Our very own Stuart Rowlands shares his thoughts on the 1981 Kart race at the Long Beach circuit, recalling both glorious and chaotic memories.
Based in Los Angeles, Stuart Rowlands is an expert in national and international public relations, publicity, and consulting. For more than 30 years, he has worked with major clients including the Nobel Peace Prize, IMG, The Quebec Ministry of Tourism, Ghana Government, Honda Racing Corporation, Colgate-Palmolive, Bridgestone, Lucas Oil, MAVTV, and in his earlier career, some of the larger riots in rock music concert history.
I loved the early 1980’s.
In late 1979 I had left my job at IMG in Cleveland, Ohio to return to LA and open my own PR shop. I was very fortunate to land Bridgestone Tires as one of my first clients and we were literally off to the races. Bridgestone wanted to establish itself in the tire market in the USA and had chosen Karting as its entry sport.
My job was to maximize radio, TV, and newspaper coverage as much as possible by writing releases, pitching stories, supplying results and generally expanding Karting awareness to a much larger audience.
For the first few months I was on-site on the West Coast and Mid-West for IKF and WKA sanctioned sprint and Enduro events working with IKF then-President Doug Stokes. I met the drivers and in many cases their families, and pitched the local media gradually growing my contacts.
As I now know, Karting is a grass roots sport and for most competitors this was a fun family affair competing against their peers, but for a talented few, it is a springboard or entry point to possible fame and fortune in stock cars, open wheel, and sports car racing.
In the 1980’s Bridgestone was tied very closely to Toyota as OEM tires, and everywhere Toyota sponsored events, including golf (LA Open) and motor racing (The US Toyota Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix West) Bridgestone followed.
As you are aware, Toyota’s Celebrity race was, and is, a big draw at both Grand Prix and Long Beach. Like Toyota, Bridgestone wanted to create their own series with potential national exposure – and so the Bridgestone Kart Series was born.
The city of Long Beach was only about an hour and a half drive from my office in Beverly Hills. As a town, it had always seemed a bit seedy and old fashioned. But on that weekend in March 1981, Long Beach itself was bedlam and as the BBC later named it “the Monaco of the New World”.
Full of noise and flags and banners waving in the offshore breeze, the F1 cars timing and practice filled the air with sonic booms rebounding off the skyscrapers on Ocean Boulevard.
Although not the main attraction, Karts at Long Beach were an attractive addition to the weekend’s event. Not as noisy as F1’s, they fitted nicely into the “show.” Bedded down off to one side of the pits the Bridgestone Kart Series was ready to launch. I was excited but worried about the Enduro’s ability to stay out of the concrete barriers and envisioned plenty of ‘yellow cautions’ and perhaps a ‘red.’
20 Enduro Karts – all twin 100cc Yamaha engined driven by the best young Karters in the country – were for the first time ever to compete on the same Long Beach street course as the big boys.
The F1 stars were out checking over the Karts with which many had honed their own skills on. Racers like Mario Andretti, Alan Jones, Jody Scheckter, and Emmerson Fitipaldi were seen wandering around in the Kart pits; as was Alain Prost who, like Fitipaldi, grew up racing Karts.
To be honest I was absolutely frazzled. I had been in Long Beach for most of the week, but I knew Saturday was going to be different and awfully hard.
I drove down early Saturday morning knowing that I was announcing the Kart race as well as looking after my Bridgestone clients in the sponsors tent, all while making frequent runs to the press room to ensure that all the writers and broadcasters had their Karting media kits.
At the same time, I wanted to be a part of the Kart action and following an indigestible media breakfast of orange juice, lukewarm coffee, and bagels I rushed over to the Kart pits in the hope of saying hello to my new racer friends such as Kathy Hartman, Lynn Haddock and Scott Pruett.
However, all were making frantic adjustments and apart from a wave or two I gave up and headed back to the broadcast booth which I think, if I remember rightly, was a trailer located on Pine Avenue.
Note: I had made my absolute broadcasting debut the previous October at the Kart Race in Watkins Glen. I was a feeling a bit cocky that Sunday morning since I had secured a local newspaper front-page story on the Kart race with great exposure for Bridgestone and had just shown it to my clients.
After my meeting I wandered over to the broadcast booth looming over the start/finish line. With the Kart Race about to start (it must have been about 11:00am) I wanted to make sure that both announcers had press kits and everything about Karting they needed). In fact, I expected to sit behind them and coach them as needed.
I approached the announcers (I can’t remember their names – sorry), handed them yet another media kit which they leafed through. One of them turned and said “so you know about Karting then? I said yes. With a smile he said, “Take my chair, we are just going off for a quick lunch before the F1 warm up starts.” I was shaking inside. “Are we on live?” I said. “We sure are,” he grinned. “We are broadcasting to 3 local radio stations and by the way there are 30, 000 fans in the seats. Good luck!”
Anyway, I called the race as I saw it, and nobody threw stones as I exited the booth so I must have done an OK job.
Now slightly under 6 months later – here I go again.
Armed with my book of Karter facts and driver bios I presented myself to the Race Steward in charge of the Broadcast Booth – a mobile home trailer located on Shoreline Drive. The steward sat me down at a large fold out table with a TV monitor and a microphone luckily on a long lead. The monitor showed the racers line up and I began my broadcast. All seemed well for the first few laps as Terry Ives, Brian Schaeffer and Scott Pruett among others did battle from the get-go.
Without warning chaos erupted. Someone had cut off the TV feed (I found out later it was yet another lunchbreak) and my monitor went blank.
Now I was in trouble – I couldn’t leave the booth but I also couldn’t leave our race with ‘dead air’ for all the fans.
As I’m sitting there flailing my arms, the Karts roared by my trailer window and over the start finish line. I rushed over to the window, but it was at an awkward angle to the track “I wrenched it open and leaned out – I could just see the track.
Doing the best I could, I captured the leader’s names and kept talking. Lap after lap went by and suddenly the steward tapped me on the shoulder “They’re calling the race early – they are running out of time, he screamed (he had to scream as with the window open the noise was unbelievable).
The Karts roared by me one last time and then there was an eerie silence. I called what I thought was the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place runners and sat back down at the table absolutely exhausted. The rest of the weekend was a blur.
Note: Three years ago, I accompanied my client Forrest Lucas, Chairman of Lucas Oil when he was the inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America at the 29th Annual MSHFA Induction Ceremony Presented by Bridgestone on June 28, at The Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach. Lo and behold Scott Pruett, the winningest driver in IMSA history was inducted at the same time. It was fun to catch up after all these years.