Racing for the finish and a $500,000 purse

Palou dominates the $1 Million Challenge at The Thermal Club

By Alison Elsner
For fans of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, the $1 Million Challenge satisfied the need for speed, and then some. The first annual event to be hosted at The Thermal Club took place from March 22 through March 24 and saw speed and strategy pay off for Spaniard Álex Palou with a lucrative victory on the final day in the Sprint for the Purse.

Palou, reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion, pulled in $500,000 for the win in the non-points exhibition event at the private, luxurious motorsports club located in Thermal, California. Palou led all 20 laps of the Sprint for the Purse from the pole, driving his No. 10 DHL Chip Ganassi Racing Honda to a 5.7929-second victory over the No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet of Scott McLaughlin, who earned $350,000 for his runner-up finish.

“The car was amazing,” Palou said. “I was a bit surprised how the competitors did the first 10 laps, saving tires. I was like: ‘All right, that’s our game. I like it.’ Super proud of the 10 car and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Palou is the first Spanish racing driver to win a National Championship in American open-wheel racing history and is also the first Spaniard to win in the GP3 Series.

There were numerous viewing stands available during the race as well as at track-side gathering zones adjacent to the clubhouse and food trucks, however most of The Thermal Club’s members watched the cars tear up the track from the balconies of their homes on the Club’s grounds. Tim and Twanna Rogers, owners of The Thermal Club, enjoyed the view from their private balcony while hosting friends off and on during the competition.

Felix Rosenqvist rounded out the podium finishers in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda fielded by Meyer Shank Racing, earning $250,000. Rosenqvist and Palou each won heat races earlier in the race that trimmed the 27 car field to 12 drivers for the Sprint for the Purse on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile circuit at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Colton Herta placed fourth and earned $100,000 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda fielded by Andretti Global after deliberately finishing more than 90 seconds behind Palou in the first 10-lap segment of the Sprint for the Purse to save his Firestone Firehawk tires. Tire changes were not allowed during the break between 10-lap segments, and Herta and about half of the field in the 12-car feature opted for a slower, tire-saving strategy in the opening 10 laps on the abrasive circuit.

Marcus Armstrong rounded out the top five in the No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, as CGR was the only team with two drivers in the top five. Armstrong earned $50,000.

Palou was never challenged in either of the two segments, jumping away from the field on the start on Lap 1 and restart on Lap 11. Tire wear didn’t appear to slow his pace at any point, as he inexorably drove away from McLaughlin lap by lap.

The cruise to the checkered maybe gave new father Palou time to think how he would spend his $500,000 payday, after being proverbially sprayed by champagne.

“I need to buy a lot of diapers,” Palou said. “I’ll probably do that and probably do some small party with the boys [Ganassi crew].”

The most intense action in the final 10-lap segment came courtesy of Herta and Alexander Rossi.

Herta used his fresher tires to pick off drivers one by one as the laps counted down, while also carefully managing the 40 seconds of push to pass each driver was allotted. Herta dove under Linus Lundqvist’s No. 8 American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda for fifth on Lap 12 and then passed Armstrong for fourth with three laps to go after a stirring duel.

Rossi also saved tires in the first stint in his No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet and was in full aggression mode from the drop of the green flag on the Lap 11 restart after the halftime break.
2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Rossi climbed to sixth on Lap 11, and he and two-time series champion Josef Newgarden engaged in a spirited, side-by-side duel with contact for fifth place on Lap 12. Both drivers went wide in a corner while racing for fifth place, allowing Lundqvist and Herta to slip by for fifth and sixth place, respectively.

Rossi finally completed the pass of Newgarden later in the lap for seventh place. But Rossi used plenty of push-to-pass and tire rubber during those side-by-side jousts, and he ended up seventh at the finish.

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.

The Thermal Club owner Rogers noted that the drivers and crew members alone comprised 1,200 attendees over the weekend, with close to another 2,000 spectators, including luminaries such as Caitlyn Jenner and Denver Bronco’s football legend John Elway, mixing and mingling with race fans.

Rogers said, “With INDY, we could keep our members in mind, and they love having INDY here. We are already looking at having two races next year, a points and a challenge race. And we have eight member races here per year already.”
He continued, “The event worked well for guests because it was point to point with food and all amenities included. We had two objectives in hosting the event at The Thermal Club: to have fun and to sell real estate.”

With 82 acres remaining to be developed at The Thermal Club, Rogers said that plans are progressing to build out a fifth track. BMW is also planning to renew their Performance Driving Center West lease agreement on the grounds of the Club for $300,000 per month.

The Thermal Club’s members average $30 million net worth each, and most are motorsport enthusiasts who savor race car action. First opened in 2013, the Club offers four racing circuits, karting and autocross tracks, designed by Alan Wilson. Each track has its own covered paddock and a full pit crew. The tracks can accommodate any vehicle at any speed, from F1 to high performance exotics to vintage motorsports racecars.

In order to burn some rubber as a member of The Thermal Club – either with one’s own racing vehicle or with a car ordered for the day provided by The Club – the buy-in is $200,000 initiation fee, $2,400 per month membership fee and purchase of a lot with the firm commitment to build a luxury villa within five years, minimum 6,500 square feet. Most homes average 8,000 to 15,000 square feet, while Rogers’ home is 24,000 square feet.

Rogers reflected, “For our first year, the INDY race definitely met our expectations. Our drivers were happy with the facility, and we were pleased the way the race turned out on television and in person. We might look at developing corporate sponsorships next year. This is about learning and growing.”

He added, “And, Alex Palou may be looking at living here.” That may help with finding adequate storage for all those diapers.

The Thermal Club
61980 Tyler Street
Thermal, California 92274