Why John Morris loves the Grand Prix of Long Beach

Written by Amber Batchelor

For the past 40 years, the sunny west coast city of Long Beach has been the home to the Grand Prix of Long Beach IndyCar Series race. Held since 1975 on a street circuit throughout downtown Long Beach, this thrill-seeking event has become the biggest racing hub outside of Monaco for many Southern California residents. Back in the day, patrons such as Paul Newman, George Harrison and Frank Sinatra were among the crowd-watching daredevils, witnessing the world’s fastest drivers weave in and out of Ocean Boulevard.

 

“Long Beach was now on the map — I call it Monaco West”, proclaims Long Beach VIP John Morris.

The Man, the Myth and the Legend(s) himself is most known for owning Legends Sport Bar and Boathouse on the Bay, but he is also known for his beloved support and tradition of never missing a Grand Prix weekend, his favorite weekend of the year! The Grand Prix weekend also happens to fall on his birthday every year; you could say the weekend and Morris were meant to be.

In September 1975, an English man by the name of Brian Redman won Long Beach’ first Formula 5000 race, which was a prelude to today’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“And man was it an exciting time,” John proclaims.

Mario Andretti won in September 1976 and kick started the Formula 1 race. Morris said it was one of the biggest moments in racing history for him and for Long Beach.

“You couldn’t have scripted it better,” he said.

Prior to his restaurant successes, John Morris was a strapping, young Liverpool lad living in Belmont Shore who didn’t know anyone. Being the camaraderie ringleader, a young Morris wanted to figure out a way to meet people, build a bigger experience for everyone during the weekend and make it fun. The Grand Prix gave him that sense of belonging. Having something so special in your own backyard might have been exciting itself but Morris wasn’t satisfied with that. He wanted to take things a step further, bringing the community even closer together.

With the help of his neighbors Dennis and Lori McConkey, Morris organized multiple London double decker bus packages, shuttling fifty plus people to and from the races. In the process, they were unknowingly building their own kind of family. For the next four years, Morris continuously organized the bus packages as fans grew and grew. Morris has taken thousands of spectators for years and continues to this day.

In 1979 Morris opened Legends, and 1980 was the first year Legends hosted the Grand Prix. This amplified Morris’ love for the event even more. Buses upon buses ran to and from and things flourished. Grandstand 26 continued until 1983 and now has turned into something even bigger than anyone ever imagined. At the time, there was no one doing anything near what Morris was doing for The Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“Legends became the headquarters for the Grand Prix. We had everyone — the proverbial ‘who’s who’ — coming in and out of there.”

One of Morris’ great memories includes Nelson Piquet winning The Grand Prix in 1980. There was no downtown business back in the day, so the Brazilian driver would hang out at Legends, as many drivers often did.

“No Pine Avenue, No Shoreline Village, No Pike,” Morris jokes. “There were a lot of x-rated movie theaters! Not a lot of things to do.”

2nd Street was receiving the action at the time and Piquet told Morris in 1980, “Come to me after the race; I have something for you.”

He peeled the cover and generously gave Morris the blue and white shell of his Formula 1 race car. Morris was in shock and recalls this as one of his most cherished memories. The shell hung in the Legends establishment for years until, unfortunately, the original Legends was destroyed in a terrible fire and the car was lost in the inferno.

Due to Morris’ generous hospitality given to drivers and sports stars, his reputation continued to grow in Long Beach year after year. Morris finally felt he belonged.

“That’s what you do when people are visiting; you treat them like gold,” Morris said.

Another memorable moment Morris recalls during the Grand Prix weekend involved James Hunt, the famous British driver who’s life was chronicled in the movie Rush. Morris had the privilege of hanging out with Hunt, and the rowdy young gentlemen were enjoying a jacuzzi night at Marina Pacifica townhomes when security proceeded to kick everyone out for having too much of a good time.

 

From there, Hunt drove the two to downtown Long Beach in five minutes. “I thought I was going to throw up!” Morris recalls. “Those were the days you could get away with shenanigans.”

