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by Tony Sakkis

It's only a feeling, but it's a powerful one.

Places like Indy, Darlington, Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Monaco, Monza all have that feeling. You walk through the gates or get near the track and you have memories that may not even be first hand, memories which may be just film images seen somewhere on late night ESPN, but which, nevertheless, overcome you.

The Long Beach Grand Prix has recently joined that list of elite races. Like the others, it is no longer just a race, it is an event. Or if you choose, a happening. Just like Indy, just like Monza or anywhere else, Long Beach now has that same aura about it.

As a happening, it is natural that half the population of Los Angeles is always there -- either in person or in spirit. Officials, ever being optimistic as to what numbers are being reported to the press, are, as usual, not to be trusted. But word on the street for the 1996 running of the race, from the police and those who needed to keep an accurate tally, put the attendance Sunday at over 100,000. Bear in mind that Long Beach is a temporary circuit, so that figure is stout, by any standard.

But the "be-seen" factor is now well up on the scale too. That says a lot for the status of the event. When you get Linda Vaughn as the big celebrity, you may have a bit of a problem with the perception of tradition. Nothing against Linda Vaughn. Nice woman. But she's not Princess Grace.

Over the years more celebrities have appeared at Long Beach than at most races. Granted, Long Beach is in LA, which is Entertainment Central, but still, it helps make the show.

The other thing that boosts the status of an event is interest from ex-racing drivers. The best races always bring out the best of the old-time drivers, as if this is such an event that the seasoned vets come to watch the battles unfold. (Well, perhaps some were maybe not so old-time: Arie Luyendyk was sitting in the stands, minding his own business trying to watch a good qualifying session and Clay Regazzoni, who only shows up at the best places, was there, to mention just a couple).

But more than that, there was, as I said, a feeling which is quite difficult to describe. A palpable tension, that this was a race to win.

And looking at the faces and the clothing and the flags and the food made me realize that this was really the creme of American racing. This was what made an event a happening. It was the internationality of it. The Long Beach Grand Prix has become a world class race as well as a world class happening.

The best in the world have come to Los Angeles to race; and the best in the world in their respective fields have come to watch them work. Jimmy Vasser became a part of history as he took the big prize, becoming a potential Rex Mays, or a Fireball Roberts or a Graham Hill of Southern California.

If you remember for a moment that Sebring became famous within 20 years of its first race, you will really understand what this race has evolved into. The historical context is similar to -- if not more significant than -- that of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's or Daytona Beach.

Should it continue well into the future, Long Beach will become, as founder Chris Pook envisioned, a Monaco of the West. It has all the ingredients. And, for sure, it already has a good deal of the tradition.

I can hardly wait until next year