Final Curtain Set For Successful Long Beach Pro Celebrity Race
In 1990 Julie Alfonso, in Toyota Motorsport Marketing and Public Relations, learned about Racing For Kids® from Mark and Kathy Weida who ran Leading Edge Motorsports, a young, upstart Southern California based motorsports team competing in the Indy Lights Series.
Driving for the Weidas was Robbie Buhl, a talented young racer, fresh off a runaway championship in the Barber Saab Pro Series. Robbie also was National Spokesperson for Racing For Kids, a newly formed (1989) children’s racing charity in Detroit, MI.
Alfonso was impressed by the focus of Racing For Kids on hospitalized youngsters and child healthcare institutions, so she quickly told her boss, Les Unger, Toyota’s National Motorsports Manager, about the charity.
Unger, too, was impressed and in 1991 took the lead in making Racing For Kids® the Official Charity of the acclaimed Pro Celebrity Race in The Toyota Grand Prix Of Long Beach, the third largest motorsports event in America, trailing only the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 in attendance and popularity.
This designation gave Racing For Kids instant credibility on a national scale, since the Pro Celebrity Race attracted big name participants from the entertainment and sports communities. They brought with them a national media audience trained on the Pro Celebrity Race.
Thus in 1991 began a quarter century partnership between Racing For Kids, Toyota Motorsports and The Long Beach Grand Prix Association (LBGP). Unfortunately this very successful partnership ends this year with Saturday’s (April 16) final running of the Pro Celebrity Race. Lack of title sponsorship is being blamed for the race’s demise.
Prominent personalities have dominated the starting grid over the years:
- Actors and actresses such as Cameron Diaz, Patrick Dempsey (Grey Anatomy), Craig “Coach” Nelson, Dennis Franz (Hill Street Blues) and Anthony Edwards (ER).
- Entertainers — Jay Leno, Adam Carolla and Donny Osmond.
- Sports figures such as John Salley and Carl “Mail Man” Malone of the NBA, auto racers like Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney and JImmy Vasser.
All have made Racing For Kids® hospital visits, primarily to Long Beach’s Miller Children & Women’s Hospital.
The celebrities turned racers have often said that the pre-racing hospital visits are the most important part of the Long Beach Grand Prix Weekend.
But the big winners have been Southern California hospitalized youngsters, their families and the medical facilities that treat them, because Toyota and The Long Beach Grand Prix Association have donated more than $3 million to Racing For Kids which in turn has distributed the funds to the three So Cal Children’s Hospitals: Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and Children’s Hospital of Orange County.
That is quite a legacy. So understandably the race will not leave with a whimper Toyota and the LBGP Association have invited past champions in both the Pro and Celebrity Divisions to compete this year.
Among the Pro Category drivers are Al Unser, Jr., two-time IndyCar Series and Indy 500 Champion, and Eddie Lawson, world renowned motorcycle racer.
The Celebrity Group will include the popular actors Alfonso Ribiero (Fresh Prince of Bel Air), Sean Patrick Flanery as well as businessmen Doug Fregin, co-founder of Research In Motion and stock broker, Dave Pasant.
No one doubts that this year’s “final Run” will be intensely competitive with an abundance of fender-bending, paint-swapping racing guaranteed.
The weekend began with a Thursday afternoon hospital visit to Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital Long Beach. Pro and Celebrity race participants met with a 100 or so lucky young patients, signed autographs, posed for pictures and talked about the race and their careers.
Friday will see practice and qualifying. Saturday Racing For Kids, Toyota and The Long Beach Grand Prix Association will entertain selected families from Miller at the Big Race for a very special “day at the track.”
The exciting race with its all-star lineup will be followed by a lively celebration banquet on Saturday Night.
Then the final curtain will be drawn down on The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro Celebrity Race featuring Racing For Kids as the Official Charity. The prospect of that final curtain brings a tinge of sadness as well as reflection:
Says Racing For Kids® Founder, Dr. Bill Pinsky, who competed in the 2014 Pro Celebrity event: ”What was really important is the more than 2000 kids we have seen there over two and a half decades and how we helped their day be just a little better.”
“It was a good run. I hate to see it end,” added Robbie Buhl, retired IndyCar driver and Racing For Kids’ National Spokesperson.
“The Toyota Pro Celebrity Race helped us launch Racing For Kids as a national brand and reap the awareness benefits,” said Racing For Kids Executive Director, Pat Wright. “For that we will be forever grateful.”