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The good, the bad and what should change: Reflecting on IndyCar’s $1 Million Challenge

Written by Archie O’Reilly & Dan Jones

The NTT IndyCar Series’ $1 Million Challenge at the exclusive Thermal Club, won by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou, has split opinion among the series’ fanbase. Our writers give their reflections on IndyCar’s first non-championship event since 2008…

What was good about the event?

Archie: IndyCar tried something with this event. They have often been criticised for not doing things to engage different fan demographics, which the slightly older generation maybe have to come to terms with. And for that alone, plus the fact it filled what was otherwise a six-week void, the series deserves credit. 

This should trump the majority of negative points. It was worth a try. 

You cannot begrudge the experimentation aspect of the weekend, featuring heat races for the first time since 2013 and, to many of the drivers’ liking, push-to-pass in qualifying for the first time, leading to a high-adrenaline, almost ‘one-shot’ session. If it did not go to plan - and no experiment is ever completely smooth - there were no points on the line. 

The setting was idyllic and drivers enjoyed the relaxing environment. They were offered a lot of testing time too, which made the weekend worthwhile for many teams amid limited testing time throughout an ordinary year. 

The track is an enjoyable, technical challenge for drivers and is perceived to be not too dissimilar to other road courses and possibly suitable to be a full-time feature of the calendar. Passing was somewhat difficult but not impossible, meaning there was some aggressive and generally decent racing in the heats and in the second half of the main race. 

Safety was a pre-event sticking point but the track is now up to FIA Grade Two standard. A 50-minute testing red flag for dislodged concrete was the only real blip - not unexpected given it is only the second visit from IndyCar - but this was successfully resolved.

Another positive was that there were possible sponsors in attendance given the exclusive nature of the Thermal facility. Some of the club’s members got excellent access to teams that they were paired with, which could offer a blueprint for something regular race-going fans could enjoy in the future.

The limited fans able to attend the event also got good access and certain amenities included, which was reasonable enough for a $500 ticket - reduced from the misjudged, initially extortionate $2000 price. Fan access to any future event will need to be on a larger scale if feasible, which will be covered later in this piece.

The event was not perfect but a baseline to build upon has been set. It was good enough for a first try and lots of the vitriol from fans has been an overblown reaction.

Dan: IndyCar’s $1 Million Dollar Challenge was an experiment, there were always features that were going to be liked and always features that were going to be disliked. And although the general feeling of IndyCar fans may be a negative one leaving the Thermal Club, there is still plenty that we can take away from it. IndyCar and the teams have not lost much by doing it…

As Archie mentioned, the foremost point is it prevented a six-week gap of no racing. There would be nothing worse than having the season opener in St. Petersburg and then having to wait a month-and-a-half to see cars back out on track competitively. A lot of credit must be given to IndyCar for finding a solution after the race at Texas Motor Speedway was dropped at short notice. Even if the racing was poor at times, it still was better than nothing.

The facility was one liked by the drivers. Yes, the argument of fan access is one to be raised, but allowing spectators in their thousands loses the exclusivity of the Thermal Club. The track itself was better for racing than expected, having a strong mix of high-speed, low-speed and overtaking opportunities to find itself as a venue suitable for IndyCar racing.

Nestled in the Coachella Valley, with scenic mountains and palm trees in the foreground, the Thermal Club certainly was a looker, and the exclusivity of the venue and the members gave us some exclusive insights to the life of members at a motor racing resort like no other in the world.

And there were benefits of the format. The 40 second push-to-pass feature was well received, particularly in qualifying, giving it more of a one-shot, high pressure lap moment which created a format liked by drivers in a one-off circumstance, some drivers even suggesting it could be a strategy used in the Fast Six in traditional road and street races.

It was never going to be a plain-sailing event, but there are certainly positives IndyCar can take away and adapt from.

What was bad about the event?

