Race Weekend Central

Upon Further Review: Thermal Club Needs Some Heat

One of the most oft-quoted criticisms about INDYCAR is about their lack of experimentation and inability to shake things up. The $1 Million Challenge was their attempt at doing so, and while it was a step in the right direction, there were many ways in which this event was off target.

First, let’s get into how things went right for the NTT IndyCar Series at the Thermal Club. For those attendees willing to pay a premium price to attend, their tickets gave them access to the paddock, with one IndyCar Facebook group admin explaining how drivers were mingling with fans as they went to grab lunch from the food trucks that the track had stationed near the paddock.

The tickets also came with all inclusive food and drinks throughout the weekend, and with numerous shuttles around the facility, nobody had to wait to get ferried where they needed to go.

This event was tailor-made for those able to attend and mingle with the celebrities that also went to see IndyCar’s first non-points race since Surfer’s Paradise in 2008.

And that’s perfectly fine for the limited number of people that were allowed to spectate at the exclusive VIP facility less than a half hour away from Palm Springs. However, there were a lot more things that were a bit less than ideal from an outsider’s perspective.

For someone looking at the event for the first time, the name itself seems to be a bit deceptive. The $1 Million Challenge was originally going to be an event where club members would buy in and be paired up with a driver. The club member that got paired up with the winning driver would take home $500,000 while the winning driver took home $500,000 (of course, that was much less given how contracts work).

That added up to a million dollars, but the member buy-in idea quietly went away, so there was no million dollar total prize for the winner. But the Half-Million Dollar Challenge name didn’t stick, so the meaning shifted to the total purse of over $1.7 million.

The $1.756 Million Challenge? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

See also
Alex Palou Maintains Control, Wins at Thermal Club

The race format seemed to be complicated for those tuning in. Random draws for qualifying groups, a split main event and even confusing disqualification rules offered more questions than answers.

For starters, Pietro Fittipaldi‘s crew did not fill up his fuel tank before the start of the first heat, and therefore was disqualified from participating in the second half of the race. It seemed odd that there was even a rule that all teams had to have full fuel tanks for the first half of the 20-lap main event and even odder that that particular rule wasn’t mentioned on TV before the main event.

And then there’s Colton Herta. The No. 26 Andretti Global Honda used the ultimate turtle strategy by going slowly in the first half of the main event and saving his tires for the second half of the race. Because tire degradation was a concern, Herta’s team figured that there was more to gain by running very slowly at the start of the main event since no tire changes were allowed at the halfway break.

Per the IndyCar rulebook, however, that shouldn’t have been possible. Rule 7.9.1 states:

“INDYCAR may establish a performance standard which all Entries entered in an Event must achieve in order to participate in the Event. In general, Entries must perform within 105% of the Car posting the best time and demonstrate Car consistency, control/placement and interaction with other Cars on-Track to the satisfaction of INDYCAR. In general, the performance standard will be announced to all Competitors prior to the start of the first practice session. However, INDYCAR may delay announcement of the standard until a later time based on the physical condition of the Track, safety and other considerations.”

Herta was going so slowly that he was about a minute and 24 seconds behind eventual race winner Alex Palou when Palou won the first segment of the main event. Race control had every right to call Herta in or tell him to speed up as he was outside of the 105% of Palou’s lap times in the first half of the race, but Herta kept circulating.

As the race’s second half began, Herta charged from ninth to finish fourth. The strategy paid off, but that involved violating IndyCar’s minimum pace requirements.

And then let’s look at the rest of the on-track product. In the 20-lap feature, Scott McLaughlin moved from fourth to second on the first lap of the race. After that pass, the top three did not change for the remainder of the race as Palou led McLaughlin and Felix Rosenqvist. In fact, had Marcus Armstrong rebuffed Herta’s advances to remain in fourth place, the top four positions would not have changed throughout the last 19 laps of the race.

The racing was not as exciting as IndyCar road racing can be, even with the cash incentives on offer. More needed to be done to spice things up.

Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once said that, “Complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining.” Well, let’s dive into what possible solutions could look like.

The qualifying format was brought up by some as needing some changing as it was eight minute sprints for each of the two groups with push-to-pass being active for qualifying.

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

Here’s an out-of-the-box idea. Have the drivers draw their names for heat race one or two. Instead of having qualifying, just line the heat races up in reverse championship grid order based on who drew which heat.

For the first heat, imagine having Sting Ray Robb and Romain Grosjean on the front row with McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden on the seventh row. For the second heat, you’d have Armstrong and Marcus Ericsson on the front row with Palou on the final row by himself. For the sake of this idea, Nolan Siegel would line up where Jack Harvey‘s points would have placed him.

If you want chaos and a mixed up grid, this is how you get it. Some of the better drivers will find their way to the front of the grid while others will miss out.

And then for post-race, let’s talk about the podium celebration. For a race that paid over a million dollars, the actual podium itself looked much less impressive than it could have. There were no graphics, no signage, no money wads in the trophies or anything else that set the podium apart from another venue.

That was kind of emblematic of the entire event. For the spectators, it was a good experience. For the audience back home, it wasn’t quite enough.

If IndyCar comes back for 2025, changes need to be made to shake things up, because having another race with such little action won’t be doing anybody any favors, no matter how it’s marketed.

About the author

Christopher DeHarde has covered IndyCar racing and the Road to Indy for various outlets since 2014. In addition to open wheel racing, DeHarde has also covered IMSA and various short track racing events around Indiana. Originally from New Orleans, DeHarde moved to the Indianapolis area in 2017 to further pursue a career as a motorsports writer.

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I have to agree, as Million Dollar Challenges go, the whole event was somewhat underwhelming. I think half the problem was the venue itself. The basic layout may be good for member lapping days, but it doesn’t seem to lend itself to side by side racing or passing. Also the lack of spectators, signage, grandstands, etc made the whole event look like a test day not an actual race. Part of what makes a race is the sights and sounds surrounding the event, not a couple dozen people sipping cocktails on the deck of a country club clubhouse.

I think if they do it again they should have at a regular race track, one they don’t run now, someplace like Lime Rock, NJ Motorsports Park, Road Atlanta, etc. A venue like one of those might not have all the beautiful people sipping champagne, but it would offer better racing and look more like a race.

At least the broadcast made an effort to follow the racing going on in the pack, instead of concentrating on Palou riding around out front by himself.

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