The 2014 Long Beach weekend was just what the doctor ordered

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – The sun has set on another Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend.

And it’s at this point I suggest to Grand Prix Association of Long Beach President/CEO Jim Michaelian, that you and your staff take a victory lap around the 1.968-mile street course.

The numbers are still to come in terms of ticket sales, TV ratings and all the rest, but the 40th running of this historic event was one of its best yet.

To wit…

  • IndyCar’s weekend was unpredictable and loaded with drama. A Penske/Ganassi-free Firestone Fast Six? A near upset by a 23-year-old American on a single-car team, before contact with the last American series champion triggering a chain reaction incident? Two of the series’ biggest names making contact with other cars, yet avoiding penalties (one finished second)? And then a guy whose resting heart rate barely tops 50 beats per minute going out and capitalizing to score a surprise, yet deserved victory? Sunday’s race provided several examples of what can make the Verizon IndyCar Series great: a seriously tight field, surprise stars, no holds barred action, some emotion boiling over and seriously populated fans in grandstands ooing and awing at every moment. St. Petersburg was an appetizer to the 2014 season, but Long Beach truly provided the first main course.
  • Two sports car races that avoided major meltdowns and major accidents. Let’s be honest, here. Neither the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship nor Pirelli World Challenge got off to the smoothest of starts for their 2014 campaigns. Dramas over officiating, accidents and driver rankings were unfortunate story lines in the first two TUDOR Championship races; high demand overloaded the World Challenge live stream for its opener at St. Pete. But many issues were rectified in Long Beach. The TUDOR Championship ran a caution-free 100 minutes Saturday, with PWC tossing up a solid serving of sports car sprint racing Sunday afternoon. I had some fears there could be something of a political bloodbath this weekend – and yes, I did see some eyes gazing from drivers and officials in the respective paddocks to see how each side was operating – but nothing that indicated a war was about to break out. For once, it seemed as though the collective focus in both series was mainly on the racing, and that was a good thing.
  • Holy crowd, Batman. Or Spider-Man could work for that lead-in, since Tomy Drissi ran a livery promoting The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in the PWC race on his Drissi Motorsports/TRG Aston Martin GT3. But yeah, this Spidey-liveried car was among the stars of the weekend to the throngs of youngsters in attendance.

    Besides the kids, there seemed to be a substantially bigger crowd here this year than last. Judging by Friday, a day that ordinarily I could skate between the media center and IndyCar/sports car paddocks without the need for much contorting of my body to fit through gaps that exist in the walkway, I had to resort to my Saturday/Sunday snaking skills to make it through without losing time in the crowd. That was all I needed to see first-hand – this was my ninth Long Beach weekend – to provide the impression that the crowd was up for the 40th, big time. And given the event’s future, with some making overtones for wanting an F1 return, I’m left thinking this was a crowd that really appreciates the IndyCar atmosphere.

  • Roll out your Who puns. The Who frontman Roger Daltrey was probably the biggest celebrity appearance of the weekend, although he wasn’t here to announce any reunions or musical ventures. No, Daltrey was here promoting Teen Cancer America – a U.S. arm of the organization he launched in the U.K. to help teens who have cancer. It’s a good cause – the TCA signage appeared on Justin Wilson’s No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda – and more will come later this week to MotorSportsTalk after I had a few minutes to speak with him on Sunday. Daltrey started the IndyCar race in one of the Honda two-seaters, driven by Mario Andretti.
  • So “Who Are You?” If you’re Colombian, you’re top 10. Among the weekend’s most interesting stats, all four Colombian IndyCar drivers finished in the top-10 in the IndyCar race. Carlos Munoz was third, with Juan Pablo Montoya fourth, Sebastian Saavedra ninth and Carlos Huertas 10th. Memorize that quartet now for the inevitable trivia question down the road…
  • “Gabby O’Reilly?” Perhaps it doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Baba O’Reilly,” but hey, Gabby Chaves won the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race on Sunday and his name has two b’s in it, just like Baba does. Like podium finishers Zach Veach and Matthew Brabham, though, none are 21 yet so even though they’re nearly teenagers, they can’t get wasted.
  • I’ll stop with the Who puns now and wrap it up. Additional elements that add to the weekend were the other events – the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, SPEED Energy Stadium SUPER Trucks, exotic car display over in what was the TUDOR Championship paddock the first two days of the weekend, and of course, the Long Beach area itself. People occasionally call Long Beach the “Monaco of the U.S.,” but other than the long history of the race I’m not sure that’s the best way to call it. Just call it what it is – Long Beach is Long Beach – and leave it at that. Because in 2014, Long Beach once again did not disappoint.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500