Why IndyCar $1 Million Challenge Race Is ‘Going to Be Fun’ for Drivers, Fans

Jackson Wheeler
10 Min Read

  • The race winner will pocket a cool $1 million at the made-for TV exhibition race at Southern California’s posh Palm Springs Thermal Club, a private motorsports country club.
  • Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi are among the drivers who say they’re excited and happy the series is showcasing its innovative spirit.
  • Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter already are pondering potential strategy.

It’s an impressive oasis in the Sonoran Desert, The Thermal Club, with its 19-turn, three-mile Twin Palms layout that’s one of the longest and most intriguing race courses in North America.

It’s part of a private motorsports country club near Palm Springs, Calif., that’s ornamented with luxury villa homes for members, who have access, as well, to a karting track, autocross facility, tuning and detail shops, a garage, clubhouse, and spa.

Those who can afford a $2,000 ticket will see the NTT IndyCar Series’ top drivers vie for a $1 million payout to the winner, while the rest of the fans watch on an NBC broadcast March 24.

indycar thermal club

Penske Entertainment/Chris Jones

The Thermal Club is unlike any circuit on the IndyCar schedule.

Many IndyCar drivers tried out the demanding track that features sweepers, tight corners, long straightaways, and elevation changes, during an open test last year. However, even the series veterans aren’t sure what to expect when they tackle one qualifying session and two heat races that will set the field for an all-star showcase.

Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden isn’t looking past the March 10 season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., but he said he’s happy to make the stop on the way to the April 21 Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“I’ve got to say I’m kind of excited about it. You see this across the board in motorsports, whether it’s the event at the Coliseum that NASCAR put on or it’s these other trials. I think for us, it’ll be a great exhibition race. In a lot of ways, it’s made for TV, which is in a lot of ways great. Not everybody lives in Palm Springs, California, but this is one of these events that can be just a net positive. Let’s run it. Let’s see how it goes,” Newgarden said. “There’s no guarantees it’ll be perfect or well-received, but there’s also a possibility that it’s super well-received.

“I think it’s an exciting event. Obviously there’s a lot of money to be won, which is motivating for everybody. More than anything, there’s just the motivation that you want to be top of the pack. It’s going to be important to be fast there. Let’s see how it goes.”

He said he isn’t concerned that it could become a snoozefest because the back of the pack will be trying not to tear up equipment so early in the season.

“Every event you show up to, you have to be putting in the maximum effort without going over the limit,” Newgarden continued. “That is our challenge every single time. What are we going to do when we go to Indianapolis in April to test? You’re going to be putting the car to the limit, and of course you don’t want to wreck the car. That’s always the challenge we have. I think that’s a little bit irrelevant. At Thermal you can push the car to the limit. It is our job to do that and try and find performance and win a race. Accidents happen, too. If we get into an accident, we’ll work with it going into the next race.”

Alexander Rossi, of Arrow McLaren, said, “I think Thermal is going to be a really exciting event. It’s pretty cool that IndyCar is doing a prize-money race. And obviously having the Thermal Club members involved there and the format of the event and having it be kind of an elimination round to get to the final, a proper made-for-TV event is really exciting. So I’m looking forward to that and seeing how it all goes and winning a bunch of money. Obviously, that’s cool.”

Six-time series champion Scott Dixon was a little more hesitant to embrace the event fully, despite calling it “a great idea that could really expand in other areas, especially new circuits that we go to, maybe off-season stuff.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing headliner said, “I don’t think they’ve finalized a lot of the stuff, just how they’re going to break it down. The difficult part, I think, (is) if the feature race becomes a sprint race, it’s going to be—unless you’ve got a super-soft tire that degrades a lot, then that will create some action. It’s not a track that’s going to be easily passable, so maybe you’ll be waiting for some mistakes and things like that.

“The platform is really good. We’ll just have to see how to make it work well to make it the spectacle that it needs to be,” Dixon said. But kudos to everybody that’s been involved to create something like that. It’s the starting point.”

For team owner-driver Ed Carpenter, the trip back to Thermal, where the series conducted open testing last year, is “going to be fun”—and strategic.

“I think this is going to be a unique experiment, and it’s hard to really say what I think or how it’s going to go until we get into it,” he said, “But I know it’s going to be a good experience from having been there last year. Everyone questioned what it was going to be like going there [in 2023], and I think at the end of the day it exceeded our expectations.

“This is going to be a new type of format for us to try,” he said, citing the series’ heritage. “IndyCar racing has always been an innovative sport, going back to the very beginning. You look around other sports and leagues, and everyone is doing something all the time to try to be innovative and create new excitement.”

2023 bommarito automotive group 500

Chris Owens

Ed Carpenter admits the timing of the exhibition event at Thermal is a bit odd.

However, its placement in the schedule—just two weeks after the season-opener at St. Petersburg, Fla.—tosses a monkey wrench into the path of points-minded drivers poised to get a head start on improving their 2023 performances.

It’s definitely going to be a little odd, going to a race event that doesn’t have points,” Carpenter said. “So I think it’ll change the approach or what you’re ultimately able to accomplish over that weekend. But I’m sure it’s going to be fun.”

Still, he sloughed off the fact that the non-points event interrupts the routine schedule: I don’t know that it matters all that much, to be honest. At the end of the day, early in the season, you’re less focused on points just naturally than you are as the season winds on. So I’m sure once we get there, it’s going to feel more like a race than an exhibition, just because we’re all competitors. And at the end of the day, there’s a lot on the line with the Challenge.

“I do think it’s going to be important to go there and be strong quickly by the way the format is laid out. I don’t think it’ll be the easiest place to overtake. So speed and qualifying is going to be vastly important to give yourself a chance to be a factor in the final of the event,” he said.

Headshot of Susan Wade

Susan Wade has lived in the Seattle area for 40 years, but motorsports is in the Indianapolis native’s DNA. She has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with nearly 30 seasons at the racetrack, focusing on the human-interest angle.  She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, and Seattle Times. She has contributed to Autoweek as a freelance writer since 2016.

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Jackson Wheeler is a skilled editor at Speedofdaily.com, specializing in automotive content. With a background in Journalism and Automotive Engineering, he combines his passion for cars with his writing expertise to deliver captivating articles. Jackson's deep knowledge of automotive technology and his racing experience make him a valuable asset to the team, providing readers with informative and engaging content.
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