michaelian said — but also to ensure guests have fun.
“Even though the event is in the 47th year, we are constantly evolving,” he said. “There is a search for ways in which we can make this event more dynamic. That is our mission every single year, to continue to make environments that people will come to and see that this event grows.”