Jim Michaelian is the heart and soul of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, an original employee who at age 32 in 1975 embraced Chris Pook’s vision of bringing a Monaco-style motorsports event to Southern California’s port city. He was the event’s first controller.
Powered by drinking water, lemonade and one meal a day, Michaelian, now 79, has nurtured the event as it has transitioned from featuring Formula 5000, Formula One, CART, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League to its current format led by the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. But the past two years have been a pandemic-induced challenge, with the 2020 event canceled and last year’s event moved to September from its traditional April date.
Finally, Long Beach is back to its rightful place: in mid-April with Michaelian, the president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, leading an experienced team.
INDYCAR.com’s Curt Cavin spoke with Michaelian, the one-time sports car endurance driver, in advance of Sunday’s 37th INDYCAR SERIES race at Long Beach.
Q: This much feel like such a relief to again be racing in April and in a much more normal landscape. Is it?
Michaelian: Damn right; let’s get this thing on. It’s now that time of the year – April, spring break time, vacations, families are moving around – and we want them to come to the grand prix. We’re happy to be on our old April date (because) date equity has value to it. Even though we enjoyed being the last race of the ’21 season, April is our home, and we will continue to put races on in that time frame for the foreseeable future, as they say.
Q: Being the season finale last year was interesting from a competition standpoint, but how did it impact the event and its casual fans who annually attend?
Michaelian: I think the race being held a different time of the year was different in that there’s a lot more competition for the sports fan in the fall – there’s even more competition for media exposure and getting your message out in September. Keep in mind that it was a one-off for us, so we had to deploy extra measures to let everyone know the race was coming in September as opposed to their more traditional April date. The other thing to keep in mind is that last year’s event was right in the heart of that Omicron pandemic, and in fact we were the first “mega” event per the definition set by the State of California, so we had to not only require masks worn but everyone also had to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. That made it difficult for all of us.
Q: In retrospect, how did the event fare from your seat?
Michaelian: The good news is, even with all those protocols and mandates, we had a very successful event. We put just over 180,000 people in here over the three days, and more importantly, it gave us a significant amount of momentum coming out of September with the acknowledgement that we were going to reconvene the whole circus within six or seven months. We took a very short period of time to review what had transpired and then we turned around and began actively putting this race on. Fortunately for us, our team is very experienced. Most of us have been here 20 or 30 years, so being able to turn around and put on another event that quickly has not really been a challenge for us. It’s actually been more fun because we just were interfacing with a lot of the people in the racing community, and now they’re back.
Q: And here you are, seven months later staging another event.
Michaelian: Well, our first race, in 1975, was held Sept. 28, and a much-less experienced staff turned around and staged the first Formula One race here in March of 1976. So, what we’re doing now replicates what we’re did then but with a much more experienced staff.
Q: Are you expecting a crowd similar to what you had in 2019?
Michaelian: We’re currently trending slightly ahead of where we were in 2019. Obviously, there are a few factors you can’t control, and you never know what might occur at the last minute. The trends are looking very positive, but of course I hesitate to look at a weather forecast. If the weather holds, I think we’re going to be back to a more normalized situation. Virtually all of our hospitality is sold out; we have no weekend hospitality left available – literally none – and we have very few Sunday-only hospitality options available. Certainly, we’re more aligned with 2018 or 2019 than we were last year.
This weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach begins Friday with a flurry of on-track activity, highlighted by the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice (6:15 p.m. ET, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network). The 85-lap race is set for Sunday at 3 p.m. on NBC, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network.