It wasn’t a dumpster fire. It wasn’t much to behold. But it did serve its intended purpose.

IndyCar and The Thermal Club deserve a round of applause for trying something new and different. The series is often faulted, and rightly so, for having a failure of imagination and sticking with the same-old-same-old, and with that in mind, I’m appreciative of IndyCar for attempting to create an event to infuse the series with energy and excitement with its $1 Million Challenge.

And that’s where the downside of an experiment comes into play. Some experiments work and others do not, and the on-track product the experiment produced on its first try wasn’t compelling in any capacity.

The first lap of the first heat race offered some drama when Scott Dixon and Romain Grosjean tangled, but that was caused by a simple mistake. Colton Herta’s elephant crawl to open the finale was painful to watch, and he was soon joined by half of the field — six of the 12 drivers — who channeled their inner St. Petersburg fuel-saving selves in limping through the corners and conserving their tires until the halftime break.

My heart sank for the series the moment that began; it was a brilliant strategy for those who tried it, but it also made IndyCar look like buffoons for allowing it to happen. It had the look of a heavily promoted boxing match where the fighters spend half the rounds circling each other without throwing a punch. Talk about anti-climactic.

Folks tuning in to watch an all-star race, only to find some of IndyCar’s best drivers crawling around at 8-10 seconds off the pace, with the broadcasters semi-apologizing for what was being aired, was as big of a backfire as you can get. Thankfully, things slightly improved afterwards.

When the race resumed, the top three of Alex Palou, Scott McLaughlin, and Felix Rosenqvist who led the first 10 laps, went on to lead the final 10 laps in a processional jog to the podium.

After months of hype about the big spectacle that would come from the ‘dash for cash,’ the end result was a $1 million nothingburger. If it weren’t for Herta moving through the field but coming up well short of winning on his way to fourth, and a bullish Alexander Rossi putting on a mid-pack show, it would have been another St. Pete-style snoozer.

Although most of us who work in the series were rooting for the racing portion of the event to be a thriller, it wasn’t. And that’s not meant to be a critical statement; it’s just an assessment of what it was. And that’s OK. That’s the risk that exist with experiments. In its first run, the competition format did little to make the event stand out as something special or memorable among other IndyCar races, and if the series and the circuit elect to try this for a second time, there’s no shortage of ideas for how to add some spice to the show.

We could spend another 5,000 words dissecting all of the things that didn’t work, but it would be a waste of time. IndyCar tried something different with its racing format, learned a ton about what it should do differently in the future if it were to give it another try, and it’s time to move onto more important things, like the rest of the points-paying season.

There are other aspects of the event that do warrant a deeper dive, which we’ll do in a moment, but The Thermal Club event needs to be treated in the manner for which it was created: A temporary distraction.

What was the genesis of the $1 Million Challenge? To fill a six-week gap in the schedule after the season opener in St. Petersburg. That’s why it existed; to trim an unacceptable period of inactivity to a less-bad four-week wait until Long Beach, and it succeeded in its mission.

It served its purpose — a distraction was created — and I hope IndyCar won’t be afraid to try more new things. But now it’s time to turn the page and get back to real racing.


With the exception of Dixon’s mistake in the brake zone, the rest of the running in both heats, and the 20-lap $1 Million Challenge went exactly as teams and drivers told me it would go in the weeks leading up to the event.

With $500,000 available for the winner, they said the cash on offer wasn’t enough to make them drive like animals and smash their way to a huge payday, and they were true to their words. Sure, there were some feistier-than-usual moments, but all involved were generally well-behaved, and for those who were sure it would be carnage throughout, that lone caution to clean up the strike Dixon threw with Grosjean as the bowling ball was the only interruption to the action on Sunday.


I spoke with quite a few fans who bought the $500 tickets to spend three days at Thermal, and I didn’t hear a single complaint about the cost, the amenities, or any other aspect of the event. I’m not saying all of the fans who turned out were 100-percent satisfied, because that would be impossible, but for the dozen or so I chatted with, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience for them, and for varying reasons.

