Race Weekend Central

Open Wheel Archive: The 1992 Marlboro Challenge

The NTT IndyCar Series is about to put on the first Challenge exhibition in the Roger Penske-owned era this weekend at the Thermal Club.

However, in 1992 Emerson Fittipaldi, decked out in the famous orange-red and white livery that matched the sponsor of the race, won the final Marlboro Challenge put on by IndyCar predecessor Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). It was the last attempt by open-wheel to match stock car’s famed Winston exhibition (now the All-Star Race), and bring the six-year reign of Marlboro’s cash prize to a conclusion. Fittipaldi may have been the winner, but eyes were focused on three other drivers.

The 1992 PPG Indy Car World Series season was a year’s long battle between three drivers: Bobby Rahal, defending champion Michael Andretti, and 1992 Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. All carried significant storylines to each weekend, as Rahal blazed a massive trail in his first season as owner and driver, while Andretti had one eye over the Atlantic readying for his go at Formula 1. Unser was driving a new, in-house chassis for Galles Racing, the Galmer, which had won the closest Indianapolis 500 in history but had handling gremlins that were not quite solved.

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Inside IndyCar: Exhibition Races

Having just two races left in the season, the trio arrived at Nazareth Speedway with the championship on their minds, but also balancing the requirement to compete in the Marlboro Challenge held on the same weekend. At the previous race at Mid-Ohio, Rahal had lost the championship lead to Unser for the first time since gaining it after the second race of the year.

As detailed, the race was an exhibition event that paid out a cash prize to entrants. Unlike the weekend at the Thermal Club, the 1992 Challenge included only those who had acquired ‘Marlboro Challenge’ points, which were awarded for winning a race or a pole in the last year. If all entries that had Challenge points were exhausted, then it went by drivers highest in the current championship standings not in the field yet to get to the max 10-car field.

Leading the field to green was Michael Andretti, with 11 points (six poles; five wins) after arguably being the best driver in IndyCar over the last two seasons. Outside pole was Andretti’s rival for the season, Rahal, with 6 points after cashing in with both three wins and poles in that year’s campaign so far.

Fittipaldi was on the inside of row two, looking to get his first win in the Challenge. Other drivers competing were Mario Andretti, whose recent pole at the Michigan 500 ensured his grid position. Rookie Paul Tracy, subbing for Rick Mears who had stepped out of the car at that same Michigan race as he healed from Indy 500 injuries, had his spot guaranteed when he won pole at Road America, only three races before. Otherwise, he’d have been unable to make it in on points position. First-time winner Scott Goodyear earned a grid position as well.

Making it on championship standings were John Andretti and Raul Boesel. The nephew to Mario Andretti, John was having his best season which garnered him an opportunity to grab the Marlboro cash prize. He’d finished no worse than ninth on the previous three flat ovals on IndyCar’s schedule, so Nazareth fit in his skill set. Boesel had started the year without a full-time ride, but since joining Dick Simon Racing at Indianapolis, he’d been able to earn two podiums, including a runner-up at Detroit, to gain enough points to skate in. He was helped by the fact that Indy 500 pole-winner and therefore guaranteed entrant, Roberto Guerrero did not put a deal together with King Racing to make the race, which opened up one more grid spot.

Up for grabs to the winner was $300,000 in cash. This overall prize was actually more than what NASCAR handed out to the winner at the Winston in May, when Davey Allison took home $200,000 (the pole and a segment win netted Allison an additional $100,000). The rest of the 10-car field was still going to cash in something, from $200,000 for second to $25,000 for 10th. Even $20,000 was going to the team with the fastest, mandatory pit stop during the sprint (paging INDYCAR, this is something to consider).

That value seems pretty significant, however considering the current prize for Thermal is $500,000, how does 1992 pay out compared to 2024 dollars?

Position1992 Prize2024 Dollars
1st$300,000$656,543
2nd$200,000$437,695
3rd$125,000$273,559
10th$25,000$54,711
Fastest Pit Stop$20,000$43,769
Based off Bureau of Labor calculator.

The winner of the 1992 Challenge was going to make more than the 2024 Challenge winner. This all makes sense when considering the times, and the amount of cash tobacco companies were pumping into motorsport.

For the race itself, it was designed as a 100-lap sprint, after all there was still a points-paying event to run later in the weekend. One pit stop was required for the field.

The green flag flew, and Rahal pulled away almost immediately. He had won at Phoenix, a similar track to Nazareth, earlier in the year. Danny Sullivan, who qualified based on his win at Long Beach, pulled in with engine gremlins on lap 11.

While Rahal cruised, Fittipaldi hounded Michael Andretti. The field quickly stretched out, a product of the high-horsepower engines and nine-cars on track. Nazareth did not have a fantastic reputation for great, side-by-side racing, but Fittipaldi seemed to have a better handling car versus the younger Andretti. This was even pointed out by Sullivan during his in-race interview after stepping out. “Looks like maybe Emerson is being held up a little bit by Michael,” Sullivan told ABC Sports, concluding “if he gets around him, we may have a pretty good race.”

At the quarter distance mark, points leader Unser Jr. was the first car to make the mandatory stop. Tracy, who started eighth, showed early that Nazareth was going to be a good track for him, as he went inside of Unser and Goodyear in one turn. While other cars struggled to overtake, he seemed to be unfazed. Of course, the young Canadian would make a career out of those type of passes for years to come.

While some in the second half of the field pitted, John Andretti and Unser made contact, forcing the Indy 500 winner into the grass. Rahal, Michael Andretti and Fittipaldi pitted when the caution came out, which ended up being the turning point.

The race fell right into Fittipaldi’s hands thanks to his team ensuring no mistakes were made on pit road. Both early front-runners Rahal and Andretti received black flags for incorrect pit entry procedures. A second penalty was assessed to Rahal for exiting with the vent hose still attached. 

This ended up being the story of the race, as Fittipaldi set his cruise control on, taking the win and $300,000. Michael Andretti recovered from his stop-and-go penalty to finish second, with Tracy third.

Fittipaldi’s win was his only victory in the Challenge, but no worries. His win in the Indianapolis 500 the next year paid him more than triple what he earned at Nazareth. Michael Andretti’s failure to get a third win in the exhibition was quickly overshadowed by the race to the season’s finale. His rivals in the race and championship, Rahal and Unser, would take their frustrations from the Challenge out on the field the rest of year. 

Rahal, in particular, backed up his dominant run the next day, winning the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix, which returned him to the points lead and a critical cushion that proved vital in the Laguna Seca finale, where he won his third IndyCar title. Unfortunately for Rahal, he never visited victory lane again after 1992.

Andretti was unable to close the gap with Rahal in the points, but it wasn’t without trying. He’d finish second to Rahal the next day and win at Laguna Seca a week later. In 1993 he contested the F1 season up through the Italian Grand Prix before being let go by McLaren. His cousin John did something similar as far as becoming a racing nomad, moving to NASCAR the next year after being unable to land a full-time ride, but his stock car venture ended up turning into a career, running 393 races there.

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Tracy continued to prove his talent, which led to a full-time ride replacing Mears, who never returned to the cockpit after Michigan, announcing his retirement in December. Nazareth would prove to be to Tracy’s liking, winning there twice and finishing in the top 10 in all but one of his 11 starts.

Marlboro pulled its support for the Challenge after the year, and over time focused its support on sponsoring Team Penkse. After the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement came into effect in the late ’90s, there was less flexibility for Marlboro to shell out money to sponsor races, events and teams.

It seems fitting that the last team to earn the prize, was a Penske Marlboro car.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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