Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Exhibition Races

Watching the days count down until the NTT IndyCar Series’ inaugural $1 Million Challenge at the Thermal Club on Sunday (March 24), it seemed only natural to explore previous exhibition races in IndyCar’s history. After all, the $1 Million Challenge is just that, an exhibition. No points will be paid, no impact will be made on the championship, it’s a race for nothing but cash and bragging rights.

Currently, the NASCAR Cup Series holds two exhibitions each year: the Busch Clash which comes a few weeks before the season-opening Daytona 500, and the All-Star Race, a week before the Coca-Cola 600. Decades ago, there were so many non-championship F1 races that we could do an hour long episode of The Pit Straight on them and still not be confident that we explored every one. Certainly working through this on the IndyCar side was going to take some work…

Nope.

Part of the difficulty here is IndyCar’s nature as a name first and an organization second. INDYCAR, the corporation, governs the NTT IndyCar Series, and was founded in 1994, the first major business move in the Split. Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) sanctioned the sport referred to as IndyCar, Indy racing, etc, from 1979-1997, with the United States Auto Club (USAC) sanctioning the Indianapolis 500 almost entirely according to CART regulations.

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That’s the history going back only until the 1980s, at which point things get even more nuanced. For the sake of efficiency, let’s limit our scope from 1982 to the present day. In that time we come across one race, the 2008 Nikon Indy 300 held in Surfer’s Paradise, Australia. This event paid no points as it was run after the official ending of the IndyCar season, being contested as a Champ Car World Series (successor to CART) event until 2007. Though this race paid no points, it only qualifies as an exhibition in the most technical of senses.

Beyond that one exception, what stock of races does the search turn up?

Just one, it seems.

The Marlboro Challenge

Perhaps the only true all-star race in IndyCar’s history first took place in 1987, during the CART era, where my spirit has resided since 2015. The Marlboro Challenge was contested among 10 drivers (though 12 qualified for the first running) who met one of the following criteria: race and pole winners from the previous calendar year, the previous year’s champion, and the defending Indy 500 winner.

Bobby Rahal won the 1987 running ahead of Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. Andretti won the next year, and repeated in 1991, the only driver to win the Challenge twice. Unser Jr. won in 1989, the first year the event was hosted by Laguna Seca, and Emerson Fittipaldi won in 1992 at Nazareth.

Like NASCAR’s current All-Star Race, the Marlboro Challenge rotated tracks on a near-yearly basis. The Tamiami Park street circuit in Miami, Florida, hosted the firs two runnings of the event, which was scheduled to be the penultimate round of the season before Tamiami Park hosted the points-paying Grand Prix of Miami. This trend continued throughout the events existence, always being scheduled just before the final or penultimate race of the year, always followed immediately by a points-paying race on the same track.

Sound familiar? It should.

Until 2020, NASCAR’s All-Star Race at Charlotte was scheduled one week before the Coca-Cola 600, also at Charlotte. This was consistent practice across seasons for the organization, as the Busch Clash was, until 2022, contested at Daytona International Speedway before moving to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Like NASCAR did until 2022, the CART determined starting positions from a blind draw, equalizing the field to some extent. The resulting mix up of the filed led to unpredictable racing and more than a few memorable moments.

Ultimately, however, a shift in Marlboro’s sponsorship priorities left the race with insufficient support after 1992.

Now, back to the present.

The $1 Million Challenge

The budding relationship between INDYCAR and the Thermal Club began in 2022, when it was determined that the property would host the series’ 2023 preseason test. Feedback from drivers was cautiously optimistic, key word being “cautiously.”

The event was initially marketed as being highly exclusive, with tickets priced at $2,000. Those prices were later cut to $500 – still comparatively high – after Riverside County upped the spectator cap for the event.

In a storm of technicalities and confusion that we don’t have room to go into here, there has also been a fair bit of controversy surrounding the name of the event. There will be $1 million present in prize money – the winning driver will not take home $1 million.

Initially, 27 members of Thermal Club, a private resort, could buy into the payout by staking hefty sums of money on a certain team and driver. If that driver took home a top five, the Club member would receive a $500,000 payout while the winning team collected $500,000 as well, making the event’s prize, in the loosest sense of fact, come in at $1 million. Now, this member payout is off the table, though the winning team will still collect $500,000 and cut their driver a share of that sum.

The second-placed team will take home $350,000, third will take $250,000, fourth earns $100,000, fifth gets $50,000, and all other teams walk away with $23,000. This is still a fair amount of money for the IndyCar paddock.

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The rest of the event’s peculiarities – there’s no shortage of them whatsoever – will be covered in this week’s IndyCar Preview.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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