Pato O'Ward

Townsend Bell has known the NTT INDYCAR SERIES as a driver and most recently as a television broadcaster, and he was one of the first Californians to learn about the development of The Thermal Club, a private motorsports country club near Palm Springs.

But even as a veteran observer of the sport, Bell comes into this weekend’s The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge special event with a high level of intrigue and open eyes.

SEE: Track Map

“At the end of the day, having no points (awarded) to win means having no points to lose,” Bell said of the exhibition. “I’m not sure in the current era (of the sport) we’ve ever seen what happens in that format, and that’s the curiosity for all of us. None of us as we sit here today can tell you with any certainty how that will play out from a racing standpoint. I also think that’s the reason why so many are curious to watch, along with me, and see what the results are.”

The last time the INDYCAR SERIES did an event like this was the Marlboro Challenge, a big-money event held from 1987 through 1992, the last time at Nazareth Speedway. A non-points race also was held in 2008 in Surfers Paradise, Australia.

This event has a purse of $1.756 million. The winner of Sunday’s 20-lap sprint race (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network) will earn $500,000. The runner-up will earn $350,000, third place $250,000 and fourth place $100,000. Fifth place will receive $50,000 with all other participants getting $23,000.

Money inspires, Bell said.

“You dangle cold hard cash in front of just about anybody in a competitive environment, whether that’s Mike Tyson boxing again at age 58 or 27 INDYCAR drivers with no points to lose, I think we’re going to see some interesting dynamics play out,” he said. “INDYCAR never disappoints.”

INDYCAR President Jay Frye said all competitors will be armed with every tool necessary to stage an exciting show. They will receive new Firestone Firehawk tires for qualifying, the heat races and the main event, and 40 seconds of push-to-pass in each. And, when the 12-driver feature is held, there will be halftime break to allow crew members to add fuel, adjust wing angles and tire pressures. Also, each car will have an additional 40 seconds of push-to-pass for the final 10-lap shootout while trying to corral tires that will have had 10 hard laps on them.

“There will be no fuel savings,” Frye said. “It’s no-holds-barred, go get ’em, (with) push-to-pass, that type of thing. So, it should create a great racing environment.”

Frye expects that last 10 laps to be “pretty interesting” given that the cars will have plenty of fuel with 10-lap-old tires and the extra 40 seconds of push-to-pass.

Bell said The Thermal Club’s 17-turn, 3.067-mile circuit has “some really good in-line (and) high-speed brake zones” that will invite drivers to take chances. As Rick Mears recently said of the approach drivers take in races, “They find a lot of places to pass that they’re not willing to take in practice.”

These drivers will have nine hours of track time heading into The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES stages a four-session Open Test on Friday and Saturday at the track in Southern California. Qualifying will be held at 8 p.m. ET Saturday (Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network), with the 27-car field split into two groups to determine the starting grid for two heat races Sunday. The top six finishers in each heat advance to the final. This will be the first time since 2013 at Iowa Speedway that the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has held heat races during an event.

This will be the second NTT INDYCAR SERIES event staged at The Thermal Club. Last year, a two-day Open Test was held, but seven of the current drivers were not in the series. That adds to this weekend’s intrigue, Bell said.

“The teams have all tested there, but not every driver has tested there,” he said. “So, I think that’s going to be fun to watch some of the (newcomers) get accustomed to the facility.”

Don Cusick, a co-entrant at the “500” and a member of The Thermal Club that was established in 2012, said the club members are learning the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, too, and many of them will be embedded with the teams this weekend. Cusick said he picked up several sponsors for this year’s “500” during last year’s event at The Thermal Club as people became more enthused with the sport.

The four Open Test sessions will be Friday (noon-2 p.m. ET and 5-8 p.m. ET) and Saturday (noon-2 p.m. ET and 4-6 p.m. ET).