By the mid-1970s, the United States Grand Prix had found its annual home at Watkins Glen in upstate New York. Then a new venue joined the fray. The inaugural USA West Grand Prix was held in Long Beach, California from 1976.
The new race was immediately a hit. The Californian weather in March was perfect when compared to the melting heat at the South American races in January. It may have been a street circuit, but this was America and Long Beach was much wider than Monte Carlo. The surroundings weren’t bad either, thanks to the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. The race was also popular with everyone from the Hollywood elite, including Paul Newman, to Miss California.
It was a clean sweep for Ferrari at the inaugural event in 1976. Clay Regazzoni upstaged his more fancied teammate Niki Lauda. The Swiss driver seemed to really get it together just once per season, and this was his weekend. Regazzoni put his Ferrari 312T on pole and comfortably led home Lauda, who probably didn’t mind so much after his main Championship rival James Hunt was eliminated in an accident on the 3rd lap.
The 1977 edition of the race was the only time a local driver took the chequered flag – Mario Andretti led home Niki Lauda after the Austrian had scored his first pole since almost losing his life at the previous year’s German Grand Prix. Still, Andretti was unstoppable, enjoying a very popular victory in front of a partisan crowd. As he said after the event, “It is one of the nicest moments of my career, even more satisfying than winning Indianapolis and really gratifying to have so many people pulling for me.”
It was Ferrari’s turn again in 1978. Carlos Reutemann and his young team mate Gilles Villeneuve locked out the front row of the grid for the Scuderia. The Canadian novice, taking part in only his seventh GP (and sixth for Ferrari), led commandingly till the 39th lap when his patience deserted him as he lapped former winner Regazzoni (this time with Shadow) and they crashed. Reutemann inherited the win ahead of Andretti and Frenchman Patrick Depailler in the six-wheeler Tyrrell.
Villeneuve got his win one year later. The Canadian qualified his Ferrari 312T4 on pole and swept home for a lights to flag victory. Teammate Jody Scheckter came second and Alan Jones in the Saudia-Williams was third. Niki Lauda was lucky to survive a scary first-corner accident (see below) when Patrick Tambay rear-ended Brabham, almost taking off the Austrian’s head.
In 1980, Nelson Piquet planted his Brabham on pole and just like Villeneuve the previous year led all the way home to score his maiden Grand Prix win. It was a changing of the guard for the Brazilian: the first Brazilian World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi enjoyed his last appearance on the podium with a fine third for his eponymous team. Reigning World Champion Jody Scheckter finished fifth – the only points he earned for the whole 1980 season. The saddest news of the race came when veteran Clay Regazzoni, driving for Ensign, had a brake failure and crashed heavily into a concrete wall. The popular 41-year-old Swiss driver was paralyzed from the waist down as a result.
Riccardo Patrese took a surprise pole for Arrows in 1981. Driving the first turbo-powered Ferrari, Villeneuve led briefly before World Champion Alan Jones led home his Williams teammate Carlos Reutemann for an easy win, with Nelson Piquet third for Brabham.
Niki Lauda made a welcome return to the grid with McLaren in 1982 after a short-lived retirement. He hadn’t lost any of his form at age 33 and was on the pace from the season-opener in South Africa, silencing several sceptical voices in the Paddock. Andrea de Cesaris took pole for Alfa Romeo, but Lauda stood beside him.
Lauda bided his time after the start, overtaking De Cesaris on lap 15 after the young Italian made a mistake. The Austrian pulled away for the first win after his comeback. Rosberg came home second and Villeneuve was third, but the Canadian was later disqualified for his novel twin rear wing and the position went to Patrese.
The final United States Grand Prix West in 1983 proved that miracles can happen in Formula 1 as John Watson won from 22nd on the grid for McLaren. The Ferraris of Tambay and Arnoux started from the first row, followed by the Williams’ of Roberg and Laffite. Watson started 22nd for McLaren, one place in front of teammate Lauda. It was a race of attrition up front as Tambay, Arnoux, Rosberg, Laffite and Patrese battled hard. Meanwhile, the two McLarens moved slowly through the field, benefiting from the mistakes of others, with Watson taking the lead from Lauda after halfway distance and not giving up till the flag.
Here’s what Watson had to say afterwards: “After that dismal practice, Michelin were as perplexed as we were. I decided to take a gamble and try the tyre compound we had used in Detroit and it worked.” Watson had also won in Detroit the year before from a lowly 17th on the grid. It remained Watson’s final F1 victory and the last Grand Prix in Long Beach. Promoter Chris Pook found F1 too dangerous and expensive, and switched his interest towards IndyCar.