IndyCar steps outside the box with $1 million exhibition race at members-only Thermal Club

THERMAL, Calif. (AP) — At least IndyCar is trying something new, which is the key takeaway from this weekend’s $1 million exhibition at the private Thermal Club in the California desert.

The made-for-TV event is an all-star race of sorts, with a unique format that includes heat races and a main event for the fastest 12 in the 27-car field.

The Sunday race itself — call it the “A Main” if you'd like — is 20 laps split into two 10-lap segments. It will be run in front of limited spectators as the Thermal Club is a private course with only 180 members.

It was supposed to pay out $1 million to be split with the race winner and a Thermal Club member, but the payout structure fell apart and the winner will now only receive $500,000.

That's still quite a bit of money for a race worth nothing in the championship picture and, most important, its an opportunity for IndyCar to fill a hole in its early-season schedule with something entirely different.

“We’ll put on a show, that’s what it’s about,” Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin said. "It’s funny when you dangle a carrot in front of a bunch of race drivers with a bunch of egos — we want to win regardless of what event we’re in, whether it’s for a million, $4 million, 50 cents, we’ll just race for that win.

“I think it’s exciting to do it. IndyCar stepping outside the square, trying something different, hasn’t happened much in the past. To be a part of that is exciting.”

The project has been more than a year in the making as IndyCar used Thermal in early 2023 for preseason testing to determine its viability for hosting a race. Safety improvements improved the 17-turn, 3.067-mile track to a Grade 2 FIA approved facility.

Much of the improvements have been the addition of tire barriers, improved runoff areas and, according to Thermal member Don Cusick, who enters two cars in the Indianapolis 500, “a few changes to some of the apexes in the turns that made it a little more friendly, I think, for the cars to race on. At least that’s from the members’ feedback so far.”

The track located near Coachella and outside of Palm Springs is typically used for members to tool around with their extensive collection of luxury cars. Membership to Thermal requires the purchase of property inside the club, and a standard membership starts at $85,000.

The initial plan had been to pair a member with an IndyCar driver and the members would hold their own amateur race. The combined result would determine the overall $1 million winner.

But not enough Thermal Club members were willing to buy into the program so the purse is at only $500,000. The club held a Thursday night welcome party in which members were blindly drawn and matched with an IndyCar driver, which has now turned into an embedded experience with the driver and team.

“I think ultimately it just came down to we’ve got a lot of amateur racers out here, not a lot of professional racers. I think people just weren’t quite certain that they were at the level required to compete as would be expected for that kind of prize money,” Cusick said. "We’re kind of talking through that as members and as a club. We’ll see where that leads.

“But I think for this year it might just have been a little bit overwhelming and they didn’t quite know what to expect, and that’s a part of it.”

The Sunday morning event also will have very limited spectators as teams and members were allowed only a handful of guests to enter the Thermal Club, which has guards at every gate opening and requires a QR code authorization for entrance.

“We never thought of it as let’s see how many people we can sell tickets to to be there for this,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Penske Entertainment. "It’s normally a private facility. It was meant to be a kind of high-end hospitality offering. So it’s a little pricey. Pricing changed, but it’s still kind of pricey.

“But we think that this is the right way to put it forward to get a good number, but a manageable number of fans to the track.”


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