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The good, bad, and ugly of IndyCar's half-baked exhibition race

OPINION: There are reasons to shower leadership of the IndyCar Series with praise for trying something different with last weekend’s non-points exhibition at The Thermal Club, but in many ways, it is also tough to not look at the endeavour as a half-baked attempt to tick a box

Race Start, Felix Rosenqvist, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet, Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet, Romain Grosjean, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet, Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Agustin Canapino, Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

Was this really the best North America’s premier open-wheel championship could do? And at what cost?

When the $1 Million Challenge was revealed by IndyCar roughly six months ago in a made-for-TV spectacle at a club track outside of Palm Springs, California, it came with unpleasant realities: the need to fill an extended void of five weeks in the schedule between St. Petersburg and Long Beach following the loss of Texas Motor Speedway, and alienating a portion of the fan base with limited attendance and ticket prices of $2,000 (later reduced to $500).

The weekend was certainly something, showcasing the good, bad, and ugly of the series in its current form.

IndyCar's exhibition race was a product of the series' month-long gap between rounds

IndyCar's exhibition race was a product of the series' month-long gap between rounds

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

The Good

Before getting all doom and gloom, it is important to acknowledge the positives that came out of the event.

The best component of the weekend – and something that seemed favourable among the drivers – was the qualifying format. The field was split into two groups with eight-minute sessions and 40 seconds of push-to-pass, and one set of tyres that had a tremendous amount of degradation around the 17-turn, 3.067-mile circuit, putting the pressure on the driver to maximise everything in a single no-holds-barred flying lap.

Such was the praise of this concept, that some drivers expressed they would be open to the format being implemented in championship rounds to change up from knockout qualifying.

One of the best ideas that this writer heard all weekend came courtesy of a media colleague, Steve Wittich of Trackside Online, who suggested that a one-shot style solo run with push-to-pass in qualifying could work at select venues, such as street courses. Then, drivers with the top six times advance straight into a Fast Six shootout to fight for pole.

Livestreaming nine hours of testing at Thermal was a good idea. Hardcore fans can’t get enough of it during the Month of May with the Indianapolis 500. If IndyCar wants to make other races feel important enough to matter, doing more to build a presence around events is absolutely paramount.

Beyond that, the idea to pair drivers and teams with club members for the weekend was a great idea. Frankly, it’s something that should be offered more than to the top one percent and is something to look at for expanding interest and reach.

Hell, make it through a contest or something along those lines. Obviously, being in on engineering debriefs during a championship finale is out of the question, but how about every team having a meet-and-greet with a fan or two and then having them on the timing stand or in the box during qualifying or the race with a headset? Even having a rotation of a new fan each practice day of the Indy 500 would pay dividends.

You can establish a real foundation with people being introduced to the sport and build lifelong fans as a result. And who knows, maybe by some happenstance it helps trend things to a more youthful audience, something the sport also needs moving forward.

The Thermal format wasn't known until a week before the event

The Thermal format wasn't known until a week before the event

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

The Bad

The fact that the format wasn’t revealed until a week prior to the event makes it seem like no one knew what to do. Add to that the seemingly endless number of off-the-cuff changes happening during the weekend, and it was clear the lack of experience anyone within IndyCar had with a unique format with heat races and a split final.

Considering the changes were happening in real time during the event and seeing that passing was incredibly difficult, why not add some sort of field inversion wheel? Imagine the excitement that would have been added if Alex Palou had to – and could – fight through the field from fifth in the final 10 laps and make a late charge on the leaders instead of walking off with an uncontested and anticlimactic victory.

While this was ultimately an NBC call, who has heard of making an ‘all-star’ race at 9:30am local time?

Obviously, making an event on the West Coast a night race isn’t possible given the majority of IndyCar fans that make up the television audience are located in the Midwest, but it didn’t even feel like this was given a proper chance to get off the ground.

The rushed timeline to get everything in and get out simply made it feel like it didn’t matter, so it was not too much of a shock when Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern shared that the race had a lowly 816,000 viewers on NBC and Peacock.

Also, I don’t want to hear that $500 for a weekend ticket was a great deal for the weekend at Thermal because of the endless tacos and ice cream that were made available via food trucks, booze and access to the paddock. The tickets were set at a limited number and when factoring in travel to a more expensive area, the trip would easily be touching $1,500 (at least) to attend. This event isn’t for everyone, and racing should be accessible for all. Period.

The winner of the $1m event received... $500k

The winner of the $1m event received... $500k

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

The Ugly

The winner of the $1 Million Challenge got $500,000, but where many teams found it challenging was if you finished outside the top five. For those who finished sixth or worse, including not even making the final, they received a payout of $23,000 each from an overall purse of $1.756 million.

Simply put, the low-end payout wasn’t even enough to cover the travel cost for the teams, with outlays that extended from transporting equipment across the country to putting personnel up in hotels.

Multiple teams told Autosport there wasn’t a desire to compete in the event and they would rather have opted out but were required to participate.

Now, add that loss with a couple of other facts, such as leaving the weekend with a damaged race car. Who is going to cover that bill?

Those same teams also shared that getting their car fitted to the hybrid change coming midseason – which they hadn’t even had the chance to touch until today – has cost somewhere in the ballpark of $400,000 per chassis.

Needless to say, it has been abysmally expensive to be a team owner in IndyCar only three months into 2024.

While The Thermal Club might be a good testing playground, any future non-points exhibitions should be focused elsewhere.

Damaging a car in a non-points event with little prize money on offer was a cause of frustration for some

Damaging a car in a non-points event with little prize money on offer was a cause of frustration for some

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

The tricky part, as always, and as Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin pointed out when Autosport asked about the idea of rotating the non-points race, comes down to the support.

“It all comes down to the support that we get from the club and other tracks,” he 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. It's just ultimately up to other people that want to be a part of it.”

The one suggestion I have is for IndyCar to look at Nashville Superspeedway.

Until a possible return to the downtown street circuit can happen (and that is three years off at the earliest), why not use the 1.33-mile concrete oval as the ‘All-Star Spectacle’ with an under-the-lights Saturday night shootout that can float to any midseason void opposite of the NASCAR race held there and also the opening day of the NFL season. Closer racing is guaranteed, too.

And the investment is clearly there with Big Machine Label Group Chairman and Founder Scott Borchetta eager to keep IndyCar in Nashville.

More importantly, though, it would be an event that all fans have an ability to attend.

The IndyCar Series should not entertain anything close to an event that felt isolated and behind closed doors. That already happened in 2020; don’t imitate it.

Non-championship IndyCar races have to be rethought if they are to happen again

Non-championship IndyCar races have to be rethought if they are to happen again

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

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