Champagne was flowing in abundance Downtown Sunday afternoon, as the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach decided two champions: Colton Herta won the race, and Alex Palou won the IndyCar series championship, which was decided in Long Beach for the first time.
Herta, a 21 year-old Southern California native, has a long history in Long Beach. He attended the race as a baby with his mother, as his father Bryan was racing.
“This has been on the bucket list for so long, I’m super happy,” said Herta after the race. “This is the biggest race for me outside of Indy, it’s the first race I was able to come to. I was two weeks old when I first came to Long Beach, my father was driving in 2000. Growing up around here, I came to this race every year all the way until I was driving in IndyCar. I can’t believe I won it on my second try.”
Herta started way back in 14th place, but jumped into the lead early in the race and was able to defend his position for the final 60 laps—he was the clear crowd favorite, drawing huge applause as he took the checkered flag on Shoreline.
“It was fun to come from the back,” he said. “Maybe a little bit more stressful.”
Palou became the first Spanish driver to win an IndyCar title. Long Beach’s race normally takes place near the start of the season in April, but was postponed to the final race of the season due to COVID-19 protocols, meaning the IndyCar crown was decided here this year. Palou, 24, drives for Chip Ganassi Racing and has a bright future, with more champagne potentially to come in Long Beach.
After finishing 16th in IndyCar last season, his first with the series, he dominated this season with three wins and eight podiums coming into Long Beach. He finished fourth in Long Beach, giving him top four finishes in 10 of the 16 IndyCar races this season.
“I don’t think I realize what we just did fully,” said Palou. “I’m just super happy, and super proud to be the first Spanish guy to win it.”
Palou, a big fan of American fried chicken, asked the crowd in Long Beach where the best fried chicken was locally and after hearing about Roscoe’s, he said he’d be visiting Sunday night.
Palou’s series victory was the 14th IndyCar title for Ganassi, who was clearly thrilled with his young driver after the race. Asked if Palou has a weakness to work on, he was stumped.
“I’ll have to think about that a little bit,” he said. “I like everything about him as a driver. He’s pretty complete as is.”
Unfortunately for racing fans, the drama was sucked out of championship Sunday after Pato O’Ward lost his gear box after taking damage on lap 17. O’Ward and Palou were battling for the IndyCar title, but O’Ward’s exit early in the race all but decided things.
In a trackside interview with NBC Sports, O’Ward expressed frustration with the move from rival driver Ed Jones that led to his car taking damage.
“It’s not the first time he’s hit us, it’s not the first time he’s done something stupid all season,” said O’Ward. “I wish he could use his head a little bit more and at least respect the guys fighting for the championship. I’m not telling him how to race but don’t be stupid about it.”
Racing fans—and Long Beach fans—have a lot to look forward to with this exciting young generation of racers headlined by Palou, O’Ward, and Herta, and that youth was on display in Long Beach. The IndyCar series also crowned its Rookie of the Year, with Scott McLaughlin of New Zealand taking the crown. As a signal of how young the talent in IndyCar is, McLaughlin is 28—meaning that the Rookie of the Year is older than this year’s series champion (Palou is 24), the Long Beach champion (Herta is 21) and the other title challenger (O’Ward is 22).
There were still more trophies handed out at Winner’s Circle, with Honda claiming the Manufacturer’s Championship.
Long Beach race fans won’t have to wait long to see a return of the young stars of IndyCar—the city will see its historic race returned to its normal place on the calendar in 2022, with the next running of the Grand Prix of Long Beach coming in a little more than six months, April 8-10, 2022.