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Ryan Hunter-Reay among drivers who look forward to Grand Prix of Long Beach

IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay is interviewed during IndyCar auto racing media day, Monday, Feb. 11
IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay says the Grand Prix of Long Beach ranks right behind the Indianapolis 500 on his list of favorite races.
(Stephen Spillman / Associated Press)

When IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay pulls out his calendar for the new year, he first circles the Indianapolis 500 in May as the most important date. His next circle: the Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Most IndyCar racers feel the same way about Long Beach, a race on the city’s seaside streets that has become an iconic stop over the last 45 years both in motor racing and in Southern California for its festival atmosphere throughout the weekend.

“Long Beach is one of my favorite races of the year, second only behind the Indy 500, so I really look forward to it,” said Hunter-Reay, who won the Long Beach race in 2010 and two years later was the NTT IndyCar Series champion.

This year’s race has a new title sponsor with Acura, which replaced longtime sponsor Toyota, but the Sunday race is the same 11-turn, 1.97-mile temporary street course that includes sweeping Shoreline Drive.

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“It’s the atmosphere, the layout of the track, the venue, everything about it” that makes Long Beach special, said Hunter-Reay, who also met his wife, Beccy, sister of racer Robby Gordon, in Long Beach. “The energy of the fans during the whole weekend — there’s nothing like it.”

Along with Hunter-Reay, favorites include two-time Long Beach winner Will Power of Team Penske; reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing, the 2015 Long Beach winner; and Alexander Rossi, the Andretti Autosport driver who captured last year’s race in dominating fashion by winning from the pole and leading 71 of the 85 laps.

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Sebastien Bourdais of the Dale Coyne Racing team also is a perennial contender, the Frenchman having won this race three consecutive years, 2005 through 2007.

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That was when Indy-style racing was divided into two series, the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series, with Bourdais driving on the Champ Car side. The two series reunited in 2008.

This will be the fourth race of the IndyCar series’ 17-race season. Josef Newgarden, another Team Penske driver who was series champion in 2017, won the season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla.

Rookie Colton Herta of Valencia then won the series’ inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, on March 24, becoming at age 18 the youngest winner in series history. Herta, the son of former race-car driver Bryan Herta, turned 19 a week later.

Returning from his best season yet as a rookie IndyCar driver, 24-year-old Zach Veach gives a tour of the Long Beach Grand Prix street course. Racing for Andretti Autosport, Veach will be one of 24 IndyCar drivers in the 2019 Grand Prix of Long Beac

Takuma Sato won last week’s race at the Barber Motorsports Park road course in Alabama for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team, whose owners include David Letterman, the former talk show host.

Indeed, Sato arguably arrives as the leading favorite in Southern California because he not only has the momentum from last week, but also is a past winner in Long Beach, in 2013.

But parity has been the theme in recent years. Seven different drivers have won the last seven Long Beach races.

Long Beach is “a demanding and really tricky circuit,” Graham Rahal, Sato’s teammate, said in notes released by their team. “For a street circuit, it’s long, has great high-speed areas but huge brake zones that you have to get through, which are awesome passing opportunities. I love Long Beach.”

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The IndyCar drivers will have two practice sessions Friday and then qualify Saturday to set the starting grid.

The weekend features several other types of racing as well, including the Pirelli GT4 America and IMSA WeatherTech sports-car series, a drifting challenge and the so-called super truck series led by Robby Gordon.

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes


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