Southern California's Grand Prix of Long Beach—North America's premier street-circuit motorsports event—didn't need long to land another automotive manufacturer as its title sponsor. Following longtime partner Toyota's August decision not to renew its contract with Grand Prix of Long Beach organizers, Acura has stepped into the large void with what it and GPLB officials termed a "multiyear" deal, confirmed Tuesday in an official announcement.
The immensely popular race weekend—held annually in April—features on-track action from the NTT IndyCar Series, IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Historic IMSA GTO Challenge, Robby Gordon's Stadium Super Trucks, Pirelli GT4 America, and Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge. Other fan-oriented offerings include an exotic-car parade, a large fan zone and memorabilia display, and concerts.
Acura's confirmation as Long Beach's new title sponsor answers a question that had lingered over the business of U.S.-based racing ever since Toyota last summer ended its historic 44-year association with the event. That relationship began with Long Beach's first-ever Grand Prix weekend, in 1975, when its main event was a Formula 5000 race and Toyota supplied the pace car—beginning an uninterrupted association that Grand Prix officials say was the longest such run in all of sports, not just professional racing. Long Beach in 1976 became a part of the Formula 1 World Championship, and Toyota became its title sponsor ahead of the 1980 installment.
Acura officials say the new partnership is a no-brainer, as the Honda subsidiary continues to push its "Precision Crafted Performance" marketing message in an effort to evolve the marque's image—an image that hasn't always been clear and focused in the U.S. marketplace. In the past few years Acura has launched an all-new NSX sports car that has since raced and won in the GT3 category, and last year the company in association with Team Penske launched a two-car Daytona Prototype international (DPi) effort in the IMSA WeatherTech series with its ORECA-based ARX-05. Coincidentally convenient in light of Tuesday's news, the ARX-05 last season claimed its first-ever IMSA pole position in Long Beach, before it subsequently scored its inaugural series win at Mid-Ohio.
"This was the next step up for us, to have a tier 1 event like Long Beach," said Jon Ikeda, Acura vice president and general manager. "It's an incredible event, the most iconic street race in America. It's time to reset the table and recalibrate [the weekend] with our Acura attitude. We have our [U.S. corporate] home ground in Ohio but also a huge presence in Southern California with our office here. When this opportunity came up, it just made all the sense in the world.
"From an Acura perspective, you notice substantial growth [in sports-car racing and in IndyCar], every year gets bigger and bigger. Honda is established in IndyCar but it's a big part of our American culture for both Acura and Honda from a corporate perspective, [and doing something like this], it's exactly where we need to be. If we're going to be a performance brand, we have to have supercars and we have to go race to be real; authenticity is something [everyone] is very keen on now more than ever. Being able to say we're a performance brand and not just a sticker on a race car, and that we really embrace what we say we are, is a critical component of being real with our consumers. We're committed, and you're starting to see how were playing out our hand as we grow the Acura machine."
Ikeda said Acura in year one of the deal is mostly "just happy to be here," but the company already imagines taking advantage of not just the racing action in Long Beach and the hard-core fans it attracts, but also other components, such as the concerts, to reach a broader demographic.
One big question race fans and automotive enthusiasts in general likely have: Will Acura relaunch the Pro/Celebrity Race that was such a fixture of the Long Beach weekend between 1977 and 2016?
"We'll see what the future holds for all kinds of new things, but [the Pro/Celebrity Race] was a big part of it in the past, so it is an interesting idea," Ikeda said when we raised the issue. "It's still one of 1,000 possible things at the moment, there's lots and lots of things we can think about doing."
One final takeaway from Tuesday's announcement: In a climate that in recent years has heard plenty of whispers regarding racing's demise as imminent, IndyCar and IMSA have received a shot in the arm in terms of corporate support as of late. IMSA now features more OEM participation than it has in years, and IndyCar announced tech company NTT as its new title sponsor at the Detroit auto show in early January. Along with what we understand to be a multimillion-dollar contract between Acura and Long Beach, Firestone on Wednesday is expected to confirm it has extended its multiyear deal to supply IndyCar with tires. In other words, in the span of several weeks, the sport has seen significant deals with new and longtime participants who are expanding their participation and investment. That's a far cry from just a few years ago, when several U.S.-based racing series appeared to be on the ropes.
More recent good news for IndyCar that reflects its upward momentum in the eyes of corporate America includes a deal with Speedway as the official fuel (replacing Sunoco) and as the official convenience store, with marketing activation coming in 4,000 of its retail locations across the country; online annuity and life-insurance agency Gainbridge signing a multimillion-dollar, four-year deal as the Indianapolis 500's presenting sponsor; and a commitment from broadcast partner NBC Sports to televise all of IndyCar's 2019 practice sessions, qualifying sessions, and races on NBC, NBCSN, and/or the IndyCar Pass on NBC Sports Gold.