Spencer Pigot’s IndyCar debut arrives, at last, in home race

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This Sunday is the culmination of a dream for 22-year-old Spencer Pigot.

The Orlando native really couldn’t have picked a better place to make his Verizon IndyCar Series debut after his incredible five-year run through the Mazda Road to Indy than the streets of St. Petersburg.

When Pigot straps into the No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, thanks to the support of Mazda and Dan Andersen among others, he’ll have fulfilled the nearly perfect rise over the last few years having been the first to secure four Mazda scholarships.

Pigot’s record at St. Petersburg is nothing short of incredible. In 10 career starts in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda he has 10 career top-five finishes, including five wins.

In fact, the craziest note among all those past five weekends at St. Petersburg is that he’s finished in the same position in both races of a doubleheader each year but one.

His St. Pete debut, in USF2000 with Andretti Autosport in 2011, saw him finish first and second. A second go-around in USF2000 saw him sweep the races in 2012 for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.

Once in Pro Mazda, Pigot banged out two fourth places (2013 with Team Pelfrey), then two crushing wins (2014 with Juncos Racing), which helped launch his Pro Mazda title run that season.

Last year, the string of success continued – Pigot secured two third places with Juncos in both his and the team’s full-time step up to Indy Lights, in the first weekend of the new Dallara IL-15 Mazda chassis. They were his first two podiums in his eventual run to the Indy Lights championship.

Needless to say, the past success and the home track advantage is something that makes for a dream debut scenario for Pigot.

“St. Pete is gonna be great,” he told NBC Sports during the Phoenix Test in the West. “I have had a lot of success there. There’s always a lot of friends and family that support me.

“There’s not a better place to make my debut in IndyCar than there. I’ve been going to that race much longer than I’ve been competing. Really, I’m just counting down the days.”

Pigot’s humility and calm demeanor is something that stands out. He never gets too high after his success, or too low after any disappointments.

It’s those qualities that have already endeared himself to both team co-owner Bobby Rahal and teammate Graham Rahal, who had the chance to work with Pigot at both Phoenix (when he was on the timing stand) and Sebring (where he tested last week) in the last couple weeks.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

“I was really pleased with Spencer’s job. He did a great job for us,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “He’s (already) right there. He didn’t put a foot wrong. I think he really gelled with the team, and the team with him. I was really pleased with the job he did.”

Graham Rahal added, “He’s got a great head on his shoulders. Great kid. He’s confident, but what I like most about Spencer is his modesty.

“These young kids come out having been successful in their younger years, and then for example Sage Karam figured this out last year, they find out, (in IndyCar) they’re not chumps.

“I told Spencer, one of the things I like about him a lot, is that’s he’s very humble. Those are the guys I want to spend time helping out.

“For me, he’s gonna be a big part of this program going forward.”

Pigot’s in a scenario where St. Petersburg will very likely be his only race until the month of May, when he’ll also race in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil as part of his three-race Mazda scholarship package.

That presents a situation where Pigot has to balance impressing on debut with cleanliness, wanting to try to stand out but also not taking any undue risk where it can be avoided. He’ll have Neil Fife as his engineer and Rahal on the timing stand as strategist for St. Petersburg.

“It’s kinda tricky,” Pigot explained. “You want to finish well and as high as you can. “The key is to do a good job for the team, buy just trying to focus on doing the best for myself.

“But I’m not gonna be afraid to go and pass if there’s an opportunity, say because I don’t want to take my wing off. I’m still gonna be aggressive where I can, and do the best I can.”

It remains to be seen whether Pigot will race in any further events this year beyond the first three he’s confirmed for. As the Rahals related, it’s not Pigot that’s the hold-up, it’s finding enough quality people to ensure Pigot can deliver when in the seat.

“The thing that makes our team work is the quality of people,” Bobby Rahal said. “At this stage, finding the people we’d need for a full-time basis, we wouldn’t find. So that begs the question, why do it?

“We’re able to do the races we can with Spencer. We can have some of our BMW (Team RLL IMSA program) guys assist, as most have IndyCar experience and originally were. We can stick our toe in here and there. We’d do it with high quality people.

“Spencer or anyone else would be limited this year, but would I like to have a two-car team down the road? Absolutely. But we’d need to make sure the second program contributes to the overall program.”

Pigot’s optimistic about St. Pete and just focused on ensuring he does the best he can with this limited opportunity. Some drivers like Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay, for example, have turned part-time starts into full-time seats in recent years.

“Most likely we won’t do anything else before Indy but post-Indy, there’s a chance of doing some more races,” Pigot said.

“It won’t be a full season this year. But adding onto these three would be great.”

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