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Long Beach Grand Prix has party mood, but racing there is no day at the beach

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Drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series love traveling to Southern California for the annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

They can let down their hair, and like the Beach Boys sang in Surfin’ USA, you might even see a few drivers “wearing their baggies (shorts), Huarachi sandals, too” when they’re not in their race cars.

“It’s like a big party at the beach,” said 1999 TGPLB winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

But the 1.968-mile, 11-turn race contested on a temporary street course that abuts part of the Pacific Ocean shoreline will not be a day at the beach by any means.

Scott Dixon won last year’s 80-lap, 157.44-mile event for the first time in his career, eventually capturing the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, while former TGPLB winner Helio Castroneves started from the pole with a record-setting speed of 106.331 mph.

Dixon is looking to make it two wins in a row not only at Long Beach but also in the early part of the 2016 season, having won two weeks ago at Phoenix.

“Long Beach has such an amazing history,” Dixon said. “It’s a truly iconic American event that started gaining a lot of popularity with Formula One back in the day.

“With the layout of the track, it’s truly one of the best street circuits anywhere around, and more importantly you actually get to race there. It took me forever to get to victory lane there, but we managed to accomplish that last year and I hope we can return to that form again this year.”

Sebastien Bourdais is a three-time winner (2005-2007) at Long Beach, while Will Power is a two-time winner (2008, 2012) there. They are the only active multi-race winners in Sunday’s race.

“It is a great event because of the atmosphere,” Bourdais said. “Next to the Indy 500, it is the premier event on our schedule.”

Other former TGPLB winners in the field are Juan Pablo Montoya (1999), Helio Castroneves (2001), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2010), Takuma Sato (2013) and Dixon (2015).

“It’s always a lot of fun racing in Long Beach,” Castroneves said. “It’s incredible that this will be 42 years that this event is here. There’s so much tradition and history with this race and it’s a pretty special event to have on our Verizon IndyCar Series calendar every year.

“I remember when we won at Long Beach in 2001. That was awesome and we’ve been close a few other times, including last year when we won the pole and finished second. We will be looking for our first win of 2016 on Sunday in the No. 3 Auto Club of Southern California Chevy and Long Beach will be a great place to do it.”

Added Sato, “Long Beach is always a special place for me. I simply love the venue, atmosphere, great restaurants, enthusiastic fans and, of course, I enjoy driving the track so much. It holds an incredible memory for me (2013 win), so I am looking forward to going back there very much.”

Montoya laments that it has been 17 years since his lone win at Long Beach. He’s ready to break that winless streak Sunday.

“That’s been a long time,” Montoya said. We’ve been pretty strong there the last couple of years, running in the top five, and hopefully we’ll be in a good position to continue that this weekend.

“We always get a great crowd at Long Beach – it’s one of the best atmospheres for racing that we have in the Verizon IndyCar Series. … I’m hoping we’ll have good reason to celebrate with everyone on Sunday after the race.”

James Hinchcliffe is looking forward to returning to Long Beach not only because of the atmosphere, but he’s hoping it brings a turnaround to what has started out as a tough season.

“Long Beach is one of the best events on the calendar,” Hinchcliffe said. “There’s a reason it’s been around more than 40 years. The track, the city, the events around town, they’re all great.

“Long Beach has been nice to me in the past, so hopefully we can have a solid weekend there after a few tough events and really kick off the season.”

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”