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IndyCar Preview: $1 Million Challenge

Written by Dan Jones

Credit: Chris Jones

Who's ready for some unique, made for-TV, and fast-packed action? With all championship points off the table, and a $1.756 million total prize laid on it, it's all to play for at the Thermal Club, as IndyCar hosts it's $1 Million Dollar Challenge for the first ever time in one of the most unpredictable, unique but enthralling weekends motorsport has ever seen.

But before we delve into all things Thermal, let's recap the season opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, where Josef Newgarden stole all the headlines as he claimed the pole position, before leading 92 of 100 laps on Sunday to kick off his season in the perfect way. Pato O'Ward fended off the other Penske's of Scott McLaughlin and Will Power to take second in a race that was significantly less chaotic then that of 2023.

Felix Rosenqvist was one of the stars of the weekend, claiming the track record in the Firestone Fast 12, before reaching the front row in the Fast 6, just 0.006 seconds off Newgarden's time, finishing a comfortable seventh in Meyer Shank Racing's best result since 2022. Chip Ganassi suffered a difficult weekend, with both Marcus Armstrong and Linus Lundqvist getting involved in incidents, but Alex Palou finished even better than he did in St. Petersburg last year, claiming a sixth place finish.

Being the season opener, the championship standings correlate to that of the St. Petersburg finishing order, but none of that matters coming into the Thermal Club, as IndyCar hosts it's first non-championship race since the series visited Surfers Paradise in Australia in 2008. The Thermal Club will host it's first IndyCar event, after hosting a successful pre-season test last year, being popular with the drivers, Marcus Armstrong stating: 'I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.'

See the Thermal as a country club, but for motorsport fans. Credit: Chris Jones

The Thermal Club is a venue like no other. A race track specifically built for the elites, with a $175,000 initiation fee for members and a monthly fee just shy of $2,500, and the fact you have to build a house on the facility approximately worth $5,000,000 within five years of joining. The facility will allow a few thousand guests, as it opens it's gates for the first ever time, a facility described by IndyCar as: 'A private, world-class facility featuring an expansive 490-acre property known as the ultimate destination for driving-minded celebrities, corporate executives and motorsports enthusiasts.'

And let's have a look at the 3.067 mile (4.936km) circuit that IndyCar will be using in a competitive format for the first time. The lap begins with a climb up through the gears to 170mph (274 km/h), before drivers shift down to first gear for a tight hairpin which leads on to another first-gear hairpin, this time turning right before another first-gear chicane, left than right, which leads on to the fourth first-gear hairpin, turning right.

That leads on to the back straightaway, the best passing opportunity of the venue before downshifting into a slightly higher-speed left-hander, as drivers than build through the gears in a sweeping section or corners, including a particularly long left hander at Turns 12 and 13, before cars fly through an 'esses' section at high speed, before a right-hand hairpin. This leads drivers onto another straightaway before a compact double right-hander and a quick chicane to finish the lap.

When asked by DIVEBOMB, NBC Analyst Townsend Bell compared it to the likes of Barber Motorsports Park: 'There is some really good brake zones from high speed, in-line straight brake zones that you don't have as much at Barber.'

Nestled in the Coachella Valley, the Thermal has spectacular sights. Credit: Chris Owens

Being a made-for-TV event, the $1 Million Challenge will also feature a unique weekend format. The Series will host a draw party on Thursday, were Thermal Club members will be paired with one of 27 drivers and be 'immersed' into their respective teams with opportunities including: 'Team meetings, driver question-and-answer sessions, racecraft instruction and tips, and use of premium, authentic race team gear.'

Following the Draw Party is IndyCar's annual Open Test, which will feature five hours of testing on Friday and four on Saturday, all of which will be televised. On Thursday's draw party, the drivers will be split into two groups, each group receiving a 12 minute qualifying session for Sunday's heat races. Qualifying will see push-to-pass active for the first time ever, with drivers having an allowance of 40 seconds to deploy during the session.

Once the two respective grids have been sorted, they will then compete in one of two 'heat races,' a 10 lap race (or 20 minutes, whichever is shorter. Any laps under caution will not count toward the 10 laps, however, the clock will continue to run. Drivers will be permitted with one set of tyres for the heat race, with pitstops banned unless for emergency use. Similarly to qualifying, drivers will receive 40 seconds of push-to-pass.

