Reader Submissions: I Was There In 1978 When Formula 1 Thundered Around Long Beach

I Was There In 1978 When Formula 1 Thundered Around Long Beach

By Larry Roberts
October 20, 2016

Photography by Larry Roberts

Sure, I had done “press pass” photo shoots at other races before. But my first Formula One race at Long Beach in 1978 was of an entirely different magnitude. It was like jumping from Friday night Texas high school football to the Super Bowl! I had never really even been to Long Beach. I was working for a small motor racing magazine in West Los Angeles at the time and even though Long Beach had acquired the Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose, I hadn’t traveled south on the 405 Freeway to check it out.

Not exactly Monaco West

The city was mostly an aging ‘navy town’ with older multi-story buildings. Downtown redevelopment was mostly evident in the Convention Center, which served as the garage and paddock for the Formula One cars. Some of the older hotels were boarding houses, and there were a lot of cafés, bars, strip clubs and porn theaters—not exactly “Monaco West”. But when dressed up for the race, Long Beach did have a special charm, with the harbor off to the west, palm trees, and the circuit itself, laid out by Dan Gurney.

In the pits

On Friday morning, the cars were towed out of the Convention Center up to the pit lane on Ocean Avenue. That was the moment it became real as I laid my eyes on those beautiful machines from McLaren, Lotus, Ligier, Brabham and Ferrari. Then I saw Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter, Niki Lauda, James Hunt and Emerson Fittipaldi.

The initial shock of heroes come to life caught me out at first. I was behind the Brabham pit wall when Lauda walked over and began pulling on his gloves, balaclava and helmet. I fired away with my widest-angle lens, no more than a couple of feet from him. As I moved on to another scene, I realized I had been so mesmerized that I hadn’t opened up the aperture on the lens, and all of the shots would be too underexposed. Lesson learned.

A Beatle and a three-time World Champion

I had to scout more than just the pit lane. Getting out on the track meant hiking sidewalks and crossing parking lots, now lined with chain-link fencing and bleachers. Ocean Avenue was elevated above the majority of the racing surface, and the connecting Pine and Linden streets were almost like San Francisco in their steepness. Working my way around, looking for locations to shoot the race, I ended up on the island inside the first hairpin corner, which led onto the long Shoreline Drive straight. I began to shoot some panning shots of the cars in the braking zone. I ran out of film in one of my cameras, so I turned around to get into my gear bag for a fresh roll and standing right behind me were George Harrison and Jackie Stewart. I could have made a fool of myself, but kept my cool.

The new kid in town

It was evident that the draw of racing on the streets of Long Beach was pulling in large crowds. There was even good numbers in the stands for the practice and qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday. By the time race day rolled around, there was a buzz building about the ‘new kid in town’. Ferrari’s number 2 driver Gilles Villeneuve was fast making a name for himself as fearless and fast.

Getting the perfect shot

I positioned myself for the start at a location where I could catch the cars blasting off the Shoreline Drive start line, run just a few feet and be ready for the ‘perfect shot’ as the leaders came around the Indy Left turn, with full grandstands, campers lined up on the inside of the corner, and a Goodyear blimp in a photogenic blue sky filled with billowy white clouds.

Like a kid at Disneyland

The whole weekend was an unforgettable experience. For the record, Villeneuve led the race early but his Ferrari teammate Carlos Reutemann went on to win the race. I had the special assignment of covering the podium presentations. I was showered with a little champagne, but got the shots, including Mario Andretti’s second place trophy toppling off of the small platform. I still remember walking away feeling tired and satisfied, and wishing I could work Formula One full time!

This story was originally featured on and has been lightly edited for this website. F1 Destinations is a great source for travelers’ guides to F1 events. Check out photographer Larry Robert’s Facebook page for his latest projects and stories from his archives.


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Douglas Anderson
Douglas Anderson
2024 years ago

I was not there and have not yet been to Long Beach for any racing, but still enjoyed the pictures and story.
I take exception to the disparaging remarks about Mr. Eclestone and how he ruined F-1.
Take a breath here folks, he is responsible for getting F1 on TV in the first place. He has done more good than bad IMHO over the years.
Yes, today it’s a bit of a dogs breakfast. But still he offered all the teams the option to join him in the TV venture, for today what would be considered pocket change . They all were so short sighted they preferred to keep F1 an exclusive old boys club. My hats off to Bernie for a lot of things we enjoy today. Too bad the big $$ got in the way and made it almost impossible to understand .

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
2024 years ago

” Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la,
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days ”

I was there as well … and yes they were the glory days of US F1 racing . Long Beach may not of been Monaco per se .. but the track layout was brilliant and the racing .. well … suffice it to say Long Beach makes COTA look exactly like what it is . Another featureless and boring Tilke track in the middle of nowhere .

Two thumbs up on all fronts for this one ! And err thanks ? … for the memory reboot . Sigh … real racing … real men .. real tracks .. George still walking the earth … the tipping point just before Bernie’s ascendency ….. sigh …………….

Ken Clark
Ken Clark
2024 years ago

Great photos, loved looking back! Thanks for sharing.

2024 years ago

Thank you for sharing. These shots are great!

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
2024 years ago

Great shots!

I just watched a rare interview with Harrison the other night. Timely!

All great shots, but I favor the glimpse of Reutemann’s T3 in the paddock. Nicely done.

Thanks for sharing.

Matthew Flinn
Matthew Flinn
2024 years ago

Those certainly were the days!
Unfortunately, 1978 was a watershed year in the history of Formula 1. It was the year that Bernie Eccelstone took over the sport and drove it slowly to ruins……and himself to riches.
Modern F1 is a laughable “pistache” of the golden era.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
2024 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Flinn

Amen on all points … though methinks you meant to type in ‘ Pastiche ‘ not pistache ‘ … and I might of added contemporary F1 is a ‘ travesty posing as F1 ‘ to the mix as well

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