Every year downtown Long Beach transforms into the center stage of the Toyota Grand Prix. The Saturday highlight, and fan favorite, is always the Pro/Celebrity Race. Hailed as the Indy 500 of celebrity races, it causes movie and television stars to line up next to hall of fame drivers and storied athletes to grind their gears across the streets of Long Beach. The competitive celebrity driving event of the year, the Pro/Celebrity Race attracts speed enthusiasts from Hollywood Boulevard to the Daytona 500.
This year the lineup consisted almost exclusively of past winners – from professional drivers to celebrities to the three-time Charity Auction winner, the race boasted them all. Representing the professional drivers were past winners Max Papis, Jimmy Vasser, Ricky Schroder, Al Unser Jr., Rod Millen, Mike Skinner, Eddie Lawson and Ken Gushi. Lining up for the celebrities were past winners Alfonso Ribeiro, Frankie Muniz, Rutledge Wood, William Fichtner, Adam Carolla, Brian Austin Green, Sean Patrick Flanery, Brett Davern, Dave Pasant and former Olympic Gold Medalist, and the only woman on the track, Dara Torres.
"Having seven pros and 19 past winners, there are all kinds of Type-A personalities here. If I make it through turn one, I’m going to run my own race. I promise you, knowing these guys, there will not be 20 cars coming back here under their own power. My goal is to make it through (turn) one and then drive through the carnage. It’s going to happen, I promise," explained Bob Carter, Toyota’s Senior Vice President of Automotive Operations.
Participating in the final Pro/Celebrity Race was special to everyone involved. While every driver was excited to hit the track and fight for first place, the reality of the last race was at the front of everyone’s mind.
"I’m excited. They’ve invited past winners from the last 39 years and it’s a very competitive field. I’m excited because I’m the only woman here, so I’ve got to bring the estrogen. There are some fast drivers out there. It’ll be interesting to see what happens." - Dara Torres
"This race is special because it is the last one and they’ve brought back their past winners and it’s exciting to get out there and mix it up with all of them." Al Unser Jr.
"43 years of Grand Prix at Long Beach… with 19 past winners. Everybody driving in this event has won before except me. I’m just out there having fun. This is an amazing group of people, there are 7 pros here, Al Jr., Mike Skinner, Eddie Lawson, Max Papis. Jimmy Vassar is probably the quickest guy out there right now – blazing fast. And the celebrities are great. We spent two weekends together. This is a really, really fun group." -Bob Carter
But the nostalgia would have to wait until after the race. While every racer was honored to be there, nobody was satisfied to just attend. Every racer was focused on lining up and fighting for the last Pro/Celebrity championship in history.
"Stacked field of a lot of talent," said Ken Gushi, SR by Toyota Drift Driver before practice, "It’s not going to be an easy race. I’m sure there is going to be a lot of wreckage and chaos. I’ll be in the back watching all that unfold and seeing if Bob Carter can enjoy himself."
From young gun Ken Gushi to seasoned pros like Al Unser Jr., sportsmanship and competition fueled the race with full throttle adrenaline. "Max and I were out there at practice and he was banging me around a little bit," noted Al Unser Jr. 2005 winner Frankie Muniz was excited to race all of the former champions, "I want to beat everybody," stated Muniz, "I’m a racer, being in the middle of the pack is not acceptable, I want to be the best."
Ken Gushi kept it strategic, "I want to follow a lot of the experienced drivers, Al Unser Jr., Rod Millen, Jimmy Vassar and see how they attack the corners. I don’t really have much experience on a road course," Gushi remarked, "so following them is going to be key, and seeing how fast they pace up."
During the practice run Alfonso Ribeiro had extensive car trouble, but with the help of his crew he kept in good spirits as he prepared for his qualifying run. "It’s awesome to be here. This is truly one of the best races out there. There is nothing more fun than being in these cars and being here at Long Beach. It’s fantastic."
Focused on charity, the real winners are the children at Miller Children’s Hospital. "We can’t lose sight of what’s really special about this. We started this to fund Racing For Kids. The whole group went over to Miller Children’s Hospital to spend some time with the kids. As much fun as this is, for myself, for the pros and for the celebrities here, the reason we do this is for the kids who are having a tough time over at the children’s hospital here in town," said Bob Carter who kept his primary focus on the cause.
"Ultimately this race is for a cause. We had the time to visit the children at the Miller Children’s Hospital and it was great, everyone was happy and the children were happy." Ken Gushi
Repeating his overall win in 2015, four-time Pro/Celebrity Champion Alfonso Ribeiro edged out NASCAR’s Max Papis by 4.8 seconds. With Ribeiro’s chapter-closing win, an extra $5,000 will be donated on his behalf to Fresh Start Surgical Gifts - a non-profit dedicated to providing reconstructive surgery. Toyota also donates $5,000 per driver to Racing For Kids totaling $100,000 this year.
"Toyota Motorsports have been super; the Scions are prepared really well. They run especially good. It’s always a joy to drive a Toyota Scion." -Al Unser Jr.
Fender-benders and hairpin turns make the track a unique challenge; but The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach boasts a world-renowned street course that stretches every driver who hits the starting line. This year’s Scion FR-S models were loaded with TRD parts, dialed-in and calibrated to handle Long Beach’s custom course. "I love it, the Scion FR-S has been awesome," Frankie Muniz added, "They are really reliable which is the most important thing in the end."
"We are beating on them for 10 full laps non-stop, full-throttle. These cars are pretty robust and tough. Hats off to TRD for creating such wonderful machinery for us." -Ken Gushi
With the intense competition these drivers face, their rides need to deliver intensity to match. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity FR-S race cars were expertly spec'd and prepped to bring excitement to the track. The first element in the power equation for these cars is a free-breathing TRD performance-air intake, to deliver cooler air from the front of the vehicle. The cooler air is more dense, providing more air to the engine to answer the demand for more horsepower and torque for improved acceleration.
At Toyota and TRD Accessories, when we race - you win! Because we take the lessons we learn on the race track - whether's it's a dragstrip or a road race course - and apply that technology to the products we offer to Toyota and Scion owners.