From its origins 33 years ago as a curiosity in the downtime between pro racing sessions, the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has grown into the largest corporate-sponsored celebrity racing event in the world. As well as a crowd-pleasing event drawing media interest that rivals the following day's Grand Prix itself, the Pro/Celebrity Race serves to link the worlds of motor racing and popular culture.
Among this year's crop of “pros” set to take part is Steve Millen, a man who straddles both those worlds as a champion racer and a founder of STILLEN, a premier automotive aftermarket parts manufacturer that produces a wide variety of performance parts and kits from its base in Costa Mesa, Calif.
“It's a great thing for charity,” the California-domiciled New Zealander says of the event, which will raise more than $100,000 for “Racing for Kids,” a national organization that benefits children's hospitals in Southern California. “$5,000 is donated to the Children's Hospital in L.A. on behalf of every driver – and there are 18 or 19 drivers – and then pole position is another $15,000, and that's all for charity as well,” Millen notes. “It's a great cause and a great opportunity for motor racing, because it exposes the sport to people who wouldn't ordinarily be doing it.
“It's also fun for me to be doing stuff again with Toyota,” he adds, “because I raced for them for six years. Les Unger, who's the motorsports manager for Toyota today, was there then, too, and a couple of the guys who prepare these [Pro/Celebrity] cars used to be on the team that I was with back in the '80s. So it was good to get back with all these guys again – but, unfortunately, it doesn't buy me any preferences!”
This will be Millen's second tilt at the event as a pro, although his first was back in 1986, when Steve was just reaching the heights of success in a career that took him from triumphs in stadium and off-road trucks, open-wheelers, sports cars and rallying.
“It's funny, 'cause one of the young guys who's in the race this year wasn't even born then!” Millen muses of that '86 Pro/Celebrity event. “When I last did it, I was having a really good run of success – I'd been winning truck (off-road) races, I won the very first Indy Lights race at Phoenix the weekend before, and so I think I took the Celebrity Race a little too seriously. I didn't really enjoy it as much as I should have – I just wanted to win! But this time, being up there practicing with everybody at Willow Springs a couple of weekends ago, going to school, I enjoyed getting to know all the other participants. Keanu Reeves has an interest in old motorbikes – he likes old Nortons – and I enjoy old motorbikes as well. [Actor] Zachary Levi has a [Nissan] GTR, and obviously I have a GTR that I've done rallying with, so there's a common denominator there. It's been a heck of a lot of fun.”
Millen has spread the fun around to the celebrities, too, by acting as an unofficial mentor to this year's crop of racing neophytes from the worlds of acting, corporate boards and extreme sports.
“They've got the training school up there – they've been doing it for years and they're really good at it,” Millen says of the FAST LANE Racing School at Willow Springs Raceway, owned and operated by Danny McKeever, which serves as the Official Racing School of Toyota Motorsports. “They take people who've never been on a track, and teach them how to heel-and-toe, how to change gear and steer properly, lines on the track, and what the flags mean, how and when to pass and so on, how to do a start. In four days, to take a complete novice and get them up to speed in terms of driving lines and braking – and be ready to race…That's a task. So, they do a good job of that. But I've always felt that one of the best things you can do is to just follow someone on the track who knows how to race. So that's what I spent the majority of my time at Willow Springs doing – I would help people by just saying, ‘Follow me,' and we just kept gradually going faster and faster.
“I didn't think a lot of it, but at the end of the day people were coming up to me and saying that they really appreciated the help. Having an instructor is one thing, but if you hook up behind someone who is just gradually getting up to speed, I think it's actually more beneficial. It gives you momentum and gives you something to go for.”
While not all of the celebrities will quite rise to the challenge – which, of course, is part of the fun – Millen is convinced it won't be for lack of effort.
“The thing that struck me was that they all are very serious,” he says of the celebs. “They all want to do well, and some of them struggle when they're not quite getting it, because they've been very successful at everything else they've done in life. They get very frustrated when they can't achieve the same thing in motor racing. 'Cause it probably looks pretty simple – you just get in and turn the wheel.”
Now that those illusions have been shattered, Millen cautions that more may fall by the wayside as the focus shifts from the challenging but forgiving “streets of Willow” training course to the less charitable concrete canyons of Long Beach.
“You've got this vast open space and no walls, barely even a curb,” he notes of the Willow course, “and now they're going to be running down between tunnels, really, because the vision is so bad, so I would imagine that it's pretty intimidating for the newbies. Those walls make it really difficult to find your apex and stuff like that.”
Millen reckons the 215hp Scion tC racecar used for the event is an ideal platform for beginners – even though its dynamics don't play to his own racing instincts.
“It's very easy in the Scion to get into a corner too fast, scrub speed off and kill the momentum a bit – which is what I tend to do, because I'm used to driving a car with a lot of front grip and downforce, and a lot of power,” he relates. “So, I like to get into a corner very deep, ask a lot of the steering wheel, get on the gas and get out of the corner, and when I drive the Scion like that, it doesn't work. You've got to be really careful into the corner, and not get the front pushing. That makes it good for the celebrities, because it's relatively safe: If you go too fast, you just scrub the speed off – up to a point. Obviously, if you go into a corner way too quick, you're going to get some help in stopping!
“But, it would be easier for a novice to race this rather than a powerful rear-wheel-drive car. So as long as you're smooth, you can do pretty well in this car. It's more of an evener, I think.”