Alex Palou Dominates in a Weird IndyCar Weekend at the Thermal Club

thermal, ca during the 2024 indycar $1 million challenge at the thermal club photo by joe skibinski ims photo
Palou Dominates a Weird IndyCar Weekend at ThermalJoe Skibinski

Ultimately it was talent that outdid strategy in the somewhat unusual IndyCar race at The Thermal Club in the Southern California desert, as Alex Palou drove his Ganassi Racing Honda to victory in the new and very different Thermal $1 Million Challenge Sunday.

Organizers turned what might have been just a pre-season test session at a gentlemen’s club racing track into a full-fledged, albeit non-points, race weekend that they called “The Thermal $1 Million Challenge.”

For you non-billionaires, The Thermal Club is a private racetrack lined with the $10 million condos of the rich and famous. Conveniently, and this may be part of its location planning, The Club is right next to a very nice airport with an 8,500-foot-long runway that easily accommodates all manner of private jets.


So what was IndyCar doing there?

Last year in February IndyCar had a successful pre-season test at the facility. Everyone liked it, despite the high-deg (rough, tire-eating) surface of the track that is more used to Porsches and Ferraris than IndyCar race cars. So this year IndyCar started with a two-day “Open Test,” with nine hours of total test time for teams to wring out their cars early in the season.

a race car on a track
Palou had a dominating week at Thermal.Chris Jones

After that, the 27-car field was divided up into two groups for qualifying, with everyone getting about one good lap at full speed before their tires were eaten up by the track. The two quali sessions lasted eight minutes – for all cars – which might seem short but then, the tires weren’t going to last longer than that anyway, or so everyone seemed to be saying.

Qualifying then determined the grid order for each heat race, and the top six finishers in the heats advanced to the 12-car “all-star” race. That race was only 20 laps around Thermal’s 3.067-mile length. But the 20 laps were themselves divided into two races, with a 10-minute mandatory stop for all cars.

Are you confused yet?

And while there were no points awarded, there was a lot of money, $1.756 million at stake – the largest purse for an IndyCar Series race outside of the Indy 500. The winner didn’t get all that, of course. Nor did the winner get the $1 Million in the event title, which could be seen as a little misleading. The winner got “only” $500,000. Second place got $350,000, and so on.

Okay, okay, well what happened?

Simply stated, it was all -Alex, all the time. Palou dominated two of the three test sessions, his qualifying race, and then the race. There was some speculation that Palou would wear out his tires in the race. To that end, in the main event, you saw several drivers holding back in the first 10 laps before the mandatory 10-minute break. You couldn’t change ties during the two-minute break, you had to run all 20 laps on the same rubber.

Colton Herta, in particular, lagged so far behind the field that you might have thought there was something wrong with his car. But there wasn’t, it was strategy. Herta was 12 seconds behind by lap 2 of the first session, then 30 seconds, then more. Other drivers figured out what was going on and they held back, too. When the race restarted, the field would be bunched up. That was the logic, anyway.

a group of race cars on a track
The field was tight at the starts.Chris Jones

By the time the flying, single-file start of the second session got underway, with the field bunched up, Herta made his move, while Palou just cruised away to a padded lead. Herta picked off car by car through the field: Lundgaard, Rossi, Canapino, Fittipaldi and Marcus Armstrong. It had the potential to be the story of the season (so far). But while the strategy made sense on paper, it didn’t quite go far enough. And it didn’t take into consideration the dominance of Alex Palou this weekend.

“I was a bit surprised how the competitors did the first 10 laps,” Palou said after the race.

“Those guys going crazily slow, almost too slow, I don’t know what they were doing,” said second-place-finisher Scott McLaughlin driving the Penske Chevrolet. “We were conserving our tires. At half race distance I sorta tried to have a little go (on Alex), then I settled in and tried to maximize second.”

Herta explained his plan.

