With the famed Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Celebrity Pro-Am Race becoming a footnote in racing history, a vacuum was created to fill the void. The vortex of 450 horsepower late-model stock cars on Irwindale Speedway’s paved half-mile — and putting stars of TV and Screen in the driver’s seat — could end up being the event celebrity race fans crave.
Stock car racing has been an American pastime as much as baseball and hot dogs. The “Saturday Night at the Speedway” experience has woven itself into the fabric of Americana, and the opportunity to blend a good cause, well known people doing something unique to their everyday lives and a tinge of showmanship makes for quality entertainment. The event raised an estimated $20,000 for Race for Autism.
Organized over the last four years by former NASCAR racer and team owner, longtime Justice Brothers Products distributer and NAPA Performance Autocare owner Tim Huddleston, the fun and fiery event has benefited several charities including Race for Autism, Wounded Warrior Project, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and A Walk on Water. Huddleston has put an amazing amount of effort into this now annual tradition, and the celebrities practically line up to participate.
This year’s race featured stars including Frankie “Malcolm in the Middle” Muniz; Disney’s Phineas and Ferb creator, Jeff Swampy Marsh; Leah “King of Queens” Remini; Adrian “the Profit” Pasdar; Disney and MTV star Beth Littleford; Blake “Dog with a Blog” Michael; Kelly “Scorpion King” Hu; sports radio personality Gordon “Lug Nutzz” Stewart; and KTLA weatherman Mark Kriski. Due to a scheduling conflict, Jason Ritter, actor and son of the late John Ritter, was unable to practice, removing himself from the actual competition, but showing a genuine interest in the cause, still showed up and suited up to be a part of the race day activities.
Past winners of the race include Mark-Paul Gosselaar, “Zack” from the 1990s sitcom “Saved by the Bell, who won it in both 2014 and 2015 and TV and movie star William Fichtner who won the first race in 2013.
The Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race at the Long Beach Grand Prix had a very special place intertwined as an event within the the 40 year tradition. Despite no ‘Pros’ participating, the exclusive celebrity aspect of the Irwindale race has worked well. What is particularly great about the event itself is that it has the legs to continue indefinitely. Huddelston enthusiastically said, “Some of the stuff is impossible to measure, but the amount of awareness that is raised for our different charities was huge. In the last 30 days, the donations for Race for Autism have spiked. When you have a Leah Remini Tweeting out, ‘I’m doing this race for charity,’ it’s now impressioned on 1.6 million followers.”
The race itself has reverberated through the showbiz community and many would like the opportunity to take part in the event, but scheduling is usually the toughest caveat. “People like Mel Gibson and Slash really wanted to participate, but unfortunately had scheduling conflicts. Scheduling can be really hard,” explained Huddleston. The evening is a complete show that included monster trucks and stuntman “Dr. Danger” who set himself on fire and ran through a blaze of fiery wood frames. All Spectacular, all showbiz!
The celebrities race in full size, NASCAR-style 450 HP stock cars. “Each celebrity has a minimum of six days of being on track before we allow them to participate. We generally start with about 10 to 12 people about two months out from the event, and by race night we have 9 or 10 who actually race,” said Huddleston.
Interestingly, the celebrity participants seemed to have a handle on the cars. Experienced racers like Frankie Muniz, who has a LBGP Celebrity race win, caught the bug and pursued further racing up the ladder. Frankie ran Pro Mazda and Formula Atlantic — where he was quite competitive — before ultimately choosing the slower pace of golf, where he has also excelled. Muniz plays to a two-handicap in recent years and plays just about everyday near his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He would be the eventual race winner, holding off animator and confident hobbyist racer Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, in the 20 lap feature.
Irwindale Speedway remains the crown jewel of short tracks in North America. While rumors persist that the event center which has a paved half-mile oval, a paved quarter-mile oval and a one-eighth mile dragstrip, could close at any time for retail development, the races and excitement continue. It is undoubtedly one of the best venues to see short-track oval racing, and continues to draw the crowds for NASCAR Whelen Series and Formula Drift. In truth, taking this facility out of the Los Angeles metro mix could have deadly consequences. Without a place like Irwindale to “test and tune” and race, people would be relegated to racing on the streets illegally.
With the rumors swirling of it’s closure, race fans have flocked to enjoy its speedy confines. Questions to track administrators are unsure, but they keep paying the rent check to the new owners (rumored to be offshore investors seeking to build an outlet mall) and renew the lease in six-month increments. “I have tremendous faith that Irwindale is not going anywhere. It’s a crown jewel of short track racing,” Said Huddleston.
Comedic actress Beth Littleford gave anxious signals about driving the race. “Swampy Marsh asked me to drive a racecar for charity and I said yes. Once I considered it, I asked myself, ‘am I insane?” I Survived and it was terrifying! Now they can auction off my terror-sweat-drenched racing suit.” It was hard to tell if she was truly as terrified as she let on, as she drove consistently and seemed to have a great time.
Kelly Hu was probably the most impressive of the novice-race driver celebrities to run the event. Leading up to the event she jokingly posted, “Who said Asian Women can’t drive!?” on social media. The former Miss Teen USA, Scorpion King and Sunset Beach star got her first Mazda RX-8 with proceeds from the pageant and modeling jobs early in her career. “I loved zooming around LA in it — but then it got stolen!” she said.
Hu ran third behind Muniz and Marsh for the entire race, and even had a mid race dice, holding off Adrien Pasdar, until the penultimate lap of the Race for Autism feature. As she exited out of turn four, she got loose. Seeing the white flag, Hu accelerated hard enough to get the car out of sorts, then trying to correct, spun hard, backwards, into the outside wall. She then slid another 75 yards to a screeching stop right under the start-finish line, in a plume tire smoke. “The back of my head hurts a little,” said Hu after exiting the wreck. Hu would later post “Haven’t had a bruise like this since my “Martial Law” days. This is the badge I got for crashing in NASCAR on Saturday. Got a matching one on the other side but had to hold the camera with one hand,” on Facebook.
What most people don’t know, particularly with relatively novice drivers, is that Huddleston himself solicits fellow racers to donate the cars for the event. This includes two of his own. He provides a “damage guarantee” to the other donors. This means he will pay to repair any issues that conceivably happen during the practices and race at his own expense. And there was some carnage… Two notable crashes during the race included Blake Michael hitting the wall on the back straight at about the halfway point, and Kelly Hu who got on the loud pedal too hard out of turn four as the white flag was shown — ultimately ending the race under a yellow/checker. All said, the crashes added to the dynamic, albeit taking some money from the final tally for the charity. Both drivers were relatively unhurt in their crashes.
Another anomaly in the race was the absence of a “lap count” on the scoreboard. The race itself was scheduled for 20 laps, but Huddleston opted to keep control of the situation. For next year, “I will not utilize a white flag. While this is a real race, we have to do things to help them.” One particular aid that Huddleston feels strongly about is to just keep the racers focused on the driving itself. Aside from a green flag to start, yellow flags and the checker to finish, he fears adding any more distractions — as these people really are novices performing for a good cause.
Huddleston showed amazing appreciation, “Our ad budget was zero. It was all blood, sweat and tears. DJ Safety, Mark Kriski and Gordon Stewart did such an incredible job of promoting the event locally on TV and Radio. As for the celebrities, all they need to bring to the table is their social media. And that’s what gets the word out. They were great! We pulled it off, the crowd loved it and everyone had a great time.”