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THE GUY WHO FOUNDED THE GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH“SO CAL’S 200 MPH BEACH PARTY”

By Gina Valencia

Photo submitted by Chris Pook 



Before Long Beach had come into embodying its city motto, “The International City,” one man saw enormous potential. Christopher R. Pook (aka CRP) immigrated to the United States from England in 1963 for that American dream, those possibilities he heard about from American students he met while studying at the Sorbonne University in Paris. 


Within the year, CRP began what would become a series of companies within the travel industry. By 1972, he had moved to Long Beach and opened a retail travel agency, American Aviation Travel Services, in downtown, although he was aware that Long Beach was in serious need of a makeover. 


“In the early ‘70s, Long Beach had no real identity,” said CRP. “It had lost the Miss Universe Pageant; the Queen Mary did not deliver the ‘destination’ recognition that the City Fathers thought it would. Downtown was in decline.” 


Although in 1972, the ‘City Fathers’ decided to invest $48 million to build a convention and tourist center as a start, there were boarded-up businesses, seedy bars and theaters, no major viable hotels or any real attractions on the horizon. “Problem was, Long Beach had no decent hotels, and no one knew where [the city] was,” said CRP. 


Long Beach was the city you drove through from Los Angeles to Disneyland; no one was planning any trade shows or tourist stops here. To establish any sort of ‘identity,’ the city would have to spend more millions over a decade or so building hotels or businesses. “OR do something outrageous as Monte Carlo did,” said CRP. “Close down your streets for a weekend and run Formula 1 cars which in turn would deliver National and International recognition.” 


From outlandish idea to conception, and hundreds of hours of convincing city leaders and business investors, it took two years and about four months to stage the first race on September 28, 1975. The first race was a Formula 5000, whose success attracted the Formula 1 series. 



The Eyes of the World on the International City  

Like most young men in the UK and France, CRP followed motorsports intently, especially the glamourous Monte Carlo races, which is what inspired the idea, 40 years later, to build the Long Beach Grand Prix. But it was much more than having flashy race cars zipping around for fun. “If ‘packaged’ correctly, it could be a marketing and business development tool for the city,” CRP said. 


Once the idea got a hold of him, CRP set to work making phone calls. ‘City folks,’ however, questioned his qualifications and experience; something he hadn’t thought through. 


It wasn’t until he dropped a name known in the motorsports culture that people started to pay attention. He proposed he could get Dan Gurney involved, American racing driver legend, race car constructor, and team owner who at the time owned the All-American Racers shop in Santa Ana. 


“It was strictly just right off the seat of my pants I blurted out,” CRP is quoted in a 2020 book about his life and the LB Grand Prix. “That was a magic name to them, and they said, ‘Well, okay, let’s get him in here and see what he has to say.’ I was really at the point [where] the bluff was almost called.” There was one hurdle: Dan did not know CRP. 


When he next had to make that nerve-wracking cold call to Dan, he was seriously shocked when the Big Eagle Gurney himself accepted his call through. 


“I sort of sat there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen now?’ and then all of a sudden, the phone just lit up with, “This is Dan Gurney, what can I do for you?’ From there on, he was on board. He listened for a few minutes and said, ‘Well, that sounds exciting. Why don’t you come talk to me some more about it.’” 


With Dan by his side, CRP had the confidence to commit to the endeavor, although it was not without its near catastrophes. “Numerous and many times near fatal [challenges were faced],” CRP said. “Without the help of my late good friend Dan Gurney, we would not have even gotten to first base.”


Soon after, “numerous people joined the quest,” although just as many “numerous powerful people in the motorsports industry did not want to see it happen.” 


Even once it happened, organizers faced huge financial losses after the first two races. It was the 1977 race, where Italian-American racing driver Mario Andretti won, that convinced stakeholders that this risky project might just work; and yet, it wasn’t until 1978, when the city folks began to see the opportunities the race could provide Long Beach. 


Except for the 2020 pandemic shutdown, the Long Beach Grand Prix has been growing stronger every year in size and popularity since the inaugural 1975 race; albeit even through the financial wobbly first false starts. As one of the premier motorsport events in the world, the Long Beach Grand Prix attracts racers from all over the globe and more than 190,000 spectators. 



Drivers, Start Your Engines

Founder CRP served as the president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach for 27 years and chaired numerous boards. He was chairman of the Greater Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, was co-chair with Mayor Beverly O’Neill on the Long Beach Economic Development Partnership, has been recognized by US Congress, the state assembly and senate, and even served on President Clinton’s International Tourism Council.


This lad from across the pond not only achieved the American dream for himself but for an entire city in need of a rebirth. Of course, an undertaking of this magnitude could not have been achieved without the help and support of the thousands of those who dared believe one man’s idea; from “loyal, supportive, patient shareholders, cooperation from city hall, cooperative union support, laborers, corporate support, great staff,” and his patient and understanding wife of 40 years. 


“And [the] great community who put up with a lot over the years with traffic diversions and street closures,” CRP said. A community that, without an immigrant visionary that had the audacity to say out loud, “What if we tried this?” would not have been put on the map and take its rightful place as the International City. 




 

Read All About It!

Written by motorsport journalist Gordon Kirby, who covered the first Long Beach Grand Prix in 1975, Chris Pook and the History of the Long Beach Grand Prix, has become the in-depth authority on the subject. The hefty 320-page book (available at racemaker.com) includes beautiful photographs of this prestigious sport. 


SPRING INTO ACTION!

The 49th edition of the Long Beach Grand Prix will take place April 19th-21st. 

Tickets at gplb.com

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