INDYCAR Fills Date Gap with $1 Million Thermal Club Challenge

The sole carnage occurred on the first lap of the first heat race - Penske Entertainment photo
$1 Million Challenge winner Alex Palou (center) is flanked by Scott McLaughlin (2nd) and Felix Rosenqvist (3rd) – Penske Entertainment photo

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES had a scheduling issue for its 2024 campaign. With the series’ 17 races occurring between the start of March and the middle of September, it had a huge gap between the traditional season starter, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street race and its second contest, another street race, the 49th annual Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

What to do between March 8-10 and April 19-21? INDYCAR elected to return, March 21-24, to The Thermal Club outside Palm Springs, where it held a test session prior to the start of the 2023 season. The Thermal Club, a multi-function track that was constructed to satisfy the whims of wealthy car and racing aficionados, is probably better-maintained than some of the tracks where INDYCAR traditionally races; upkeep is far easier when the owners are exceptionally wealthy.

The series decided to align club members with the 27 drivers/teams competing in a $1 million challenge that had more scheduling twists and turns than the 3.067-mile, 17-turn course configuration that INDYCAR chose to use at The Thermal Club. There were no points on offer, just money, and it was just the kind – and amount – of money every racer yearns to see in the inbox.

With a total of $1.756 million available, every one of the series regular entries stepped to the plate. And there were public opportunities to enter the 490-acre property, normally off-limits to those that can’t afford a car or 20, a house on the property and, admittedly a private aircraft to get to and from the Club. While tickets were initially offered at $2,000, which included parking, all food, drinks and access to the circuit, teams and drivers, that price was quickly reduced to $500, allowing more Southern California fans to come out to the desert to see their heroes in action.

The action began with the draw party Thursday night that aligned The Thermal Club members with racers competing for the big prizes on offer. After all, with $500,000 to win, $350,000 to show and $250,000 to complete the podium, plenty of bills could be paid. Fourth place earned $100,000, while fifth got $50,000. Sixth through 27th paid out $23,000, which might have covered the cost of Firestone tires. Maybe.

INDYCAR scheduled test and practice sessions for Friday and early Saturday, followed by 12-minute qualifying sessions for two groups of contestants, similar to what’s done at a points-paying race. Saturday’s activities were plagued by dust storms, common for the area, but time trials were completed.

Sunday was a totally different animal, with heat races to weed out the wheat from the chaff. Only the top six finishers from each heat race would go on to a two-part race of 20 laps – 10 per segment – held at midday Sunday.

One interesting option was the ability to use horsepower-producing push-to-pass for a total of 40 seconds throughout qualifying, heat races and the main event, with push-to-pass allowed from the green flags to the checkers. It’s normally not used in this manner and indicated INDYCAR was looking to make sure the show they put on at The Thermal Club was worthy of fans’ attention- both on-site and on the NBC/Peacock broadcast –  for some new excitement thrown into the mix.

The sole carnage occurred on the first lap of the first heat race – Penske Entertainment photo

So here’s what happened.

In qualifying, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou and Meyer Shank Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist earned pole positions for their heat races with Honda power behind them. In the messy first heat, those that were continuing to the money race were Rosenqvist, Team Penske’s Scott Mclaughlin and Josef Newgarden (Chevrolet), Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Christian Lundgaard (Honda), Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Agustin Canapino with Chevrolet and Colton Herta, whose Andretti Autsport with Curb-Agajanian Honda took the final transfer spot.

The second heat race was definitely cleaner from the start, and Palou had a lonely drive to the checkers, arriving more than five seconds ahead of his Ganassi teammate Marcus Armstrong, with Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda) taking the third spot. The three remaining slots went to Linus Lundqvist with Ganassi, Pietro Fittipaldi for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Alexander Rossi as the final driver to make the money run, for Arrow McLaren and Chevrolet.

For the double-phase final, they lined up differently than they finished, because both Herta and Lundgaard needed replacement parts and were shuffled to the rear. It didn’t matter. For the first half, everyone jockeyed to save fuel and Firestone tires. Rahal had an issue with a sticky throttle; Fittipaldi’s crew didn’t fuel his car to the tippy-top so he had to be careful for the first half of the contest. With a three-mile-plus lap, low fuel could strand a driver.