After a successful opening Legends, hosting Grand Prix events and meeting more people in Long Beach, Legends gained the rights to the concession stands for The Long Beach Grand Prix. This led to many more great stories, including a beer war between Budweiser and Strows.

“Budweiser won,” Morris claims.

Being in charge of the concession stands for John Morris was a huge pivotal moment in his career and social life. His partner, Dennis Harrah, all-pro, played right guard for the Los Angeles Rams and added more life to his passion for this infamous weekend. One of Morris’ favorite memories entails observing Harrah, many times carrying multiple kegs of beer on his shoulders up and down Pine Avenue in order to win the beer war.

Through this process of obtaining the concession rights, another great friendship formed because of the Grand Prix of Long Beach. At the time, a gentleman named Whitey Littlefield, a good friend of Morris, was the general manager and Frank Sinatra’s partner in the Budweiser distribution center locally in Long Beach. Littlefield called Morris one day and asked if he knew of the famous driver Bobby Rahal and asked he if he would take him out to play golf. Whitey never played golf and Morris recites a quote Littlefield always said:

“Anybody that plays golf doesn’t have sex.”

Morris in hysterics he had the pleasure of taking Bobby Rahal out to play a round of golf at Long Beach Recreation Park Golf Course and they have been best friends ever since! Every year since, Rahal has continued to visit Morris’ restaurants in Long Beach and this great friendship developed through The Grand Prix. Bobby is a great supporter of Morris and Long Beach to this day. Morris has also connected Bobby to the Long Beach Boys And Girls Club, which has helped raise lots of funding and support for the club. Morris has witnessed Bobby drive all over the world in races and in the present day the two men have now become an even bigger family, along their own families as well. Graham Rahal, Bobby’s son, is now the leading driver of Rahal family and,

“Now we’re here today, Grahams the driver, Bobby’s the owner and I’m still a fan,” Morris states.

Around the time Morris met Bobby, he met Pete Twiddy and Kevin Diamond who were a part of the Penske group and raced for Marlboro racing. He met the pair at The Long Beach Grand Prix Golf Tournament and back in 70’s & 80’s this golf tournament was the hottest ticket in town along with the race. All drivers and celebrities participated and came to enjoy the fun. Not only for the tournament but also but the Toyota celebrity race held during the Grand Prix as well.

Fast forward to 1988; John Morris opened Mums Restaurant in Downtown Long Beach and it wasn’t always fun at first. He opened Mums in February of 1988 and held his first Grand Prix April that same year. Located where BO-beau is today, besides the infamous weekend, being downtown was rough in those years. There wasn’t one other open business on the block of Pine Avenue. Many buildings there today were non-existent; all storefronts were boarded up and the only business open was Mums. Morris remembers a time when things were uneasy downtown and business for the restaurant was a struggle, Mums wasn’t doing well at all.

“Mums was an establishment that could seat over 200+ people,” Morris says, “I would be lucky if I could serve 20 dinners on a Saturday night.”

People were afraid to come downtown because of the fear factor and he wanted to change that around. Pioneering was not easy but Morris became a part of what could be known as the downtown renaissance, building up Downtown Long Beach to what it is today. Morris attributes a lot of his future success of Mums restaurant to Bobby Rahal, Pete Tweedy and Kevin Diamond who helped put downtown on the radar for whose-who during the Grand Prix weekend. Mums then turned into the place to be, flooded with celebrities during this weekend and catapulted Downtown Long Beach into stardom and possibilities, the bus packages continued on. Bobby Rahal, Pete Tweedy and Kevin Diamond are one example of how great characters can acquire helpful, caring friendships in creating this warm community Morris has come to live, know and love today. Building these relationships, networking with peers put him in a space where people naturally gravitated towards him and effortlessly wanted to help out this self-made Mr. Long Beach in return.

Morris then found himself coming back to the east side of town, the great 90803, and acquired his fourth restaurant known today as Boathouse on the Bay, previously known as McKenna’s on the Bay. With the successful history of the bus packages at Legends and Mums, Morris wanted to continue his tradition of building the Grand Prix experience for the Long Beach community. Morris contemplated how he was going to tie the Grand Prix in while being on the opposite side of town from the races. He wanted to keep the excitement and interest alive for future generations.

