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Vasser, Unser Jr. and more promise a show for final celebrity race


LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) A tradition will come to an end at the Grand Prix of Long Beach when the checkered flag waives for the final time on the fan-favorite Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race.

The race Saturday will be the 40th and final of the longest-running corporate-sponsored charity race in the country. The event, which has helped Toyota donate more than $2.3 million to “Racing For Kids” since 1991, will be celebrated with an all-star field that includes 18 previous winners.

Included in the field are Stephen Baldwin, Frankie Muniz, Brian Austin Green and last year’s overall winner, Alfonso Ribeiro.

But so are retired racers Jimmy Vasser and Al Unser Jr., who swept the front row in qualifying Friday. The two then learned the field will be inverted for the green flag, and they’ll start in the back on the 1.97-mile street course. Vasser and Unser will have 10 laps to try to make it to the front. Vasser, the pole-winner, was the overall winner in 2010 and owns three Toyota dealerships, while Unser was the overall winner in 1985 and 2009 and the pro winner in 2014.

“It makes for a fantastic show, it gets exciting,” said Unser, the “King of the Beach” because he’s the winningest driver at Long Beach, with six IndyCar wins and three Pro/Celebrity wins.

“It’s going to be carnage for 10 laps.”

Added Vasser, the pole-winner: “We’re going to burn it down, the last race.”

It wasn’t the forecast Bob Carter, Senior Vice President of Automotive Operations for Toyota Motor Sales, wanted to hear. Carter, who has zero racing experience, is one of only two drivers in the field who have never won this event. He’ll make his racing debut on Saturday and will start near the front in the inversion with the hard-charging pros coming after him.

“I originally thought (the inversion) was a good idea, but now I realize you two guys are behind me,” Carter said.

Carter spent four days of training with the other drivers in the field at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, which is about an hour north of Los Angeles. He’s so enjoyed his experience with the other drivers, he dubbed the event “the top weekend of my entire life. This is a really special group of people.”

Vasser said he’s holding out hope that a title sponsor will come aboard and take over the event so that Saturday’s race is not the last. He said he remembered the race from his days at Long Beach, before he had a professional ride, and they were always enjoyable.

“It’s been a laugher,” he said. “I remember Donny Osmond rolled it in Turn 1. There’s Donny Osmond climbing out of a car.”