The Thermal Club

Sports stars were present on and off the track for The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge. Two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback John Elway and Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner were on pit road Sunday watching the 27-driver NTT INDYCAR SERIES field race their way around the 3.067-mile, 17-turn The Thermal Club road course.

“They're (INDYCAR SERIES) always exciting,” Elway said. “Very intriguing to me. I enjoy coming to the races.”

Pro Football Hall of Fame member Elway, who threw 300 career touchdown passes for the Denver Broncos, was awed by the athletic skills of the drivers. As a quarterback whose decision making was done in the blink of an eye, Elway empathizes with the drivers and their reaction time to situations behind the wheel.

"Obviously, they're tremendous athletes and be able to go that fast and see those type things and stay out of trouble, I think it's something I admire,” he said.

Elway said he would love to give driving these cars a try but thinks he may not be allowed. But he would love to get a ride in the Fastest Seat in Sports two-seat INDYCAR SERIES car.

“Yeah, I’d ride with a driver,” he said. “Depends on who’s driving it.”

Canapino Happy with Big Step Forward

The results of this weekend’s The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge won’t be scored in the record books. If they did, Sunday’s race would show second-year driver Agustin Canapino with his first top-10 result.

His best finish as a rookie in 2023 was 12th in St. Petersburg, Texas Motor Speedway and Toronto.

Canapino had a strong weekend on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile road course near Palm Springs, California. He was 14th fastest among the 27 drivers on site in the four combined test sessions. In qualifying Saturday, he ended up eighth quickest among 14 cars in his group for the first heat race.

In that race, Canapino gained three positions on track to easily make the Sprint for the Purse finale with a fifth-place result.

Canapino finished 10th in the main event in his No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet. While Canapino admitted he wanted more, this success in just his 19th INDYCAR SERIES event was pleasing.

“Really good,” Canapino said. “I am really happy with the team progress since the last the final part of the last year when we were battling for a top 10 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. I’m reminding the team this is a big step forward. You can see the times on track.

“The team is growing a lot. Today is my best result so far and was battling with the top teams. Being a new team and new driver and battling for the top 10 in the INDYCAR SERIES is really, really difficult. You have many top drivers and top teams. We are happy to have the chance.”

Drivers Embraced Club Members on Teams

Part of the allure of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES racing this special event at The Thermal Club was club members being paired with the teams, unique within this series.

The drivers welcomed the company.

“I think from our standpoint, Team Penske, we had two lovely people,” said second-place finisher Scott McLaughlin. “Gigi, she's a ball of fun. She was on her stand the whole time. Her and her husband. It was an amazing week to have them there. They were there from when we started testing. They had headsets on. They could hear everything we were saying. Hopefully they're not engineers because they have a lot of our secrets. Everything was open.

“I guess it's an idea of inner sanctum to INDYCAR racing, something I think was a really good idea and good to have people part of it.”

Alex Palou liked his guest, an amateur driver.

“He's really into racing,” Palou said. “He loved it. I think he now understood everything that goes behind a car. I think there's some engineers and one mechanic. There's not much going on while the car is running. We gave him a headset all day today. You could see he was with the phone all the time taking pictures and videos.

“I think it's awesome that they get to see all the work that there is behind the car. He was super happy in Victory Lane and everything. Yeah, hopefully we can have him at some other races and show him a little bit more. But he was excited, for sure.”

Graham Rahal had sponsors on hand that rode in the two-seat INDYCAR SERIES car Saturday. While chatting with Rahal after qualifying his No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda third in his group, they walked up in awe of what they had just experienced. The sponsors told Rahal they had a new respect for what Rahal endures on a normal race weekend behind the wheel.

Honda Continues Road Course Dominance

One thing that allows the NTT INDYCAR SERIES to stand out among other forms of motorsports is the variety of circuits: road courses, street circuits, superspeedways and short ovals. It’s also why in an annual highly competitive championship battle, the best manufacturer at each type of track seems to rotate.

Take street circuits, for example. In 2022, Chevrolet won three of the five. Success flipped in 2023, with Honda sweeping all five races. In fact, Honda won the final two street races in 2022 and took a seven-race street course win streak to the 2024 season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. Chevrolet returned the favor March 10 at St. Pete, finishing 1-2-3-4.

On natural road courses, Chevrolet held a 4-3 advantage in the win column in 2022. Last season, the edge flipped to Honda, taking six of the seven natural road course victories.

Can the Bowties flip the script on natural road courses, too?

While Sunday’s race didn’t pay any points, Honda drivers shined, taking five of the top-six spots, including winning both heat races and the Sprint for the Purse.

Felix Rosenqvist led all eight laps in his No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda fielded by Meyer Shank Racing in the first heat while Palou led all 10 laps in the second heat and all 20 laps in the main event in his No. 10 DHL Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

Fifth-place finisher Colton Herta said Honda still has a leg up, but it’s hard to tell here because this is a unique event format.

The next race is the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, a street-circuit race April 21. Then comes a natural road course race, the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix powered by AmFirst on April 28 at Barber Motorsports Park.