This weekend’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was a bittersweet one for race fans, and not just because of the Grand Prix’s surprising outcome. It also marked the final Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, as the auto giant is ending the charity competition while it prepares to move its operations out of Southern California and into Texas.
It’s a decision that Toyota may wind up regretting.
The Pro/Celebrity Race wasn’t just another celebrity exhibition sporting event. Over 40 years it became the premier charity race in the United States and a fixture in both the motorsports community and the community of Long Beach. By concluding it, we’re losing not only a quality race that was actually more competitive than Sunday’s IndyCar event, but also something that helped a tremendous amount of people and literally changed the lives of many who were involved.
First and foremost the TPCR, as it came to be abbreviated, was about helping children in need. It raised millions of dollars on behalf of Racing For Kids, a non-profit organization which supports ill children through motorsports. The money was only part of the contribution. Each year, the drivers participating in the race would visit Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach and spend time with the young patients there, creating memories that these kids will probably never forget. Ask anyone who’s been a part of the race over the last four decades and they’ll tell you that the most important part was being able to support the children and their families.
On the streets of Long Beach the TPCR was also a surprisingly great motorsports event. Where many charity contests don’t measure up to their professional counterparts, this event was usually full of people who actually took it seriously and competed truly caring about doing well. Many had prior professional racing experience including now four-time winner Alfonso Ribeiro, Patrick Dempsey and Sean Patrick Flanery, to name but three. Others may never have been drivers but still put in the work and the heart to give a good fight such as Olympic heroine Dara Torres, actors Brett Davern, Tricia Helfer and Joshua Morrow, and comedian and TV host Adam Carolla. These were people who really could drive and so the TPCR was always a real auto race.
But what race fans are losing goes well beyond just putting on a good show. The TPCR became an institution in Long Beach and a community unto itself. There are several of its participants that have stated part of the reason they got into acting was in hopes of being invited to be part of the event. Others have made lifelong friends through the race that they might not have even met otherwise, as there was always a varied cross-section of actors, musicians, athletes and of course professional drivers in the field. And the experience of being part of the race made memories and opened doors that so many people will cherish.
This writer can speak to that last part from personal experience. I had the pleasure of being part of the Pro/Celebrity Race for the last four years and even in that relatively short timeframe can point to a half-dozen different things that have changed because of it. Two of my best friends, TV personality Rutledge Wood and actor Michael Trucco, competed in the race multiple times and I was blessed to be part of their experience. I made countless other connections through the race, forging friendships with people such as Brett, Alfonso and Dave Pasant and finally getting to meet a number of other folks that I had worked with but had never otherwise been able to put faces to. I’ll always smile thinking back to the good times I had with the likes of Tricia, Sam Witwer, Nick Wechsler and Mark McGrath. These are people that came to find a special place in my life because of our shared experience. Being part of the TPCR just bonds you with everyone else who’s been a part of it, like being welcomed into a family that you’ll always be a member of.
And it’s this event that kick-started my career as a motorsports journalist. The TPCR was the first major racing event that I ever covered, and my experience as part of it enabled me to expand my work into IndyCar, Global Rallycross and NASCAR. I’ve now gotten to work with some of the best drivers in the world because of the years I spent within the TPCR sphere, and I’ll always be grateful that I was able to begin what’s now a passion of mine in such a wonderful and rewarding environment.
That’s what makes the fact that the TPCR is over such a disappointing turn of events. As far as has been publicly documented the only reason it’s ending is because of something that has nothing to do with the event itself. It’s understandable why Toyota would want to shut down an event that is rooted in California when it no longer benefits them to keep it going (and on that note we should probably be worried about their title support of the Grand Prix, as that contract will be up for renewal next year). But this is something that did so much good for so many people, whether it was creating a family for the participants or helping countless families in their darkest hour. There are other celebrity auto races but none that can claim the positive impact of the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race.
Toyota owns the rights to the Pro/Celebrity Race concept, though, so it’s their decision to make and one that’s already been made. All fans can do now is sit back and look at 40 years of memories. Yet as we do that and we can hear so many quotes from so many people talking about how they are glad they were able to give back to the kids, or so thankful for the friends that they were able to make, or were given an experience that they don’t think they’ll have again, it’s hard not to shed a few tears. By ending the TPCR, Toyota is leaving a major hole in the motorsports world that will never be filled – and a legacy that will be very hard to live up to.