Race Weekend Central

IndyCar Stars’ ‘Old-School’ Preparation for Thermal Club Testing

Frankly, it doesn’t even sound like the name of a racetrack. 

When the Thermal Club – a private country club not far from Palm Springs, Calif. that features 48 trackside villas, a sushi restaurant and on-site car salesmen in addition to the 2.9-mile ribbon of desert asphalt – was announced as the site of the NTT IndyCar Series’ 2023 preseason test, many had questions about whether the automotive oasis of the uber-wealthy would be suitable or appropriate for use by one of the country’s premier racing series.

The drivers and teams had a different, and more immediately pressing concern: how to maximize two days of testing on a track on which nobody has ever driven in an IndyCar vehicle. Adding an additional dimension of difficulty, they have to make do without most of the tools they would usually use for the task. It’s not as though anyone can just boot up iRacing and drop in on a laser-scanned replica of the Thermal Club.

Speaking to media, including Frontstretch, from the Palm Springs Convention Center, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson explained: “It’s kind of back to the old-school way of learning racetracks before we had simulators. Maybe there is some simulator where you can find this track, I don’t know, but I haven’t found it.”

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The defending Indy 500 winner won’t be tackling the Thermal Club sight unseen. At least, not exactly.

“I went back to how I did it 15 years ago,” said Ericsson. “[I] looked at the track map and found some onboard clips on YouTube [of] some old Ferrari dude driving around. I’m just watching that and trying to picture how an IndyCar would run on it”

“Ferrari dude” gave Ericsson some introduction to the layout, as he explained:

“Some parts of Portland [International Raceway] I would say is closest to this track, but [Thermal] has a lot of slow first-gear corners… at the end of the lap there’s a quite fast complex as well.”

Though it may not offer the same relevance as, say, the test scheduled for September at IndyCar race venue WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Ericsson is still confident his No. 8 team can learn something from testing at Thermal: “In general, if we find stuff here that works I’m hoping it’s going to be able to translate …”

“I think the closest [track] we’ve raced at is probably CoTA, with the kind of smooth F1-style layout,” offered fellow Swede and Arrow McLaren driver Felix Rosenqvist. “Maybe this one is a bit smaller.”

Like Ericsson, Rosenqvist couldn’t find a virtual facsimile to get a few laps, explaining, “I’ve just been kind of practicing on YouTube just to see which way [the track] goes … I don’t know the reason why we’re coming here, but I’m happy we do … I’m just pumped to be in California in January, there’s worse places to be. ”

His new McLaren teammate Alexander Rossi applied some of his trademark pragmatism to the question:

“It’s always a difficult situation in January-February in the United States to find a track that … has the appropriate climate. But I think on top of that, not only do we have a beautiful place to come … [but also] a demographic that has an interest in racing with some decent capital behind them … people who are passionate about motorsports, participate in motorsports themselves, and maybe haven’t seen [IndyCar] before.”

Decent capital is an understatement, by the way. Thermal Club founder Tim Rogers has sunk over $270 million into the venue, and plans to sell $500 million worth of property within the next 10 years. Choosing the Thermal Club as the venue, it seems, was a decision less aimed at attracting new fans to the series and more towards attracting new team owners and title sponsors – in fact, the Indy Star reported that Mike Long, Thermal Club member and CEO of McLaren title sponsor Arrow Electronics, was crucial in putting the deal together. 

Meyer Shank Racing’s Simon Pagenaud sees it the other way around, telling media “It’s something I’m really interested in for my future.” Asked if he might be interested in acquiring some trackside real estate at Thermal Club, the Frenchman quipped, “I would be more interested in being on the other side, selling you real estate.”

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Regardless of the questions about IndyCar’s motivation for visiting Thermal Club, or even questions whether or not test will be applicable to any of the road and street circuits the series will compete on in 2023, testing at Thermal will at least offer a glimpse at the type of challenge racing teams just don’t have to deal with any more: learning an all-new circuit without any high-tech assistance. As Ericsson said, it’s the old-school way to learn a racetrack

At least, it’ll be good practice for the teams who will have to learn an all-new street circuit in downtown Detroit this summer, especially since Santino Ferrucci‘s trick “bug[ging] one of the driver coaches for some hot laps tomorrow” might not work as well on the streets of the Motor City as it does on the smooth asphalt of Thermal. 

The 2023 NTT IndyCar Series begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, Feb. 27, airing at noon ET on NBC. IndyCar’s preseason open test, Feb. 2-3 at the Thermal Club, will not be broadcast.

About the author

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

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