Drivers will return to the pits mid-way through the all-star race to refuel. Credit: Joe Skibinski

The top six drivers from each heat race will advance to the 'All-Star Race' where the will compete for the $1,000,000 (sort of, more on that later). The grid will be decided by the heat race order, with the fastest qualifying time out of the two heat winners receiving the pole. Drivers will then compete in a 20 lap race, with no time limit. The 20 lap race will be split into two, a halftime break giving drivers 10 minutes to refuel and reset before the sprint to the $1,000,000.

The half-time segment is a unique format, and when asked by DIVEBOMB the purpose of the break, IndyCar President Jay Frye commented: 'We wanted it to be a no-holds-barred race. So we're going to let them come in and take fuel. So we'll make sure, when the cars leave for the first ten laps, they'll be full of fuel. They'll come in at the halftime, we'll make sure they're full of fuel. There will be no fuel saving. It's no holds barred, go get 'em, push-to-pass, that type thing. So it should create a great racing environment. That's really the biggest thing. The last ten laps will be pretty interesting. Full of fuel with ten-lap tires on it and 40 seconds more push-to-pass.'

However, the $1,000,000 must be taken with a pinch of salt, as the winner will only be receiving a $500,000 winning prize. Second place will receive $350,000, third $250,000, fourth $100,000, fifth $50,000, and all other drivers will receive $23,000. The event is still titled the $1 Million Challenge, with the initial plan being that members of the Thermal would host their own race before being paired up with a driver. However, with most members of the Thermal Club being amateurs, they weren't confident of such an event. However, this still remains the largest purse outside of the Indianapolis 500.

There will also be a few driver changes coming into the event. Callum Ilott will continue to sub in for David Malukas at Arrow McLaren, with the Lithuanian-American still recovering from a pre-season mountain bike injury. Ilott stood in for Malukas in St. Petersburg, coming home a respectable 13th at the flag.

Much like Newgarden, Siegel was dominant in St. Petersburg. Credit: Chris Jones

Nolan Siegel will make his unofficial IndyCar debut at the Thermal Club, in the first of four 2024 events the 19-year-old will compete in, including the Streets of Long Beach, the Indianapolis 500, and on the Streets of Toronto. Siegel, who is running a full Indy NXT season, romped home to victory dominantly in St. Petersburg, and will be hoping to continue that rich vein of form as he debuts with Dale Coyne Racing.

It's a style of racing that no-one has ever seen before, with a cash prize up for grabs instead of championship points? Could this lead to smaller teams having the potential to cause a surprise as big teams don't want to damage parts? Will drivers risk it all knowing that there is nothing to lose? That paired with a format made for TV could make for some excellent racing. When speaking to DIVEBOMB, Townsend Bell continued to say:

'At the end of the day, having no points to win means no points to lose. And I'm not sure in the current era we've ever seen what happens in that format. That's the curiosity I think for all of us. None of us, as we sit here right now, can tell you with any certainty exactly how this will play out from a racing standpoint, but I also think that's the reason that so many are curious to watch, along with me, and see what the results are. You dangle cold hard cash in front of just about anybody in a competitive environment, whether that's Mike Tyson boxing again at age 58 or 27 INDYCAR drivers with no points to lose, I think we're going to see some interesting dynamics play out. INDYCAR never disappoints.'

IndyCar hasn't made clear if an event at the Thermal is a longer-term goal, however, it's a huge opportunity for the series to really make a name for itself with a fast-paced format, specifically made to draw in the viewers. Will it be successful in doing so? Time will tell, but it's a crucial element into helping grow the series stature and reputation.

A venue and event like no other. Credit: Chris Jones

It's a complete unknown, no real road course form will really translate here for any drivers. With extensive testing, before an all-out format made for racing action, it's a weekend that could go down in motorsport folklore, as one of the most entertaining and unpredictable in IndyCar history. Make sure you don't miss the $1,000,000 Challenge with all championship points off the table, and a cold hard cash prize on it.


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