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IndyCar At The Thermal Club

two IndyCars coming around a corner at The Thermal Club during testing 2023

What Is The Thermal Club? And Why Are We Here?

IndyCar could test elsewhere - on a track used for racing - and thereby the drivers could tweak their machines to courses that matter as opposed to a private course that doesn’t. Or maybe it does.

By John Grafman

Thu, Mar 2, 2023 09:13 AM PST

All images by author John Grafman.

The question that mankind has asked since the dawn of time is, why are we here? At the press conference, the media is asking the same question. While we’d like to understand what role we play in the cosmic scheme of things and our place in the universe, that’s a little broad. During the Q&A, a bevy of IndyCar drivers are consistently being drilled on the same point. Only, the deeper and relevant inquiry is, why are we here at The Thermal Club?

The Thermal Club

Sure, us journalists are here to bear witness to pre-season testing at this temperate weather in the Coachella Valley. Really, nobody is complaining. In fact, it’s hard to bark at the expansive and welcoming environment of this members-only, private racetrack and country club. Truly, if you were to dream of your own race sanctuary, it might look very similar to this.

one of the lounges at The Thermal Club
Luxury prevails in the lounges and private villas alike, at The Thermal Club.

“I love the concept,” says Simon Pagenaud. “Actually, before my IndyCar career, I was on a project like that (The Thermal Club) myself in France. I was going to build something similar. I had the backing, I had everything going on, but my career took off. I had to give up on the project. Certainly, when it's time to stop driving, it will be something that I'm interested in. That's maybe 20 years from now.” Of course, Simon and the tight-knit group on-hand have a little laugh at that comment.

Perhaps, some might say, why wouldn’t we want to be here. Sure, it’s got almost anything you could want... Well, there are a few issues to consider. One, this exclusive track isn’t on the scheduled race circuit, at least not yet. More on that later. Two, to be a member will require more dollars than the typical media wag earns… in a lifetime.

Also, it has an eerie feel here, sort of like a ghost town, but with ear piercing howls from IndyCars. Aside from a few members that are soaking in the two days of testing, there are no bleachers full of fans, no concessions or vendors hawking shirts or anything remotely similar. It’s like the circus came to town, but nobody showed up.

An IndyCar race car coming around a turn on the track at The Thermal Club with the private villas seen in the background.
Note the private villas in the background - the race track is literally in their backyard.

On the other hand, the vast expanse of land at The Thermal Club is covered in a swath of IndyCar support transports that brings attention to just how massive this undertaking really is. At a normal race, the IndyCar team trailers, support crew, Firestone tire trailers, tents, press, and more just blend in with the tens of thousands of enthusiasts and the other side shows. It camouflages the extent of this operation. During our two days in the desert, it’s painfully evident that this requires an army of people to set up and run. Sure, the cost of all this doesn’t amount to anything close to our country’s national debt, yet this could make a sizeable dent in even Elon’s wallet.

Why Are We Here?

Back to our unanswered question, what’s the purpose of this? Really, IndyCar could test elsewhere on a track that is used for racing and thereby the drivers could tweak their machines to courses that matter, as opposed to a private course that doesn’t. Or maybe it does.

“I mean, honestly, I don't know the reason why we're going here, but I'm happy we do. I think personally it's always exciting to come to new tracks,” says Felix Rosenqvist. “It's an amazing facility. We're staying at the Villas inside the track area. I've never been here before. I was really blown away by how neat and tidy everything looks. I don't know if there's ambitions to race here in the future. That could be an option. I'm just pumped to be in California in January. There are worse places to be,” states the smiling racer.

Perhaps one could equate this to the upcoming annual Acura Long Beach Grand Prix in April. This is, to one extent or another, set up similar to that course. And Long Beach actually meanders through the coastal downtown streets of that city.

image of a race car on the track at The Thermal Club with palm trees in the foreground and the mountains in the background.
Palmtrees, IndyCar racing, and the beautiful mountains in the background - what more can you ask for?

Josef Newgarden has a few thoughts on this. “You probably shouldn't come out of here (Thermal) either too excited or too demoralized depending on how it goes because it is not incredibly relevant when it comes to at-track performance,” Josef tells the press in Palm Springs. “We're never going to run here again. Well, I shouldn't say that. We're not going to run here this year for a points-scoring race. From that standpoint, it's not relevant.“

When asked why IndyCar at The Thermal Club is, Will Power responds, “Yeah, I think it's… yeah, I don't know. I actually haven't asked IndyCar why we're doing it here, but it's a nice location. I think it's a pretty nice track.”

“As far as what you'll get out of it is - going through the motions of a race weekend basically,” continues Power. “It's not really - we won't know until we drive on it what it really applies to, which track would be the most similar. I'm thinking Indy road course, sort of Portland. You could probably get some stuff from it there.”

