Will Power

The first INDYCAR SERIES all-star race in more than three decades is on tap for this weekend at The Thermal Club in Southern California.

Not since the last Marlboro Challenge in 1992 has the sport put the best of the best on the grid for a non-points race paying big bucks, but it will happen Sunday when 12 drivers take the green flag to cap The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge.

SEE: Event Details | Qualifying Groups

The made-for-television showcase will begin at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ first heat race since 2013. The 27-car field will be divided into two 10-lap heat races with the top six finishers in each advancing to the 20-lap main event.

A purse of $1.756 million is on the line. First place is worth $500,000, second $350,000, third $250,000, fourth $100,000 and fifth $50,000. All other competitors will receive $23,000. But again, no points will be awarded.

There is much to chew on in this unique event.

It’s Been a Year

More than 13 months ago, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES made its debut at The Thermal Club, staging a two-day preseason test around the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course just outside Palm Springs, California. But that was ages ago in terms of competitors.

Twelve of the car-and-driver combinations from that day have changed. Marcus Ericsson, who set quick time last year at 1 minute, 38.4223 seconds, heads the list, having moved from Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 8 Honda to Andretti Global’s No. 28 Honda. Ericsson replaced Romain Grosjean, who moved into Callum Ilott’s No. 77 Chevrolet at Juncos Hollinger Racing. Ilott is subbing this weekend at Arrow McLaren for David Malukas, the former Dale Coyne Racing driver who replaced Felix Rosenqvist, who is one of the new drivers for Meyer Shank Racing.

You get the idea. The series has played musical chairs since it was last at this privately owned, world-class circuit.

It is worth noting while Ericsson and Ilott are with different teams, both ran solid laps at this permanent road course last year. Ilott was fourth on the second day. Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda) was the only driver to post top-five laps each day, and he remains with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Who’s New to Thermal?

There are seven drivers making their The Thermal Club debuts in NTT INDYCAR SERIES cars, and all of them should benefit from the weekend providing nine hours of testing 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). Peacock will have all the action live.

INDY NXT by Firestone points leader Nolan Siegel will make his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, a car driven in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding by Jack Harvey. Siegel’s teammate this weekend is Colin Braun, who drove the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing Honda to a 22nd-place finish in St. Petersburg. This will be Braun’s second series race.

Chip Ganassi Racing has two series rookies new to this circuit. Kyffin Simpson (No. 4 Journie Rewards Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and Linus Lundqvist (No. 8 American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) finished 14th and 23rd, respectively, in St. Petersburg in their series debuts.

Meyer Shank Racing’s Tom Blomqvist (No. 66 AutoNation/Arctic Wolf Honda), Ed Carpenter Racing’s Christian Rasmussen (No. 20 Guy Care Chevrolet) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Pietro Fittipaldi (No. 30 Oakberry PneuStore Honda) also will compete at The Thermal Club for the first time. In St. Petersburg, Fittipaldi finished 15th, Blomqvist 17th and Rasmussen 21st.

Some Rules Remain, Others Changed

Keep in mind, this event has a unique format, with many of the procedures slightly different than in the 17 points-paying races this season.

The obvious one is the lack of points awarded at the end of the weekend, so a driver’s performance in this event will have no impact on deciding the recipient of the Astor Challenge Cup. Victories and poles won’t count toward a driver’s career totals, either, since this is a non-points race.

Qualifying Saturday will be divided into two groups based on a Thursday night draw (see below). Each group in qualifying will get 12 minutes to determine the starting order for their respective heat race the following day. For the heat races and the feature, each entry gets one new set of Firestone Firehawk tires.

The heats will span 10 laps or 20 minutes, with the top six finishers advancing to the main event. Laps occurring during a full-course caution will not count to the total – however, the race clock will continue to wind. Should a full-course caution occur after the leader has started his final lap, the race shall be deemed complete the next time he crosses the start-finish line.

For all restarts, cars not on the lead lap will be moved to the rear of the line. Push-to-pass will span 40 seconds. Push-to-pass also will be available in qualifying.

The feature will be 20 laps, with a brief intermission at the midpoint. During the break, teams can add fuel, adjust front and rear wing angles and wickers, adjust tire pressure and attend to the driver. The time limit will not apply.

Qualifying Groups (from draw Thursday night)

Group One: Will Power, Santino Ferrucci, Kyle Kirkwood, Scott McLaughlin, Agustin Canapino, Nolan Siegel, Felix Rosenqvist, Sting Ray Robb, Romain Grosjean, Josef Newgarden, Colton Herta, Christian Lundgaard, Rinus VeeKay, Scott Dixon

Group Two: Graham Rahal, Alexander Rossi, Pietro Fittipaldi, Pato O'Ward, Colin Braun, Christian Rasmussen, Marcus Armstrong, Marcus Ericsson, Alex Palou, Linus Lundqvist, Tom Blomqvist, Kyffin Simpson, Callum Ilott

Expect the Unexpected

As the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has never raced at The Thermal Club, there will be many unknowns when the green flag drops.

Former series driver Townsend Bell compared the circuit to Barber Motorsports Park, which was built with motorcycles in mind and not originally thought to be ideal for passing opportunities for these cars. However, this series has experienced many exciting and memorable races over the past 13 years at Barber.

Said INDYCAR President Jay Frye: “I guess the way I look at this is, we’re dealing with some of the greatest race car drivers in the world. They’re going for a whole bunch of money, so they’ll certainly get it all figured out where the best passing places are. It’s funny, sometimes when we anticipate – or what we think is actually going to happen – the complete opposite happens. I would envision something like that.”