The Thermal Club

The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge on Sunday is unlike any event on the 2024 NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule. For starters, it’s the only non-points event.

Without any points to be gained this weekend, there also are no points to be lost. Some drivers think that could lead to bigger risks being taken to be the first to the pay window Sunday.

“It's that or go home,” said Alexander Rossi, driver of the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. “You'll make lower percentage moves to try and win.”

Sunday’s unique format features a pair of 10-lap heat races, with the top six finishers in each making up the 12-driver, 20-lap Sprint for the Purse main event. The winner will earn $500,000.

The sprint race format is a drastic shift in mindset for drivers compared to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding two weeks ago. That 100-lap, points-paying race was dictated by fuel-saving measures.

Most races in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES are about a combination of saving fuel, conserving tires and figuring out the best pit and tire strategy while waiting to unleash the car’s innate speed. But this race will be far shorter than St. Petersburg. So, expect a change in approach.

Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin doesn’t see why the field can’t race wheel-to-wheel, with even a bit of contact, if needed.

“I think at the end of the day we'll put on a show,” McLaughlin said. “That's what it's about. It's funny when you dangle a carrot in front of a bunch of race drivers with a bunch of egos, we want to win regardless of what event we're in, whether it's for a million, $4 million, 50 cents, we'll just race for that win.

“I think it's exciting to do it. INDYCAR stepping outside the square, trying something different, hasn't happened much in the past.”

Another big factor will be tire wear. Drivers are sliding around the 17-turn, 3.067-mile circuit. With the intensity of a no-holds-barred approach, the final laps with aged Firestone Firehawk rubber could be mesmerizing.

“I think you can take more risks on a weekend like this,” Andretti Global driver Kyle Kirkwood said. “Push to pass for us, starts and restarts. You're going to see people taking more risks to try to get out front.

“A lot of people might think because it's not a points race, people aren't going to try as hard. They're going to look at it as a test weekend, whatnot.

That truly isn't the case because all of us are out there to beat each other. We all want to beat each other just like any other weekend. It's competition, right?”

Live coverage of the two heat races and the Sprint for the Purse starts at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

Malukas Updates Recovery Timeline

David Malukas, who underwent surgery last month to repair injuries to his hand and wrist suffered in a mountain bike accident, told the Peacock audience Friday he aims to be back behind the wheel of the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet for the next points-paying event, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, April 21.

“It’s going to be tight,” Malukas said. “It’s going to be tough, but I have a lot of good people and support around me.”

Malukas is missing this exhibition event and didn’t compete in the season-opening race March 10 in St. Petersburg, scheduled to be his debut with Arrow McLaren after two seasons with Dale Coyne Racing.

His rehabilitation is reaching a new phase in which he is adding resistance and weight to his injured hand and wrist with exercises. But he and his trainer are taking great care not to reinjure the area.

“Of course, I wanted everything to be a little bit quicker, but (being) on track (with recovery) is good, and I’ll take it,” Malukas said. “I get the pins out hopefully next week, and I can start moving the wrist.”

Malukas also divulged the specifics of the accident Friday. While he said it would have made a better story if he was hurt trying a gnarly jump or trick, the truth was much less dramatic. He looked back to see his friend attempt at jump and mistakenly pulled his front brake lever instead of rear, sending him sailing over his handlebars.

He also isn’t down on mountain biking for training, even after the accident. Malukas said riding off road is the best form of practice for himself outside of being in a race car, with similarities from a mental standpoint.

Hamilton’s Ex-Trainer Working with Armstrong

Angela Cullen, formerly the longtime physiotherapist and trainer for seven-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton, was seen in the Chip Ganassi Racing pits Friday.

CGR driver Marcus Armstrong confirmed in a Peacock interview he will work with fellow New Zealand native Cullen this season.

“She’s been helping me out in the offseason,” Armstrong said.

The fruits of that labor already are paying off. The lanky Armstrong wants to bulk up to handle the demands of an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car, which lacks power steering.

I’ve gained a bit of weight, finally,” Armstrong said. “These cars are animals to drive so you’ve got to be in top form to wrestle it around. She’s been a great help to me, and we’re just trying to progress through so I can win races.”

Armstrong was last season’s series Rookie of the Year despite not racing on any ovals. He had five top-10 finishes, with a best result of eighth in both the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

McLaughlin after Second Trophy This Week

McLaughlin is pursuing his second trophy of the week at The Thermal Club. The Team Penske driver already earned some hardware in this week’s “Spring Invitational.”

It’s a golf tournament among the NTT INDYCAR SERIES paddock, with competitors from Arrow McLaren, Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and others. The format was two teams comprised of six people on each squad, competing over four days at PGA West, a championship golf course about 7 miles from The Thermal Club.

The Thermal Club is described by avid golfer McLaughlin as The WM Phoenix Open of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule. The drivers circulate the 3.067-mile picturesque facility located at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, just down the road from the world’s premier entertainment market of Los Angeles. The WM Phoenix Open is at TPC Scottsdale, with similar visuals with the sandhills surrounding the Phoenix area course.

McLaughlin was on the winning team this week and took the trophy with him. He’s hopeful his No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet team hoists the winner’s trophy Sunday.

Harvey Lending Helping Hand

Jack Harvey knows what he signed up for. The NTT INDYCAR SERIES veteran is contracted with Dale Coyne Racing to contest in 14 of the 18 races this season, but The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge isn’t one of them.

That didn’t stop Harvey from coming to the 17-turn, 3.067-mile circuit this weekend to help Coyne’s two drivers this season, Colin Braun and Nolan Siegel, who have one combined NTT INDYCAR SERIES career start between them.

INDY NXT by Firestone points leader Siegel is making his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Sports car veteran Braun made his series debut March 10 in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding driving the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. He finished 22nd on the 1.8-mile St. Petersburg street circuit.

Harvey, a veteran of 80 INDYCAR SERIES starts, finished 19th in the No. 18 Honda in the season opener at St. Petersburg. He said he told Braun and Siegel that he’ll give as much feedback as he can and the drivers want.

British driver Harvey will be back in Coyne’s car for The Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix powered by AmFirst on Sunday, April 28 at Barber Motorsports Park.

Odds And Ends

  • Earlier this week, the City of Long Beach, California, and the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach announced that NTT INDYCAR SERIES veterans Katherine Legge and Takuma Sato are the honorees for the 2024 Motorsports Walk of Fame. Both Legge and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Sato will be inducted during a public ceremony Thursday, April 18, ahead of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, April 19-21. Legge is the first female among 39 inductees into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame.
  • The NTT INDYCAR SERIES clarified a competition adjustment for Saturday’s two-group qualifying session (8 p.m. ET, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). Instead of Push to Pass being activated at the alternate start/finish line, it will be active as soon as the session goes green, as drivers can push a button on the steering wheel to extract an added boost of horsepower. The maximum usage is 40 seconds total for the session.
  • Another update for Saturday’s qualifying is the group times are shortened by four minutes each. Instead of a pair of 12-minute sessions, each group will have eight minutes of on track time.