The all-inclusive food and drinks was a huge hit, thanks to the food trucks that offered everything from ice cream to tacos to sandwiches to churros to barbeque. I don’t know if we’ll get a crowd figure from the event, but I’d guess 200-300 fans were in attendance, and the semi-exclusive nature of the event was also mentioned as a positive — something akin to a private concert held for the biggest fans (who also have the financial means to make the trip and pay $167 per day to be on the grounds).

If I had to use the thoughts from one person that best represents what others told me at Thermal, it’s Adam Schrack, who was there with his wife Adrianna, who attended her first IndyCar race last weekend, and wrote:

I completely understand why the ticket cost priced out a lot of fans. But I can’t begin to explain how amazing this event is. They are 100 percent running this like a VIP experience for the fans here, and doing a great job at it. Drivers everywhere and accessible. Because of the limited fan attendance, you can hardly turn around without seeing another driver to go right up to. Plenty of drivers came down to the food trucks to grab lunch and were waiting in line with the fans. Not sending team members to get food for them, or hiding in the team trailer eating catered food. They just came and got in line with us. I was standing by TK, Malukas, and a bunch of McLaren team members.

The venue has way more shuttles than they need to ferry everyone around, so there is almost no wait time to get one. And in fact, rather than having to flag them down, they will pass by people walking and offer rides. The food trucks are really good. Beer, wine, cocktails, soda, bottled water all available in the big bar area by the food. Have as much food or drink as you want, it’s all free. And speaking of free, you are basically free to wander wherever you want. It’s almost one big open area of pits and paddock.

Considering what people will pay for tickets to see Taylor Swift or Beyonce, I find it hard to complain about $500 for the aforementioned VIP experience for an IndyCar race.

But I also can’t fault those who didn’t attend who called out the high costs — knowing the original ticket cost $2000 until it was slashed to $500 a few weeks ago — as the exact reason why they wouldn’t attend. And that’s worth acknowledging.

One of IndyCar’s most appealing points is the easy access, the affordability, and the general inclusiveness throughout the calendar. Sure, the silly-high Iowa Speedway tickets that include huge concerts was met with enough backlash for the prices to be dialed down and for more general admission tickets to be made available, but the Thermal event was indeed a one-of-a-kind event with its private setting.

With Formula 1 setting the bar for insane event pricing and VIP packages, is that an area IndyCar wants to continue exploring with more Thermal visits, or should it stick to its for-the-fans approach that it’s known for?


Kyle Kirkwood and Andretti Global were the dominant combo during last year’s three-day Thermal open test, but the Floridian — and his team as a whole — were largely uncompetitive on their return. Herta’s tire-assisted charge aside, the Andretti drivers didn’t feature on the speed charts for most of the event. Throw in crashes by Kirkwood and Marcus Ericsson, and it was a strange weekend for a team that missed the mark at St. Pete and was expected to get back to its front-running business at Thermal.

Kirkwood was on a mission last year at Long Beach and had former teammate Romain Grosjean in tow, so there’s a possibility of Andretti regaining its form four weeks from now.

It’s far too early to make any calls on how the season will play out for its trio, but Herta’s form has been noteworthy. Ericsson was on a great run at St. Pete before engine problems intervened, so there’s more to be shown from him, but so far, Herta’s been the one leading the team to the finish line.


Alexander Rossi was on it from the moment testing started and showed his fiery side in the races on Sunday, which was a delight to witness. In a callback to his mollywhopping wins at Road America and Watkins Glen, Rossi was in his element on the long and challenging Thermal track.

The Arrow McLaren driver is excellent in all of the IndyCar disciplines, and in particular, a bespoke road course with a couple of high-speed and high-commitment corners seems to be where Rossi’s extraordinary performances are delivered.


Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was competitive with all of its drivers at varying points of the three-day adventure. Christian Lundgaard was the one constant within the team, which is nothing new, and it was great to see Graham Rahal and Pietro Fittipaldi in close company with the Dane.

It was out to lunch at St. Pete — alarmingly so — and among the fastest teams at Thermal. That’s the fickle side of life for a team like RLL which is searching for a higher level of competitiveness. Lost at one race, fast at another; the boom-or-bust cycle is a painful one to endure while hunting for whatever’s missing to bring the consistency it’s chasing to always be in the hunt.


So maybe this season won’t be a lopsided affair between Chevy and Honda after all. Chevy held the upper hand in St. Pete, and afterwards, Honda admitted it had work to do to catch up to its rival. Using St. Pete as a guide, I’d expect Chevy to be strong at the second street course on the schedule which features the same characteristics as the first. At least for the first road course of the year, which had a lot more medium-speed corners and flowing sections, Honda’s motors seemed to be in their element. Once we get to Barber Motorsports Park, we’ll have a better feel for where their strengths are found, and then it’s onto the month of May where it’s anybody’s guess as to which auto manufacturer will speak the loudest in qualifying and in the 108th

 running of the Indianapolis 500.


OK, I said we’d leave the Thermal shortcomings behind, but this can’t be overlooked.

How do you make some of the world’s greatest drivers look like no-names? Place them atop a podium that someone found on Etsy.

When we hear team owners speak about IndyCar needing to hold itself to a higher level of execution with how it presents itself to the world, it’s brutally embarrassing items like this — winners of the $1 Million Challenge placed on the same podium used by club racers and kids at a karting event – that reinforce just how much progress Penske Entertainment needs to make in this area.


* After our latest silly season piece went up, which heavily focused on Josef Newgarden, I had two paddock insiders stop to tell me they’ve heard Andretti Global is seriously interested in the two-time champ and Indy 500 winner. As it was phrased by both, the interest was originally for Formula 1, which would likely place that expression to sometime prior to FOM’s harsh public rebuke of Andretti’s attempt to launch an F1 team. Being eligible for a super license is a powerful draw, but if the team is unable to find its way into F1, would the interest remain to acquire and run him in IndyCar?

* On a similar thread, I was also told that Marcus Ericsson’s estimated annual salary of $3 million was light by nearly $1 million.

* Thermal’s militarized security force was at the center of an ugly episode with a team that asked to have its name withheld. A dispute over accessing an area on golf cart led to a testy exchange and a respected crew member being dropped by security, which led to a heated encounter with the team’s leadership. I’m told the matter will be addressed with the series this week. It’s not uncommon to have a limited police presence at some races, but Thermal is unique with its private security contractors who are fully outfitted with tactical gear and firearms.

* Something looked ‘off’ around the Thermal circuit, and it wasn’t until a colleague mentioned it on Monday morning that I realized there were no trackside sponsor banners to be found throughout the 3.0-mile, 17-turn road course.

* In a related oddity which also spoke to the unique situation at Thermal, there were three cars among the 27 that arrived with bare sidepods. I can’t recall the last time we had three entries going ‘naked’ at the race. Both of Dale Coyne’s cars had no primary sponsor, and Ed Carpenter’s car for Rinus VeeKay also had a ton of empty space due to its lack of a main sponsor. Teams struggled to find sponsors for its international races back in the day; I wonder if the non-championship aspect of the event, along with the limit of 2000 tickets being offered which guaranteed a small fan presence, contributed to all three cars being presented in ‘Please Sponsor Me’ configuration for the wealthy Thermal Club members. Sadly, there were no takers.

* Let’s close on a positive. I need to do more digging, but one IndyCar official told me the series had a number of Thermal members express an interest in team ownership. Whether that was two or 20 people is unknown, and it’s hard to say without learning more — I’ve reached out to follow up — about if those were throwaway comments at a social gathering, or if some members have asked for meetings with the series to explore real ways to join the paddock. Either way, the hope is for the latter to be the result. More to follow…​