Archie: There are certainly elements to improve to take the event to another, better level. No experiment will ever be bulletproof but there were inadequacies, seemingly starting with planning. One case during the weekend was each qualifying session being reduced from 12 to eight minutes due to fear that drivers would just sit in the pits amid tyre degradation.

Another issue was that the $1 million purse to be split between the winning team and a Thermal Club member ended up only being a $500,000 prize for the team. Resources lacked and members did not have the confidence to put on the planned BMW M2 race for the largely amateur crop of drivers. That idea was scrapped and will have to be revisited.

The $1 Million Challenge would essentially not end up being an accurate name.

Also on the monetary side, damage sustained in any incidents was always going to outweigh the minimum prize. Romain Grosjean was left far from content, going as far as to say this was not what he signed up to IndyCar for after being rear-ended by Scott Dixon, causing significant damage to his and Rinus VeeKay’s machines.

Other operational costs, such as travel, will likely have led to a net loss for sixth-place-and-below finishers. Which begs another question: was it really correct to reward every position from sixth in the main race down to last in each heat the same $23,000 prize? That structure will almost certainly have reduced the incentive for some.

There is also the case of the rules being a little unclear, with some confusion among drivers certainly meaning a number of fans would not necessarily have understood every aspect of the event. 

The lack of access for any large number of fans is arguably the most major sticking point moving forward, especially if the series is to consider drivers’ suggestions that an event at Thermal could be points-paying. It was fun to see but felt too exclusive at times - almost a promotion for the luxurious facility - and contrasted the usual openness and accessibility of IndyCar. 

The other big issue came in the main event, when tyre-saving gave anything but a good television product. Intended to be entertaining, the opening half of the supposed ‘all-star’ event looked silly. You cannot knock the drivers for doing what they could to get to the end. Ultimately, not allowing a tyre change was probably a mistake that needs revisiting.

The harder-fought elements of the race were not the frenzy some expected, even if there were glimpses of risk-taking and aggression.

Dan: The elephant in the room is a combination of the format and the tyre degradation caused a farcical first 10 laps for what was labelled ‘the sprint for the purse’ - 10 laps where drivers were ironically trying to go as slow as possible to conserve the tyres for the second half of the event.

Yes, when deciding the format, deg would not have been forecasted as this significant, and that is something reflections have to take into account. But when it was seen that it was going to be an issue, that is where the series needed to adapt. Going as slowly as possible in an event that was labelled as made-for-TV and a format ‘never seen before’ is embarrassing.

But from a team perspective, it made sense. If you were lounging around at the back, why wouldn’t you do it? What benefit do you have ruining your tyres in the first half to gain a position or maybe two. It was a key aspect overlooked by IndyCar when effectively introducing a mandatory red flag.

The finale will be the moments that sour people’s mouths reflecting on the event, but the racing as a whole still left much to be desired. There is not one overriding issue here - a combination of a tough track to pass, drivers not wanting to damage their cars in a race with little to no benefit for most, punishing run off-areas and the fact that only half the field is racing at any one given time all add up to this issue.

The venue itself also caused an issue. With ticket sales as low as they were due to the extortionate prices, the exclusivity of the Thermal Club felt a disconnection among fans, watching drivers race at a facility where it costs over $5 million to be a member and a place almost completely inaccessible to all of IndyCar’s fanbase. 

Was it an advertisement for the Thermal Club rather than an actual race?

And when all was said and done for a concept specifically made for TV, the numbers gave grim reading, with just over 800,000 watching the event. That is not enough for the potential that IndyCar had to grow the series with an event like this.

Did the format entertain enough?

Archie: This was an event intended to be entertaining. It was made-for-TV and anticipating gloves-off racing for a larger-than-usual television audience. Viewership was always going to be the primary measure of success and, unfortunately for IndyCar, it notched its lowest count in almost two years. 

