Race Weekend Central

2024 IndyCar $1 Million Challenge Preview

No points or championship concerns are on the line at this weekend’s NTT IndyCar Series race at the Thermal Club. Only glory and money awaits the winner.

For the first time since 1992, IndyCar is running an exhibition race where prize money, and not points, is awarded at the finish. The venue is a unique circuit, in the middle of a private, gated-community and nestled near Palm Springs, California. If the famed golf course designer Pete Dye had become a motorsports enthusiast, this is exactly the type of facility he would build. A 3.067 mile course surrounded by multi-million dollar homes will be the battleground on Sunday (March 24). 

So Many Firsts

There is no way to predict what is going to happen this weekend, much like the series first race at St. Petersburg. 

Among the firsts for the event:

  • First time racing on this circuit.
  • First time running an exhibition, prize money race under this sanctioning body.
  • First time qualifying will have push-to-pass.
  • First time points won’t be up for grabs.

How the field races under all these circumstances will determine if the race is entertaining, as the series hopes, or ends up being an event folks don’t enjoy. Or worse, not even watch. 

See also
Open Wheel Archive: The 1992 Marlboro Challenge

Teams tested at Thermal Club last year, and raved about how wonderful the experience was, but it leaves one to think, was the environment with its posh, fancy homes and millionaires the reason for the acclaim, or the track itself? Who wouldn’t want to be at the attention of a community of some of the richest folks in the country, while professional drivers showed how to go fast on their private, backyard race track? 

That response is great for the owners looking for more partners to jump onboard with the series, but not much is known as to how 27-cars will run on the track. And, after examining the format, it won’t even be the full lineup racing on the three mile road course at one time. 

Let’s dive into how this is going to play out

The Format

Hang with us here, as this isn’t simple. Like Indianapolis 500 qualifying, the process that IndyCar has put in place for this event takes a bit of explaining. The event breaks down this way: a qualifying session; two heat races; the main event; cash falling from the sky onto the winner.

A random draw will arrange the field into two respective qualifying groups, the same split as any other road or street course. Then each group gets 12 minutes to lay down their fastest times to determine their starting position for the heat races, with one added benefit – push-to-pass. Unlike other races, drivers will be able to use the bursts of horsepower when setting qualifying times, with 40 seconds allocated. This additional strategy nugget will be important to watch. Also, there is only one tire compound here, so no requirements for alternates like other events. 

Two separate heat races will be run on Sunday, before the main event. Since the competitiveness of the track isn’t well-known, starting closer to the front in the 20-minute heats will be critical. From each heat, the top six drivers will advance to the main event.

The grand finale will be a 20-lap sprint, with a mandatory ‘half-time’ where the 12-car field will come to pit road, have a 10 minute break, top off and change wing angles if needed, then go for broke. At the conclusion, someone is going to walk away with $500,000 and a hefty tax bill to Uncle Sam. 

Make It Rain

One of the biggest questions, out of all the ‘firsts’ listed at the top, is whether money as a motivating factor will be a big difference maker in the type of event that will unfold. Is the chase for half-a-million dollars enough of a spark to one’s mind that regardless the size of a gap or opportunity on track, a driver will aggressively go for it?

That’s to be seen. While in the NASCAR world, drivers don’t seem to mind wadding up a bunch of racecars – just watch any plate race – the same cannot be said for IndyCar. The paddock isn’t flush with cash, Michael Andretti made that well known at St. Pete, and destroying race cars at just the second race on the 2024 calendar doesn’t lend to good vibes to kick the year off. 

Another point is the race is going to unfold over a road course that is 3.067 miles long and this type of track doesn’t look set to create a chaotic, high-intensity event like an oval does. But, maybe all that is wrong, and in the sunny confines of Thermal, Mad Max: Fury Road will play out. 

See also
Inside IndyCar: Exhibition Races

Frontstretch Predictions

Let’s rewind back to St. Pete’s predictions. I had thought that Scott McLaughlin would win pole, then redeem himself from 2023 with a win. Alex Palou would net a runner-up, with Pato O’Ward third. My colleague and fearless leader Alex Gintz mirrored the McLaughlin pick, swapped Palou for Colton Herta, and matched O’Ward in third. 

Out of seven picks, we hit an impressive zero. Nil. Zilch. Nadda. O’Ward was close, as he grabbed second in the race, and McLaughlin third, so we weren’t totally off-base. But winner Josef Newgarden wasn’t anywhere in our ball park. 

Now, let’s turn to this weekend. Will skip the pole as it doesn’t award any points this weekend.

  1. Will Power – he’s an ace on road and street courses and $500,000 will look good in his bank account (it would look good in mine too, but I digress)
  2. Romain Grosjean – what if the Frenchmen has found something in his new Juncos Hollinger Racing team? He ran well at Barber last year which has some sweeping turns, let’s say he earns the $350,000
  3. Josef Newgarden – follows up his impressive performance at St Pete, where he improved ‘turning right’ and nails down the $250,000.

The $1 Million Challenge at Thermal Club will kick off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 24, with coverage on NBC.

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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