Others in the dedicated race media are asking each other this fundamental question. Boatloads of money spent, and for what? Sure, The Thermal Club and the surrounding areas, like La Quinta, are picturesque and accommodating. However, this is a good 125 miles from the heart of Los Angeles. If this became a track for an actual IndyCar race, would anyone come? Or could a purpose-built, year-round track be built for this?

Chris Esslinger, Communications Director with the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach has a few thoughts on this, “It's nice that they're here and doing their preseason testing. We like it sort of being in our backyard, [it] certainly helps us at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, which is the second best attended event on the schedule.” Chris continues, “So happy to have IndyCar here in Southern California, or in California in general. We have more opportunities to see them, to see them pre-season, and see how the season is going to be shaping up for 2023 - it looks like it's gonna be an exciting one.”

Thermal, CA

Certainly, the supporting businesses in the community have got to love it. Given the flights overhead, it’s questionable if the local Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport could be any busier. And businesses like Garage Row Racing and TruSpeed Autosport are soaking in the experience, as do their clients. This only further cements the vision of these trailblazers in having motorsports become a viable opportunity and turn Thermal into an actual destination, not just agricultural fields.

the pit stop area during the IndyCar testing at The Thermal Club
The sheer amount of people and gear needed to put on the IndyCar testing race is massive. The Thermal Club can obviously pull it off, but what does it all mean?

To those media professionals that follow the IndyCar circuit, it seems some believe it’s highly unlikely that the public would show up in large numbers. However, to their surprise, the new Acrisure Arena recently opened in Palm Desert just off the freeway, and that supports the Firebirds ice hockey team. Yes, ice hockey! So, if that can fly, why not auto racing in Thermal? To our understanding, there is more land for another track, should there be a desire to make it so. Mulling the thoughts around in our heads spark a few conversations that churn out a number of wild ideas.

IndyCar Without IndyFans?

Maybe the most curious was, does IndyCar need real live fans to exist? Hear me out. Yes, the roar of the crowds being drowned out by machines is as important as the laughter of a live audience in taping a sitcom. Then again, one can do very well with a mix of a live audience and laugh-tracks. Hello… Seinfeld!

Is it possible that this is not testing for the cars, but the potential testing for broadcast of some sort or another? IndyCar is already diving in with the reality show 100 Days to Indy. No doubt, the more charismatic of the drivers will not just find a home on your tv or computer screens on race days in the near future. The gregarious nature of Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, and others can mesmerize the flock for hours and hours. Hell, if the Kardashians can do it, why not those that can dash around in cars?

Life in the bear flag state already is one big reality show. Does a reality show on IndyCar seem to be in-step with Southern California? Chris Esslinger’s point of view is, “I think it does [make sense]. Certainly, it's in-step with some other racing series, which shall remain unnamed. I think it's a really good opportunity for the series to market the personalities of these drivers, which is something that at times it's struggled with.”

Huski Chocolate IndyCar racing at The Thermal Club in Coachella Valley, California during the IndyCar testing of 2023
The Huski Chocolate team had the fastest lap-time during IndyCar testing at The Thermal Club in Coachella Valley, California.

Reading the tea leaves, it’s dollars that make these wheels go round. Nobody else has provided any other significant over-riding factor that could make sense. Sure, the track is a wonderful place for the drivers to kick off the rust from the off-season and hone their skills back on IndyCars. But that could be anywhere, right.

Going Forward

In speaking to an insider at The Thermal Club, during the testing he suggested this was an opportunity to see how the club meshes with the race organization. Anything is possible.

I’d say this was sort of like a first date. Is love in the air with a relationship blossoming from this encounter, or will both part ways as friends?

Exactly two weeks after the days in the desert, IndyCar released this statement. “IndyCar will reach more fans in more global markets with more accessibility than ever before. A robust list of international broadcasters will bring the stars of the NTT IndyCar Series to 223 markets in 142 countries with major and impactful media partnerships. In addition, IndyCar Live, IndyCar’s direct-to-consumer streaming service, will provide practice, qualifying and races in territories not covered by an international partner.”

I’m not much of a betting man, but I’d have to put my money on a spring wedding!

About The Author

John Grafman's profile picture

John Grafman

John Grafman spent far too much of his youth thriving on the canyons that connect the valley to Malibu. This antisocial behavior has evidentially scarred him for life. Nevertheless, using his powers for good rather than evil, John has spent the past dozen or so years working on models for numerous automotive design studios on the west coast. You’ve seen his work on the exterior and interiors of some of your favorite concept and production cars. You can now see his imprint throughout LA CAR.

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