Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: 3 Areas to Improve the $1 Million Challenge

The NTT IndyCar Series exhibition $1 Million Challenge was definitely a step in a new direction for the open-wheel series. While the product was hindered by smart teams saving tires and just an absolute rocket ship driven by Alex Palou, there are still some things on the edges the series can work on to improve this for the future.

An epic thrill show on asphalt never materialized and the prognostications by the series and teams that the event was going to be must-watch were misguided at best. However one critical factor was checked just by putting something on track, and that was IndyCar was on television and racing. Had this event been buried in the desert outside Palm Springs to be hidden from all to see, then a massive six-week gap was in store between race one and two of the season. Also, credit to IndyCar for trying. They got themselves on network television and got to rub elbows with John Elway, the famous Indianapolis Colts Denver Broncos quarterback, walk around with millionaires and hopefully got free lunches with IndyCar-themed business cards.

With that said, lets pretend what happens at the Thermal Club, stays at the Thermal Club and move on from here. But if the event returns next year, there is plenty of time for the series to grab a Magic 8 ball and shake every affirmation-seeking word out of it to figure out ways to make the show better for year two.

Lucky for all those in the Frontstretch universe, there’s a list right here of ideas, tweaks and additions that might make the return better than the Star Wars sequel trilogy.

See also
Alex Palou Maintains Control, Wins at Thermal Club

Format

Some of the racing challenges could be improved with tweaks to the format. To start, the number one change that must be enacted is adopting double-file restarts. Ironically, in NASCAR, their All-Star race was run with this rule before it was expanded to the entire series.

If this exhibition is going to be promoted as something like an epic adventure movie, then adding double-file restarts is as required as the CGI in a Marvel flick. It was surprising that the second half of the main heat wasn’t restarted with a double-file, which was a missed opportunity. While Colton Herta put on the only show during the race, it would have had a better shot of working if the field was bunched up. 

Another idea to look at is how the races are run, such as doing away with the smaller heats and leaning toward a 27-car full field. If the entire field is on track, then break it up into stage iterations like NASCAR. To ensure drama is injected into the race still, after the first stage, give those further in the back-half of the field the opportunity to get fresh tires and see if the better cars can hold them off. Then, in stage two, make a cut-off to say, half the field, with the final stage the run for the money. That way, two segments of racing include the entire field, another difference in strategies to change up who has the momentum on track, and the finale can be an all out dog fight for the win. 

In the final heat, the 20-lap shootout can be looked at, maybe increasing it to 15 laps per half? Also, in the same line of thinking as double-file restarts, a change that should be made next year is including a live pit stop, so that teams can leverage their skill on pit road to maintain their advantage. Further down in this story, there is an additional reason pit stops could be added, so don’t touch that dial quite yet on this idea.

The series can also play with the push-to-pass option as well by finding a way to prevent cars that are being chased from using it. If it takes a new system or 27 humans watching the live scoring to hit a cut-off switch when the cars are within one second, then IndyCar needs to invest in it. If this race isn’t for points, then giving the guys deep in the field more ability to pass someone ahead of them is an easy gimmick to add.

How about giving an unlimited amount of push-to-pass in the first two segments, or giving that option to those that were outside of the cutoff when the second stage starts? There are multiple directions push-to-pass could go and the series can improve the show by playing with that, and not making it a liberal tool for all. 

Another option is to shorten the track, since Thermal includes multiple configurations. Three miles is just too long to run a short sprint race. A shorter track layout, or perhaps changing the layout each stage, will add more craziness and adventure that will blow fans minds away. Herta mentioned joker laps as an option, so the idea has been kicked around. The real focus needs to be finding a layout that offers one more passing opportunity. Furthermore, a shorter layout might create traffic for the leader which would add further obstacles to overcome. 

Venue

The Thermal Club venue works as far as it was supposed to – fill a date early in the calendar to ensure fans see IndyCar on television. Due to the spring climate in the country, warm-weather tracks are finite, and its even harder to find one if the promoter doesn’t deem the series worthy of investment – i.e. not enough interest. 

However, a road course is not the best track to run this type of race. The high-downforce open wheel cars will spread out and leaders will lay down fast times to get out front. To prevent that from happening, perhaps looking at an oval-based venue would be more suitable for the race. And using a high-banked oval would be the only option, as the series hasn’t really found the right package for their flat ovals. 

The hold-up is getting a track that fits that criteria, as only one high-banked track over a mile is on the schedule, and it’s Nashville Superspeedway. Iowa is banked, but the field probably doesn’t care to go there as long as Josef Newgarden competes in the series. Homestead-Miami Speedway might be a good choice and if IndyCar really wants to host the glitz and glamour like they did this past weekend, you can bet your teal green jumpsuit that the beaches that Carl Fisher invested in is a perfect place. 

This idea is the hardest for the series to pull off as it takes two to tango in adding another oval track, and the series’ history in achieving that isn’t a successful one.

Prize Money

Here’s one crazy idea that just comes right out of nowhere. It’s shocking, so if you have to, sit down as you read it, but here it is – make the prize $1 million. In the words of Theodore “Ted” Logan: “Whoa…”

Joking aside, the title of the race staying the $1 Million Challenge after removing the dual $500,000 payout to a club member was confusing. Even team owner Chip Ganassi mistakenly put out his driver’s winnings were a cool million.

To help ensure simplicity, changing the name to “The Challenge” or “IndyCar Challenge” would suffice. A million dollars isn’t necessary for the winner, save that for the prize in May, but at least an increase through the field to ensure drivers push as hard as possible in the final stretch to gain one more position if they can. For example, Herta’s pass for fourth on Marcus Armstrong late in the second half was basically a $50,000 overtake, increasing his team’s payout. That should be the case for every position gained, otherwise why push to move from ninth to eighth if it is the same prize?

As for other awards, as mentioned in the archive piece on the 1992 Marlboro Challenge, giving the crew a prize for the fastest pit stop only adds to the storylines. In 1992 it was $20,000, and not sure what a good number is now, but giving the crews, the real behind the scenes heroes, something to earn is a great way to celebrate their hard work.

See also
Open Wheel Archive: The 1992 Marlboro Challenge

That’s the pitch. Digest these ideas, store them away, or discard them as you wish. But if the series does hit the desert for a second go at the $1 Million Challenge, hopefully some fresh concepts are put in place to continue the direction INDYCAR has taken.

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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Kicks

TV acted like Thermal Club was the only private track in existence. It is not. Autobahn Country Club in Joliet Il, about 3 miles from Chicagoland Speedway, is also a members track with multiple configurations. It could handle a similar event in the middle of the summer like other “All Star” events in various sports.

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