Brian Redman on 1975 Long Beach win: “Everything worked out fantastically”

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Although the actual date anniversary occurs later this year (September 28), 2015 still marks the 40-year anniversary of the birth of a classic.

The winning driver was Brian Redman. The car was a Lola T332-Chevrolet entered by Haas Racing.

The race? A then first-time Formula 5000 event in what was then a dumpy, rundown, city called Long Beach, Calif., and known as the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Forty years later, Long Beach is the undisputed gold standard of street racing in North America, and second or third in the world. It revs up again this weekend for the 41st running, now featuring the Verizon IndyCar Series on a shorter course.

But some 40 years after the original, Redman’s still around to relive the memories, and the Englishman was all too happy to do so when I spoke to him at Sebring last month chatting with him about another of his past wins – the 1975 12 Hours of Sebring – that had happened earlier that year.

Redman today, reunited with his Sebring-winning BMW. Photo: BMW

The Long Beach field was grand – names such as Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Tony Brise, Tom Pryce, Jody Scheckter, David Hobbs and Gordon Johncock were among the luminaries in the 44-car field – but the area itself was far from it.

“As you probably know, Long Beach was an enormous entry,” Redman recalled, in an exclusive interview with MotorSportsTalk. “World Champions from all over the place were in it.”

“Yet the track and surrounding area were really decrepit, terrible! It was mostly old people’s homes and brothels!

“I remember in practice one day I was standing, watching the cars go past, and a little old lady from one of the homes was watching with me, turned to me and said, ‘Tell me sonny, are those real men in those cars?’ I said, “I don’t really know, I think so!’”

Redman recalled the track itself. Elements from the original 2.02-mile, 13-turn track are still in play today, notably Shoreline Drive and what is now the Turns 9-10-11 complex.

Practice nearly broke Redman’s car before he even had the chance to race.

Redman’s winning F5000 car on display last year. Photo: Tony DiZinno

“The track was very rough,” he said. “Going up to the pit straight, uphill, was very bumpy. And then after the pit straight, into Turn 1, I don’t think you came completely off the ground, but the car went very light. It was in second gear. For a fraction of a second, once it landed, you could open the throttle wide before you had to got back on the brakes for the next left-hander.

“Well towards the end of practice, I did as usual … I went up a little bit, down, flat in second and it turned sharp right! Fortunately I didn’t hit anything. I came into the pits and told Jim Hall, ‘I think something’s broken in the differential.’ He said, ‘Well we’ll take a look at it, but I sure hate to change anything the night before the race.’ Anyway they opened the gearbox, and the Wiseman limited slip had broken. So they changed it.”

Brise had the pole and Redman set off with the repaired car, hoping it would stick for the race, even with Hall – the noted Chaparral design wizard that he is – skeptical it would work.

Then the drivers in front of him started falling like dominos.

“The race started, I think Mario was leading, Tony Brise, Graham Hill’s protégé, was second and Al Unser was third. I was fourth,” Redman said. “But I was OK. I was fairly happy. I knew it would be a long, hard race.

“Anyway the first thing I see, Mario is out with a broken gearbox. Then Tony Brise is out with a broken driveshaft. Then Al Unser’s in the wall, so I’m leading! Unbelievable!”

The twinkle in his eye emerged, a smile appeared… and then Redman immediately shifted gears to remembering how he had to keep his own car in shape to avoid falling victim to the same fate as the others in front of him.

“Jody Scheckter was second and closing a bit. But so what happened, my differential broke again on the 10th lap, so I had to take it easy. There was nothing else I could do.

“Instead of going flat out in second gear up the hill to the pit straight, and flat out down into Turn 1, I’d have to go in gently and open the throttle without going flat out.

“And that’s how I drove the race, and we finished, and won it!”

What happened next only adds to the legend.

“Of course they couldn’t find the ‘race queen’ after the race, and we had Boraxo sponsorship for the first time,” Redman said. “It wound up the wife of our sponsor became the ‘race queen!’

“After I get out of the car, I see the victory podium was a back of a truck! I remember saying on the podium, I was so lucky that it kept going. Everything worked out fantastically.

“And because of that, we got the Boraxo sponsorship for 1976.”

Long Beach, of course, got Formula 1 for 1976, as Chris Pook’s grand master plan of the city’s emergence on the world stage came to life following the successful F5000 race. F1 ran through 1983 and while rumors of its return have endured, the race is firmly an IndyCar stronghold now – as it’s been since 1984.

But Redman endures in history as the track’s only F5000 race winner, but more importantly, the inaugural winner of one of North America’s grandest car races.

It’s an honor he distinctly appreciates, and one we do as well as Long Beach adds more to the history books this weekend.