Jack Harvey Colin Braun Nolan Siegel

The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge on Sunday is the second and final NTT INDYCAR SERIES event that Colin Braun is contracted to be in the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. The 35-year-old Texan is hoping to make a lasting impression.

“Let's see what shakes out,” he said. “I'd love to do some more races. These guys gave me a great opportunity. Big thanks to Dale (Coyne) and Honda. We'll see what happens in the future.”

Sports car veteran Braun called this opportunity a dream come true. His one-day test earlier this month at Sebring International Raceway was the only taste of an open-wheel car Braun had before making his official debut in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding on March 10.

Braun completed 99 of 100 laps in the race around the 1.8-mile St. Petersburg street circuit, finishing 22nd out of 27 drivers.

This weekend at The Thermal Club, a 17-turn, 3.067-mile facility located just outside of Palm Springs, California, has been a great opportunity for Braun to show his skills. While Sebring and St. Petersburg were different beasts compared to the free-flowing natural road course here, the nine hours available for test sessions spread across two days had Braun get comfortable.

“It's huge,” he said of abundant track time. “Every time I drive it, I feel more comfortable. The Dale Coyne Racing guys have been doing a good job of making our car better suit my style and understanding what I need in the car.”

This two-race deal is a feat within a crowded footnote section of Braun’s impressive resume. Among his 26 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship wins are four victories at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, including the overall win in 2023 in the GTP class. He’s also won the 12 Hours of Sebring, Six Hours of Watkins Glen and Petit Le Mans.

Not only is Braun a multiple IMSA champion, he’s also an accomplished NASCAR driver, earning Rookie of the Year honors for the Craftsman Truck Series in 2008 and scoring a win in the series a year later at Michigan International Speedway.

He said the INDYCAR SERIES car is a fun machine to drive.

“You can attack the car a lot,” he said. “So, that makes it super fun.”

Ilott Going for Pocket of Cash

Callum Ilott, substituting for the injured David Malukas in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, jumped to the top of the time sheets in the first of two Open Test sessions on Saturday morning with a top lap of 1 minute, 38.7784 seconds. That was a big improvement from his best time Friday, 1:40.0821, which placed him ninth overall.

That noticeable jump happened after adjustments overnight.

“I think yesterday there was a lot of stuff to look at and learn from, which was good, and I was able to kind of think about it overnight,” he said. “We've definitely got a really strong car. The car is really quick. It's exciting.”

Ilott backed that up in being sixth with a top time of 1 minute, 38.8892 seconds in final practice. He will start eighth in the second heat race Sunday.

The Englishman said this pace is due to his seamless integration into Arrow McLaren as a substitute driver.

“To be fair, every hour that I've had in the car has got better and better and more comfortable,” he said. “I want to continue this momentum, but it seems good, and the progression is good for the rest of the weekend.”

Ilott’s budding confidence has created belief he can score the win in The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). The winner earns $500,000.

“Maybe come home with bigger pockets,” Ilott said. “We'll have some cash in them.”

Weight on Drivers’ Minds This Weekend

Angela Cullen, formerly the longtime physiotherapist and trainer for seven-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton, is at Thermal this weekend as part of her new role helping Marcus Armstrong put on weight so he can withstand the rigors of driving an INDYCAR.

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.”

Scott McLaughlin’s mindset is the exact opposite side of the spectrum. He’s cutting weight.

McLaughlin, listed at 6 feet, is 2 inches taller than Armstrong. He’s also listed at 185 pounds, 55 heavier than Armstrong, according to weights listed in the INDYCAR Media Guide.

For a series where car weight matters, McLaughlin said he cut almost 16 pounds of body weight to get below the 185-pound threshold that INDYCAR uses for equalizing drivers.

McLaughlin wouldn't say the loss helps him drive the car, but "I don't want to give anything away."

Testing Programs Ramping Up

Some could argue that this current stretch of season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES may be the turning point for a championship run due to one of the most intensive runs of testing this year.

Fifteen drivers tested earlier this week at Barber Motorsports Park. On Friday and Saturday, there were nine hours of on-track testing activity at the Thermal Club. Selected drivers also will test the new hybrid unit next week, with an Indianapolis 500 Open Test in late April.

This aggressive testing schedule has been pivotal for new drivers and teams to get to know one another, especially as in-season testing is limited by INDYCAR rules. It also doesn’t hurt drivers and teams that have been together for multiple seasons, as the data gleaned at Thermal can be used at other tracks.

“On our side, this is a test day at the same time,” said Scott McLaughlin, driver of the No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet. “We're using it to learn things about the car for future events, as well, not just this event this weekend.”

Colton Herta’s Andretti Global team fielding the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda has the same philosophy.

“Obviously it's great,” said Herta. “Limited in testing here in INDYCAR. Preseason days, really only getting one day in the car before you start the season. It's a lot nicer when you get to do something like this and have test days.

“There is stuff that we can learn for other places. Obviously, this isn't the most important race for us, but there's stuff we can carry over to different tracks we're working on.”