Those that did tune in will have probably been underwhelmed by the racing spectacle on offer. It raised the thought as to whether working too hard to try and great entertainment was possibly counterproductive. There was a lot of ‘hype’ but the wild product that was promoted as being on offer never reached its promised potential. 

In terms of the competitive aspect of the weekend, the fast-paced qualifying session was good and the heat races exciting enough. Albeit a longer main race, to avoid a stop-start, disjointed element to race day, which Palou for one complained about, could be preferable in future. 

Sadly, the first segment of the main race did tarnish the weekend somewhat. It could scarcely have been further from the intended entertainment at some points.

It spoke to a bit of mismanagement - by not allowing a tyre change despite degradation being a factor in last year’s maiden test visit - that it was able to play out as it did. It unfolded into a tedious game of cat and mouse, in which most of the field ended up dropping off the pace to save their tyres for when the field was packed back up in the second half.

If only one driver deployed this strategy, it would have added to the entertainment. But with even the leaders cruising by the break, it became a bit comical. The intention to have wheel-banging and hard battling did come more to fruition in the second segment, but opinions have no doubt been tainted by the pedestrian first part. 

IndyCar got a network television slot to showcase the series. But, when all was said and done, it was not an exciting enough showing to new fans of just how entertaining IndyCar regularly is. It could become that in the future but the first rodeo was incomplete.

Dan: The concept behind the format at the Thermal Club was, in theory, a good one - flat-out racing in short bursts to provide consistently engaging action, the sort of action that would bring in new fans to watch the series. But a few minor underlying issues caused the weekend to spiral out of IndyCar’s control.

The qualifying adjustment probably was the biggest success. IndyCar made a late change to shorten the sessions from 12 minutes to eight at the request of the drivers, who feared due to the push-to-pass element, they would be sitting in the pits. And it was a good addition. IndyCar needed that adaptability throughout the rest of the weekend.

Qualifying was fast in a metaphorical and literal sense. The shorter time put drivers under more pressure, with the push-to-pass addition meaning drivers had to nail their laps, in a Formula One, one-and-done style format, which caused a bit of unpredictability and did lead to mixed up grids.

The heat racing was clearly an experiment, but grids of only 14 meant that action was slower, there was not much overtaking. There was not really much memorable about either heat race. It was not short enough for drivers to go all guns blazing, but nor was it long enough to add a strategic element to it.

I have put my thoughts on the finale above. In theory, it was a great concept. But when it was clear that the tyres would struggle, IndyCar needed that adaptability, whether changing the tyres at the half-time or introducing pit stops - something to prevent the scenario that many saw coming prior to the event.

If it was only Colton Herta, it would have only added to the spectacle that IndyCar wanted to create. But at that point, what was the benefit for Agustin Canapino pushing in 11th or Christian Lundgaard pushing in 10th? It became a train reaction which caused the farcical outcome that it did.

The second half was better but, with a runaway Palou and people still trying to conserve tyres, as well as single-file restart, the racing was not as good as many desired. It certainly was not a ‘sprint to the purse’. 

And it is a shame because the racing at the Thermal Club did not highlight what IndyCar is all about. Huge credit should go to IndyCar for trying something different but, on this occasion, it did not work.

What changes would we make?

Archie: First of all, the ideal event would probably be hosted pre-season or post-season - ideally the former. It felt out of place being hosted after the first race so, in an ideal world where no gap-filler is needed, it should probably be combined with an open test to allow teams to prepare and warm up - including with a race - ahead of the season.

A points race could be considered given the track and facility does suffice for drivers. But, in order for this to be feasible, there would have to be a solution found to allow greater numbers of fans to attend. A points-paying event cannot be as restrictive and should preferably keep fans at the heart of the series. 

The fast-paced, one-and-done qualifying format did work well, so I would be keen to keep that for a non-points event. Then, beyond this, how gimmicky do you go?

If you go all out, then running a sprint race - ideally reverse grid or at least to set the starting order for the main race - could work in place of heats, allowing a full field of action rather than a limited number of cars. A reverse grid race in particular should allow the entertainment aspect to be achieved.