“From inside the car, for the people watching, they wanted to see 12 cars going at it,” explained Herta afterwords. “But (our strategy was) if we save the tires we might be able to get a little more. Obviously, the tire advantage was pretty big, so we were able to gain a few spots.”

a man in a race car
Felix Rosenqvist won his heat race but managed only third in the main event. Indycar

Indeed, Herta made his way into the money, earning $100,000 of that $1.7 million. So it wasn’t a bad strategy. Palou got $500,000 for winning, McLaughlin $350,000 for second, third-place finisher Felix Rosenqvist $250,000, Colton Herta 100k, Marcus Armstrong $50,000, and everybody else got a paltry $23 grand.

Did this format work? Ask the racers and they’ll say yes, then “suggest” some things like making it a points race, or holding it in the off-season instead of between the first and second races of the year, or eliminating the weird halt to the action in the middle of the race. You get the sense the whole thing was done for television, and in racing, television rules. Remember NASCAR at the Coliseum.

So maybe they’ll be back again next year. Who knows?

For his part, Palou was just happy to win again. It was pointed out to him that Spaniards had won this weekend in F1, IndyCar, and three categories of motorcycle racing. What did he think about that?

“We’re taking over,” he said. “Everybody should prepare.”

So there, you’ve been warned.

See you in Long Beach.

thermal, ca during the 2024 indycar $1 million challenge at the thermal club photo by joe skibinski ims photo
The next NTT INDYCAR SERIES race is the iconic Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, a points-paying event Sunday, April 21 on the streets of Long Beach, California.Joe Skibinski

1. (1) Alex Palou, Honda, 20, Running
2. (4) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 20, Running
3. (2) Felix Rosenqvist, Honda, 20, Running
4. (12) Colton Herta, Honda, 20, Running
5. (3) Marcus Armstrong, Honda, 20, Running
6. (7) Linus Lundqvist, Honda, 20, Running
7. (10) Alexander Rossi, Chevrolet, 20, Running
8. (6) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 20, Running
9. (11) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 20, Running
10. (9) Agustin Canapino, Chevrolet, 20, Running
11. (5) Graham Rahal, Honda, 8, Mechanical
12. (8) Pietro Fittipaldi, Honda, 0, Disqualified

Race Statistics
Winner's average speed: 93.166 mph
Time of Race: 39:30.2292
Margin of victory: 5.7929 seconds
Cautions: 0
Lead changes: 0
Lap Leaders: Palou, Alex 1 - 20

1. (1) Felix Rosenqvist, Honda, 8, Running
2. (2) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 8, Running
3. (5) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 8, Running
4. (4) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 8, Running
5. (8) Agustin Canapino, Chevrolet, 8, Running
6. (11) Colton Herta, Honda, 8, Running
7. (12) Nolan Siegel, Honda, 8, Running
8. (10) Santino Ferrucci, Chevrolet, 8, Running
9. (6) Will Power, Chevrolet, 8, Running
10. (13) Kyle Kirkwood, Honda, 8, Running
11. (14) Sting Ray Robb, Chevrolet, 8, Running
12. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 8, Running

Race Statistics
Winner's average speed: 108.920 mph
Time of Race: 00:13:30.9622
Margin of victory: 0.4971 seconds
Cautions: 0
Lead changes: 0
Lap Leaders: Rosenqvist, Felix 1 - 8

1. (1) Alex Palou, Honda, 10, Running
2. (2) Marcus Armstrong, Honda, 10, Running
3. (3) Graham Rahal, Honda, 10, Running
4. (4) Linus Lundqvist, Honda, 10, Running
5. (6) Pietro Fittipaldi, Honda, 10, Running
6. (7) Alexander Rossi, Chevrolet, 10, Running
7. (9) Pato O'Ward, Chevrolet, 10, Running
8. (5) Tom Blomqvist, Honda, 10, Running
9. (8) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 10, Running
10. (11) Christian Rasmussen, Chevrolet, 10, Running
11. (10) Kyffin Simpson, Honda, 10, Running
12. (13) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 10, Running
13. (12) Colin Braun, Honda, 10, Running

Race Statistics
Winner's average speed: 109.253 mph
Time of Race: 16:50.6089
Margin of victory: 5.3375 seconds
Cautions: 0
Lead changes: 0
Lap Leaders: Palou, Alex 1 - 10