Race Weekend Central

The Thermal Club Is ‘Made for TV’

THERMAL, Calif. – A totally unique private racetrack in the Coachella Valley. A big-money, all-star, no-points racing showdown. Unlimited, free soft-serve ice cream. The NTT IndyCar Series’ inaugural $1 Million Challenge will be a race like no other. 

But … maybe that’s a good thing.

The Thermal Club is not the only country-club style motorsports facility in the world – one opened last year outside Tokyo – but it is the first such venue to play host to wheel-to-wheel action from a major American racing series.

After hosting pre-season testing in 2023, the Southern California venue will be the stage of IndyCar’s first non-points exhibition since 1992’s Marlboro Challenge at Nazareth Speedway.

See also
Felix Rosenqvist, Alex Palou Take Poles for $1 Million Challenge Heat Races

The 17-turn, 3.067-mile layout first used by IndyCar in 2023’s pre-season test combines two of Thermal’s three basic tracks (the “red” and “blue” layouts), with the two meeting in the distinctively awkward turns 16-17 complex, where the ideal racing line forces drivers over the curbs – and one massive bump that brings Sebring International Raceway to mind. The track is challenging, exacerbated by the Coachella Valley’s propensity for sudden temperature changes, gusty winds and dust storms, all of which affected the order on the timing sheets through Saturday’s (March 23) twin test sessions and modified two-group qualifying format. The racing surface itself isn’t the problem.

The problem is, it’s difficult to see it.

There are very few ground-level areas at Thermal with clear sightlines over the acres of steel guardrail, making it very difficult for fans to catch a glimpse of a speeding open-wheel racecar.

Formula 1 fans familiar with critiques of Hermann Tilke’s work may know that tracks designed to challenge drivers in single-car runs don’t always produce the most thrilling side-by-side action. The Thermal Club adds an interesting twist. It isn’t a regular racetrack, it’s designed from the ground up to provide a thrilling experience for its members, who pay dues for the privilege of driving it in any manner of high-end production cars or track-day specials. Every square inch of the facility is dedicated to helping people live out their Forza Horizon (or Test Drive: Unlimited, for the older generation) fantasy.

Thermal’s needs are unique, so of course track designers had other priorities than accommodating grandstands. Adapting the track to host an IndyCar series race that requires teams, media, VIPs and fans was always going to be a challenge.
The facility wasn’t designed to host several thousand people arriving on race day, it was designed to host small groups of drivers and their guests.

Even finding parking for the IndyCar series personnel, media, and VIPs required some creativity: the team parking lot is itself a section of an unused track layout, Team Penske’s rental Chevrolet Malibus are tackling the same type of red-and-white curbs as Will Power’s Chevy IndyCar.

Holding a race at Thermal, showing off the location and putting IndyCar’s teams and drivers in contact with the high-rolling motorsports enthusiasts, required a different approach than say, the series’ planned return to the Milwaukee Mile later this year.

Another controversial Southern California motorsports exhibition, NASCAR’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, provides an interesting counterpoint. The quarter-mile bullring that NASCAR dropped in the middle of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum never allowed such speeds as to look spectacular on a screen – but the track’s short distance and stadium seating allowed in-person spectators to clearly see the entire track at once.

Fewer than 65,000 people bought a ticket to the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum, compared to over four million who watched it at home.

With Thermal, IndyCar is taking the opposite approach. Push-to-pass will be available from the drop of the green flag. Caution laps won’t count towards the total. There will be two heat races with eliminations. Drivers are expecting chaos – Heat 2 polesitter Alex Palou joked he’d like to “add a bumper” to the rear of his No. 10 Honda for the approach to turn 1.

See also
2024 IndyCar $1 Million Challenge Preview

Aside, of course, from the drivers’, the best seat in the house for the $1 Million Challenge is going to be in front of a television screen.

This is a gamble for IndyCar. Holding a race behind closed doors, rubbing shoulders with high-rollers and hoping that a glimpse into their world and the promise of a $500,000 payday to a driver motivates people to tune in is not a guarantee. It is, in the words of Felix Rosenqvist, “an experiment.”

But if IndyCar is set on racing at Thermal, it’s clear from the ground that this is the only option. To host a full-fat IndyCar weekend, the facility would need to massively expand. It would likely have to become a different type of racetrack entirely. The $1 Million Challenge feels like a compromise, but it might be the only one that works.

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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