But you do have the issue of incentive and an adequate prize for a reverse grid race would also have to be determined. Rationally, teams may not oblige to this given the damage risk, which could make a grid-setting regular sprint race preferable.

A sprint race is not necessarily a must in my eyes. Heat racing provided some excitement, but a better flow could be achieved by simply extending the main race in its place and running with the full field. Then comes the exciting part… as suggested by Palou, how about an elimination element to differentiate it from a regular IndyCar race?

The series has to avoid the same, slow-paced segment that unfolded last weekend by increasing the allocation and allowing tyres to be changed. Introducing alternate and primary tyres could be considered, albeit it is not necessarily bad to take away a strategy element and level the playing field by having only one compound.

I would still have mandatory points - probably at least two if you are to extend the race length - that every car has to come into the pits to change tyres, whether for hot stops or through a brief break. And for a set number of laps at the end of each segment, one or two drivers would be eliminated per lap.

This should prevent any ambling around and promote fighting through the field to stay in the event. Regular pit stops would not work as some cars would likely just stay out as not to be eliminated, hence the idea of mandatory tyre-change points.

Dan will come onto international exhibition racing in different countries - something I agree would be a good addition, possibly as an additional post-season event.

Ultimately, I cannot say the first running of an exhibition at Thermal was a failure because a platform has been set to make these changes. But it did feel like a work in progress.

Dan: Archie’s concept is more of a mainstream one, and one that certainly would provide more entertainment than the one at the Thermal Club. But it still does cause some issues. I have come up with my own variation which should bring a fast-paced format but also keeps IndyCar’s validity.

It is imperative that this event is not placed midway through a season. In this year’s circumstances, it is absolutely understandable why it was scheduled at this time - IndyCar could not afford a six week gap between races. But, longer-term, it does not make sense for fans and drivers to have this standalone event when it was.

There were suggestions IndyCar may visit Argentina post-season in 2024, and this is the sort of timing and opportunity that IndyCar needs. My first proposal would be to go international and change the venue for this each year. That is the first way you are going to unlock a new fanbase, whether in the Asias, Americas or Europe.

If you change the venue each year, you continue to unlock new markets and make events more accessible for fans worldwide - the complete opposite of the exclusivity of the Thermal Club that many fans felt disconnected with.

The concept of racing for money, I think, was a good one and I would continue this post-season. It means there can’t be as many concerns with damage costs. And if the race was titled a $1 million event, I would make the winner’s prize pool $1 million rather than spreading it across the field.

Format-wise, I would keep the qualifying format used at the Thermal Club; push-to-pass was a good addition - it was different and created a fast-paced format. I would combine the two grids like usual for a one-stint, F1-style sprint race on Saturday that decides Sunday’s grid. It whets the appetite and gives a nice preview for the main event.

My proposal is also an elimination event but with some variances. Let’s hypothetically place this as a 60-lap event for simplicity purposes. You have all 27 drivers racing into Turn One, which makes it feel less sparse and means that you will have double the action to keep your eye on. Keep the racing flat out - the tyres and fuel can easily last 20 laps - and, at the end of 20 laps, all drivers come into the pits to change tyres and refuel, creating a race off pit road.

The last nine drivers who leave the pits are eliminated, the rest follow the pace car under caution (similar to NASCAR stages) and, similar to this year, caution laps won’t count. The remaining 18 drivers race another 20 laps before the process repeats, drivers do a race off pit road and the last nine off pit road are eliminated. The final nine then have a 20-lap sprint to claim the prize.

It is extreme. It is different. But it keeps flat out racing for over an hour, drivers can get into a rhythm, we still have an elimination format of some kind, as well as pit stops, pressure on the crew as well as drivers and 27 drivers all racing into Turn One. 

It is something that would be great to experiment as a one-off and a format that would engage in an environment that would bring new fans.


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