In the spring of 1977, I was living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and was only following Formula One through my subscription to Road and Track. One of my neighbors had formerly been an engineer at Ford, and suggested the possibility of driving to Los Angeles for the Long Beach Grand Prix. I had friends living in Los Angeles, was able to get time off both my jobs, so I said yes.
We left Steamboat on a Tuesday morning, and drove through some spectacular scenery in Western Colorado and Utah, including Bryce Canyon. We stopped for the night in Las Vegas, got a couple of cheap rooms, and my friends Al and Elaine went to a show, and I went to the blackjack table at Caesar’s Palace. Ten hours later they came and got me from the same table, and off to Los Angeles we went. We found my friend’s place in Northridge easily, settled in and dumped our stuff, and had dinner at In’N’Out Burger.
On Thursday we found our way to Long Beach, where we found some of the racecars on display, including Mario Andretti’s Lotus, Jochen Mass’ McLaren, Niki Lauda’s Ferrari, and Jacques Laffite’s Ligier-Matra. Al told me nothing sounded like the Matra, and I found out he was right the next day during practice.
During practice we stayed on the west side of the circuit, moving from the Queen’s Hairpin , along Pine Avenue, and up the hill to Ocean Boulevard. Between practice sessions we were able to walk through the paddock and see the cars up close as the mechanics worked on them. Tyrrell were running the 6-wheel P34 that season, and seeing the front suspension was very interesting.
Dinner that night was at Gladstones by the Sea, at the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and the Pacific Coast Highway, and even 41 years later, remains memorable. Not just for the food, but also for the presence of Rod Stewart at a nearby table.
Saturday’s practice and qualifying were exciting, with Niki Lauda taking the pole in his Ferrari, with Mario and Jody Scheckter in the Wolf close behind. That year the start was on Ocean Blvd., where the pits were. We chose the Queen’s Hairpin as our vantage point, so were unaware until later of the accident at the first corner between James Hunt’s McLaren and John Watson’s Brabham-Alfa. When the cars first came into view, Scheckter led, with Mario and Niki close behind.
The rest of the field had already fallen back a bit, and that gap would grow, slowly but steadily, through the race. Jody continued to lead, lap after lap, with Mario and Niki lurking close behind, throughout the race.
Hunt had to pit after his first lap accident to have his car checked, and in those days going into the pits was a first-class ticket to defeat, but Hunt continued to battle throughout the race, and wound up 7th, just out of the points.
The whole experience was just one sensation after another, from the beautiful cars with their fabulous liveries, especially the John Player Special Lotuses, Marlboro McLarens, the blue and white 6-wheel Elf Tyrrells, and of course the red Ferraris.
The engine sounds were also spectacular, from the Cosworth DFV’s run by most of the teams, to the flat 12’s of Ferrari and Brabham-Alfas, and of course the wondrous shriek of the V-12 Matra.
On lap 77 of 80, Sheckter finally faltered, and Mario snuck through to take the lead outbraking the Wolf into the Queen’s Hairpin. On the next lap, Lauda also slipped past the Wolf, relegating him to 3rd.
Niki chased Mario hard to the flag, but Mario held on for the win, Niki 2nd, Jody 3rd, Patrick Depailler 4th in the Tyrrell, Emerson Fittipaldi 5th in the Copersucar, and Jean-Pierre Jarier 6th in a Penske, all well over a minute behind the leading three.
I’ve attended many races since, including Formula One at Watkins Glen and Detroit, World Championship endurance races at Daytona, Sebring, and Road Atlanta, but that Long Beach race will always be special. There’s nothing like your first.