Running order at the halfway point was Palou, McLaughlin, Rosenqvist, Armstrong, Newgarden, Lundqvist, Lundgaard, Rossi, Canapino, Herta, Fittipaldi and Rahal. During the break, INDYCAR announced Fittipaldi’s car’s disqualification, for not filling the cr completely with fuel. He joined his teammate Rahal on the sidelines, making this a ten-Dallara contest, mixed between six Honda and four Chevrolet combatants.

Colton Herta didn’t think much of his 10th place grid spot and immediately began to move forward after the single-file start. With most drivers circling the course in the 62-63-second range, leave it to two-time and reigning champ Palou to dip below that, racing at the 61-second level with no problems keeping his tires beneath him. By the time they got to the checkers, Palou had nearly six seconds in hand (5.7929) on McLaughlin, with Rosenqvist almost ten seconds back.

Alex Palou’s Chip Ganassi Honda was on rails and finished nearly six seconds ahead od Scott McLaughlin’s Team Penske Chevy – Penske Entertainment photo

Yeah, they were strung out on this long track. Herta improved from tenth to fourth for Andretti’s squad, Armstrong and Lundqvist slotted fifth and six for Ganassi, Rossi took seventh for Arrow McLaren, followed by Team Penske’s Newgarden, Lundgaard’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda and Agustin Canapino the final car on this long track, more than 20 seconds behind the leader for Juncos Hollinger.

Was this an exciting race? Well, no, it wasn’t, but it did keep INDYCAR in front of people as they prepare for Long Beach in a few weeks. But right after the close of this non-points-paying show, every car was packed into its hauler and truck drivers were running back to Indianapolis. Why? Testing on the 2.439-mile road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was on the docket for March 28-30, with drivers testing both their current engines and continuing to evaluate the 2.2-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 hybrid engines that will be introduced into competition at some point after the 108th Indianapolis 500.

SPRINT FOR THE PURSE
1. (1) Alex Palou, Honda, 20, Running
2. (4) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 20, Running
3. (2) Felix Rosenqvist, Honda, 20, Running
4. (12) Colton Herta, Honda, 20, Running
5. (3) Marcus Armstrong, Honda, 20, Running
6. (7) Linus Lundqvist, Honda, 20, Running
7. (10) Alexander Rossi, Chevrolet, 20, Running
8. (6) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 20, Running
9. (11) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 20, Running
10. (9) Agustin Canapino, Chevrolet, 20, Running
11. (5) Graham Rahal, Honda, 8, Mechanical
12. (8) Pietro Fittipaldi, Honda, 0, Disqualified

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 93.166 mph
Time of Race: 39:30.2292
Margin of victory: 5.7929 seconds
Cautions: 0
Lead changes: 0
Lap Leaders: Palou, Alex 1 – 20

HEAT RACE 1
1. (1) Felix Rosenqvist, Honda, 8, Running
2. (2) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 8, Running
3. (5) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 8, Running
4. (4) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 8, Running
5. (8) Agustin Canapino, Chevrolet, 8, Running
6. (11) Colton Herta, Honda, 8, Running
7. (12) Nolan Siegel, Honda, 8, Running
8. (10) Santino Ferrucci, Chevrolet, 8, Running
9. (6) Will Power, Chevrolet, 8, Running
10. (13) Kyle Kirkwood, Honda, 8, Running
11. (14) Sting Ray Robb, Chevrolet, 8, Running
12. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 8, Running

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 108.920 mph
Time of Race: 00:13:30.9622
Margin of victory: 0.4971 seconds
Cautions: 0
Lead changes: 0
Lap Leaders: Rosenqvist, Felix 1 – 8

HEAT RACE 2
1. (1) Alex Palou, Honda, 10, Running
2. (2) Marcus Armstrong, Honda, 10, Running
3. (3) Graham Rahal, Honda, 10, Running
4. (4) Linus Lundqvist, Honda, 10, Running
5. (6) Pietro Fittipaldi, Honda, 10, Running
6. (7) Alexander Rossi, Chevrolet, 10, Running
7. (9) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 10, Running
8. (5) Tom Blomqvist, Honda, 10, Running
9. (8) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 10, Running
10. (11) Christian Rasmussen, Chevrolet, 10, Running
11. (10) Kyffin Simpson, Honda, 10, Running
12. (13) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 10, Running
13. (12) Colin Braun, Honda, 10, Running

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 109.253 mph
Time of Race: 16:50.6089
Margin of victory: 5.3375 seconds
Cautions: 0
Lead changes: 0
Lap Leaders: Palou, Alex 1 – 10

About Anne Proffit 1248 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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