The IndyCar field prepares to race for all – or nothing – at Thermal

By | March 19, 2024

Sunday’s $1 Million Challenge all-star race at The Thermal Club is expected to go one of two ways: pure boredom or pure chaos.

Built in a heat-based format not unlike IndyCar’s knockout qualifying system, two 10-lap heats will be held on Sunday morning, with 13 cars in one and 14 in the other, and the top six finishers from both heats will go further. to the 20-lap grand final.

Those 12 will race 10 laps, have a 10-minute rest period during which their cars are refueled and set-up adjusted, and then they will complete the final 10 laps to determine the finishing order and who will get the biggest payout. As relatively simple as that sounds, there are important questions about how it will play out on the private road circuit in the Southern California desert.

Will we look back on IndyCar’s gap-filling event, created to bridge the six-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach, as a procession with the 12 drivers keeping things clean during the non-championship race, or will we be a stampede – the Paul Tracy Chrome Horn Memorial – as those dozens of drivers chase the $500,000 offered to win?

“Maybe if it was $20 million,” six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon told RACER. “Of course the money means something, but then you also have to assess whether it is worth damaging the car for a few hundred thousand and perhaps finishing last. Do you want to risk damaging the engine and then getting an engine penalty during a real race?

“To be honest, I think the format could have been a little better. It’s 10 laps, you do a rest period because we can’t cover the whole distance [on a single tank of fuel], and then it’s still 10 rounds? Why not just pit after ten laps and skip halftime? If we had a band with really high tires [degradation]I could maybe see it working, but you can’t get that in ten rounds, so I don’t know. I still think it’s cool to explore these ideas, and hopefully it takes off and is hugely successful.”

With lifetime earnings well over eight figures, Thermal’s prize money won’t change Dixon’s life, but for a driver in the early stages of his career, the bounty could be a serious motivator.

“I can’t remember ever racing for money,” says 23-year-old Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing. “Usually winning is the motivation, and money comes with that. If you do it right, the financial aspect will take care of itself. Every race victory counts, just in a different way. So I think it’s going to be fun; Of course there is always some money involved when you win, but no points here. It’s a different mentality.

“I think people are willing to take more risks. It’s basically an all or nothing race. I’m curious how it will go. But it’s really good that they combined it with a two-day test so that everyone would show up.”

The open test from Friday to Saturday will give teams the chance to fine-tune their Thermal-specific setups ahead of Saturday evening’s qualifying session, when the field will be split into two 12-minute sessions and the starting order for Sunday morning’s double heat races will be determined. .

According to Rinus VeeKay, prize money but no points means a different mentality at Thermal. Chris Owens/IMS photo

A fast driver like VeeKay has a good chance of being part of the final twelve racing for the prize money, and from the Dutchman’s perspective there is a perfect place to be in the final laps of the race where it is expected contact will take place.

“I actually think the best strategy for the all-star race is to be P3 and just wait for the top two guys to eliminate themselves,” he said.

For two-time IndyCar champion Will Power of Team Penske, chasing his third title will – like Dixon – take precedence over pounding his way to victory.

“It’s honestly a little less stressful because you’re not racing for the points,” he said. “You would much rather get points and money. I don’t want to hurt my bike. I don’t want to do anything that will jeopardize the championship. If other drivers want to get wild, that’s their business. I mean, the money is nice, but the mentality is that whoever comes out of the first corner first is going to win, because we can use push-to-pass to defend overtaking moves.

“During the winter meetings I said to IndyCar, ‘You should try a no-reply push-to-pass in this race so that the leader can’t deny this by using his own push-to-pass,’ but I think that [IndyCar] it shouldn’t be possible. But during the race my mind tells me I don’t want to damage anything. I consider this a test. A cool open test with money at the end.”

And for those wondering why ‘math isn’t math’ in the $1 million challenge, where half of that amount is paid to win, The Thermal Club has removed the part that would have paid half of the prize money to a club member who was. originally attached to each item.

With these plans on hold, the total payout has been halved, but the revised financial structure is unchanged for the teams and offers $500,000 to the winner, $350,000 to second, $250,000 to third, $100,000 to fourth, $50,000 to the fifth, and the remainder will receive $23,000. a piece.

The change means, in terms of accuracy, that Sunday’s non-points event is now the $500,000 Challenge, but after it was announced as the $1 Million Challenge, the circuit has opted to keep the original name for the sake of consistency.

The series also boasted that the $1.756 million purse is the “largest in IndyCar Series history outside of the Indy 500,” which RACER has learned is an inadvertent mistake.

That honor belongs to the 1996 US 500, held at Michigan Speedway, the CART IndyCar Series’ answer to the Indy Racing League’s Indy 500.

As former CART CEO Andrew Craig shared in a reminder email this weekend, the purse for the inaugural US 500 was $3.5 million, making The Thermal Club’s payout at most the second largest outside of the Indy 500.

The story originally appeared on Racer

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