IndyCarOpen WheelOpinion

OPINION: Exhibition races have a place in IndyCar. The Thermal Club wasn’t the right choice.

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Credit: James Black/Penske Entertainment/Courtesy of IndyCar

IndyCar is racing this weekend, but not for points.

That’s a sentence that hasn’t been written since 2008. But this weekend, the series heads to The Thermal Club, a unique motorsports “country club” in California’s Coachella Valley for a combined open test and exhibition race dubbed the “$1 Million Challenge”. The first two days of the weekend will feature over nine hours of testing, with Sunday featuring two heat races followed by an “All-Star Race” on Sunday night.

But there is one big reason why this exhibition is happening: Texas Motor Speedway’s annual date was removed from the calendar, leaving what would have been a six-week gap between of the opening race of the season in St. Petersburg and the following event in Long Beach.

Mark Miles, President and CEO of Penske Entertainment, has his ears open for fan feedback for the series’ first major exhibition event in over a decade:

“I think we’ll see how fans react. And you know, because you do it all the time, that you’ll have a good sense from social media on the fan reaction to the racing… People really enjoyed being there [for testing in 2023]. Maybe raised some of the questions you asked about racing. I hope we’ve addressed them, and we expect to have a really good weekend that people enjoy.”

Miles touches on an interesting point there. That being the fact that The Thermal Club isn’t necessarily built for racing. As a matter of fact, IndyCar has to use a combination of two of the club’s three circuits just to construct a layout complete enough to test and race on.

Credit: IndyCar.com

After last year’s inaugural test at Thermal, Andretti Global’s Colton Herta expressed some concerns with the layout:

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that… It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.”

Besides the lack of raceable (that’s a word, right?) corners, The Thermal Club isn’t made for spectators. While there is no inherent problem with that, there certain is an issue when the decision is made by America’s top open-wheel racing series to hold an event, albeit an exhibition there. While a made-for-television event probably looks attractive to sponsors and to NBC, I am a firm believer that the best way for any racing series to gain new fans is to get them to the track to see and hear the cars in person.

Nevertheless, Thermal doesn’t seem to be permanent for IndyCar. NBC analyst Townsend Bell hinted at this in a press conference with IndyCar headman Jay Fryre and other leaders earlier this week in a slightly cryptic manner:

I think first it’s important to clarify to Jay that failure is an orphan. Success has many fathers. Let’s see where we stand on Monday.”

The bottom line here is that The Thermal Club and IndyCar don’t have any business working with each other. Thermal is a private country club meant for wealthy people to race cars, not to hold a race at. While I appreciate the need to close a rather large gap in the schedule (one that has existed for the past few years), I can’t help but to think that there was a better option out there somewhere for the fans.

READ ON: Dale Coyne Racing adds Harvey, Braun and Siegel in split 2024 schedule

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Born and raised in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Gabe joined the TCF team in 2023 to cover the IndyCar Series. He currently studies Broadcast and Digital Journalism at Syracuse University. You can follow him on Twitter @gabe_perrin.
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