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IndyCar drivers offer ideas and format tweaks for Thermal exhibition race

Several IndyCar drivers provided feedback on the $1 Million Challenge at The Thermal Club, while also offering ideas to tweak the format should it continue.

Heat Race 2, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Last weekend’s non-points exhibition at the 3.067-mile, 17-turn circuit featured nine hours of testing ahead of qualifying to set the field for two heat races, with the top six advancing into a 20-lap, two-segment main event.

The on-track product saw zero lead changes in either the heats or the final, with a combined 39 passes spread across a total of 38 laps - while Heat 1 switched to a 20-minute timed race after an early caution negated the window to complete 10 laps.

There were some strategy games involved, though, as drivers were equipped with one set of tyres for the final on a track surface and compound combination that provided high degradation. Andretti Global’s Colton Herta was the primary standout to take advantage that situation by riding around at roughly 10s off the pace in 12th and last for the majority of the opening segment before charging to fourth in the second half.

Meyer Shank Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist, who finished third in the final on Sunday and also took home a victory in the opening heat, praised IndyCar’s out-of-the-box thinking.

“I thought it was really interesting from a driver's standpoint because you had to think very big picture all the time,” Rosenqvist said.

“You were always worried that someone might save the tyres more, and they had a go at the end.”

Rosenqvist found Herta’s strategy “interesting” and thought it added to the entertainment. He then offered options for the future, which included having all cars in the final instead of only 12.

“Obviously, you can tweak stuff like race length,” Rosenqvist said.

Race Start, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Marcus Armstrong, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Linus Lundqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Tom Blomqvist, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, Patricio O'Ward, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, Callum Ilott, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, Alexander Rossi, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet

Race Start, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Marcus Armstrong, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Linus Lundqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Tom Blomqvist, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, Patricio O'Ward, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, Callum Ilott, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, Alexander Rossi, Arrow McLaren Chevrolet

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

“Maybe you want to have all cars in the final. Things like that. IndyCar has been very open with this event. They told us, ‘Hey, let's keep an open mind going into this.’ I thought it was great. So much fun to be out there doing something different that we do every weekend.

“You learn new things. It's also a good test for what you can bring to the product going forward.”

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin similarly expressed his approval of IndyCar switching up things. He especially enjoyed the qualifying format, which saw drivers – allotted 40 second of push-to-pass to use at their discretion – divided into two groups and attack the track for eight minutes each.

“This is a good opportunity to try completely different things,” said McLaughlin, who finished runner-up in the final and collected $350,000.

“The qualifying was cool with the push-to-pass. That's awesome from a standpoint of you have to nail the lap on that lap. I'm used to that from Supercars back in the day, shootouts. You had one lap and get it done.

“That's a really good opportunity - good and bad - for you to mix up the grid. You just have to nail it. This field is so tight that if you miss it by a tenth [of a second] or two, could find yourself at 15th if it was a proper shootout.”

McLaughlin furthered added he would be open to seeing the qualifying style played into the championship rounds as a way to change it up.

“I think it's definitely something we could think about for the Fast Six, qualifying format, not just here,” McLaughlin said.

Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet

Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

“I feel like we've done the same format for a long, long time. Don't get me wrong, it's great. But could we add something different to what we've done in the past to spice up the action.

“Everyone is going to be on used for the most part in the Fast Six. Send them out, give them a little bit of push-to-pass, see what happens. That would be pretty cool.”

Reigning and two-time IndyCar champion Alex Palou, who won both his heat and the final in dominating fashion to collect $500,000, delivered a unique thought on how to keep people from being conservative if the event returns.

“It would be pretty cool if we do some, I don't know how is it called, but in some dirt races they do every lap they eliminate one car, which is the last car,” said Palou, driver of the #10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

“That would be pretty cool. Nobody could be managing tyres or anything like that. Everybody should be pushing. I think that would be pretty interesting.

“I like that we changed it a little bit. Maybe adding the pitstop just so we have more action, and you have a little bit more strategies going on, which I think that's also the beauty of IndyCar.

“But it was cool to see this format, honestly. I was pleased. It looked a lot worse on paper than what it actually was while driving.”

The question was then posed that if the IndyCar Series will continue to run a non-points exhibition in the future, should it remain at The Thermal Club or rotate to another venue?

“It all comes down to the support that we get from the club and other tracks,” McLaughlin said. “Thermal have just put their backs behind IndyCar for this and created an awesome event, the opportunity for all teams to come out here and earn money, which is an absolute bonus, but also to put on a show, have a test day for two days.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

“I think it's just ultimately up to other people that want to be a part of it. But you got to give props to Thermal to do that. I don't think you'll see anything else unless people put up the investment that Thermal have done for us.”

For his part, Palou does not want to see a non-points event being held in the middle of the championship schedule.

“It depends on the timing,” said Palou. “In my opinion, if it's post-season, it's great to have an exhibition with no points. If it's pre-season, it's great to have an exhibition with no points.

“I don't know why this is a non-points race, being the second race of the season. So, I don't see why we would do that more in the future and why we would keep this race as a non-points. If we come back here, we need to have it as a points race.

“If we do an exhibition, a proper exhibition, where it's off the calendar, then it makes sense that we don't put any points.”

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The thought of having the California-based circuit hold a race that counts towards the championship appeals to Rosenqvist.

“We proved that we can race here like any other track,” Rosenqvist said. “As Alex says, maybe we come back and it's an actual points round. I think that would be really cool.

“This is no different from any other road course we have. The facility is great. The infrastructure is there. We can definitely race like any other track here.”

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