“For 20 years I made my friends and peers go to Pine Avenue because there was no other place to go. Now I’m giving people another option with an even better form of transportation, on the water,” says Morris.

Morris did not want to settle for his traditional idea of using buses but instead, he thought outside the box, wanting to utilize his gorgeous, front yard, Los Alamitos Bay. Back in the day, the Aqualink, the boat public transposition located in front of Boathouse On The Bay, only operated during the months of summer. Morris wanted to encompass the Aqualink during the month of April to use during the Grand Prix weekend; it only felt natural to embody the luxury of the races while coming on a boat! With the help of his good friends, Greg Bombard from Catalina Express and Larry Jackson from Long Beach transit, these two men agreed to lease the Aqualink to Morris for the big weekend. Never done before, Morris has now created Grand Prix packages using the Aqualink and these packages still live on today! The Boathouse Grand Prix packages include a three day premium reserved seating in grandstand 40, three day round trip via Aqualink and a Saturday and Sunday brunch voucher for only $195 per person. Before this package, many people who came to Long Beach only for the Grand Prix never really ventured to the east side and John Morris has given these people and others a great excuse to check out what else Long Beach has to offer during the Grand Prix weekend.

The Aqualink is the most convenient way to commute to the downtown area; arriving in style, the Aqualink drops you off right in front of the grand stand 40. This wishful idea of connecting the east side of Long Beach with upper Orange County to the Grand Prix turned into fruition for Morris! Providing this unique experience while combining his favorite weekend of the year has been a dream for this young –spirited entrepreneur. Coining the term “Monaco West,” Morris paints the perfect picture of Long Beach Grand Prix experience,

“You’re getting the Monaco experience, 100 foot yachts right outside the Boathouse, beautiful marina right outside, you have Alamitos Bay,” John says, “You’re going to cruise from Alamitos Bay, out to the ocean looking at the peninsula, Ocean Boulevard and downtown Long Beach. Seeing the city skyscrapers as you approach the Aquarium of the Pacific and The Queen Mary, pull into the dock, get off the boat and walk directly to your seat. What an experience!”

Following after the races, you hop back onto the Aqualink, head back to the beautiful Boathouse on the Bay, have yourself a cocktail, great food, live music while gazing at the sunset to end an unforgettable day. Morris ran this promotion for eight years until it became so popular, the city of Long Beach decided to take it away solely from Morris and provide the Aqualink opportunity for all in April but he was able to hold tight onto his packages.  Till this day Morris continues his love for The Long Beach Grand Prix by never missing the weekend since his first experience in 1975. Over the years he has experienced riding in many pace cars but his most recent, greatest memories of the Grand Prix was on Morris’ 70th birthday. Morris experienced riding in the two seater Indy car with Mario Andretti.

“He took me on a lap that I’ll never forget.”

As John Morris looks back at 40 years of Long Beach racing, he credits his greatest memories to the unique relationships built through the Grand Prix weekend. Nothing but great relationships, with all types of people have formed, for example, to meet one of his favorite people, Chip Gnassi, the Target car owner. Other colorful memories for Morris include having dinner with Paul Newman at Mums restaurant on Pine Avenue, traveling all over the world with his best friend, the world famous Bobby Rahal, being his personal guest at the Indy 500, returning ten times since! To rubbing elbows alongside George Harrison and Ringo Star on a yacht in Monaco, Morris says,

“Who would have thought? A kid from Widnes outside of Liverpool, would be hanging out with the Beatles in the late 70’s because of the relationship formed from the Grand Prix!”

These experiences are a small fraction of how great things can happen to driven, hungry, dedicated young entrepreneurs. Morris exudes gratitude for the once in lifetime opportunities that have derived because of his love for bringing people together. In the early years of the Long Beach Grand Prix, Morris’ driving force to be a part of this weekend was not only to connect thousands over 40 years but also continuously connect all walks of life together for the years to come. Connecting people is Morris’s passion and now has become his natural forte. This is why Morris loves the Long Beach Grand Prix; because anything is possible when you’re good to those around you, putting your heart into your dreams while enjoying the ride in the process.

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