The experience, not the result, defines Alonso’s Indy 500 odyssey

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INDIANAPOLIS – It almost had to end the way it did on Sunday.

There was Fernando Alonso, doing what he’d set out to do in this six-week odyssey since stunning the motorsports world on April 12 with the announcement he’d be in a McLaren Honda of an IndyCar kind at the Indianapolis 500, with Andretti Autosport, reminding everyone he’s still one of the best drivers in the world after a month where he never looked a rookie in his first oval race, his first IndyCar race.

And yet there was the plume of smoke, just short of the finish, billowing out the rear of the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry that ended his day before he got the result.

The combination of mid-2010s Alonso, McLaren and Honda joined with the legacy of the words “Andretti is slowing” at Indianapolis to produce Alonso, in a McLaren, Honda, Andretti entry slowing and stopping just shy of that ever elusive checkered flag.

It mattered not. Alonso still lived up to all the hype placed on him this month, if not exceeded it.

From the moment Alonso made his first visit to Birmingham, Ala. of all places – as far away by mileage and culture from the Bahrain Grand Prix he had failed to finish a week earlier – Alonso was the focus of attention, even as his primary goal was to integrate into the team and begin the learning process.

The simulator work followed in Indianapolis shortly thereafter, following his seat fit and meeting the crew who’d be on his No. 29 car, in the right shade of papaya orange, not the F1 version that slightly missed the mark.

He met the Borg-Warner Trophy, a trophy he was keen to see his face placed on.

And then, he hit the Speedway for the first time on May 3, in a made-for-digital event that was the test heard ’round the Internet. Going 222-plus mph for an average on his first day in the car, as he joked at the time his right foot and brain weren’t in sync, still showcased his innate talent.

Alonso never looked uncomfortable, out of place or – importantly – annoyed with the process that came with coming to Indianapolis.

At every opportunity, he embraced the challenge, the fans and the odyssey that came with it.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, races during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If there were autographs to be signed – and judging by the throngs of fans surrounding his garage area or his daily walk to Gasoline Alley – he’d do as best he could to get them all before being whisked away to whatever came next. Or, alternatively, he got on his skateboard and rolled off.

If there were media obligations to be had – and as some drivers casually threw some snark, as Conor Daly and Graham Rahal joked “Alonso was about the only driver in the race” – Alonso fulfilled them. A bevy of reporters were consistently around his No. 29 pit stall all month. More still sat and waited in the media center for his press conferences, and where Alonso starred there was that he never appeared he was mailing it in. The banter between he and Alexander Rossi – when Rossi noted Alonso needed to be awake at 6 a.m. – was perhaps the funniest moment of the month.

He sat for an hour on media day with hundreds gathered around his space as poor Sebastian Saavedra sitting next to him had but one reporter – me – asking him questions ahead of another debut, Saavedra’s Juncos Racing team.

And most importantly, if there was a desire to be the best on track he could be, he fulfilled it.

Alonso learned the elements of single-car runs in practice, race running in practice, drafting with his Andretti Autosport teammates in the “mini packs,” the pressure that comes with four-lap qualifying runs and averaging more than 230 mph, the drama that comes with engine changes in IndyCar, and then the ability to push as hard as possible against other drivers on track.

He made some daring and some would probably say questionable chops and passing maneuvers throughout the month, but wasn’t that part of the plan to begin with? Seeing Alonso back in a car that could win and knowing he had the ability to pull it off made the whole experience worth it.

He made it to the lead by Lap 37 of Sunday’s race, for the first of 27 laps led, third most among the 15 drivers who did. After starting fifth and taking it easy on the start to drop to ninth, Alonso was a top-five regular the rest of the race (more than 100 laps to be more precise), before he was running in seventh on Lap 179 and there, the smoke erupted. He was classified 24th.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, races during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

He exited the car to cheers from the Indianapolis faithful, who are not easy to please at your first attempt. But the cheers that echoed around these hallowed grounds welcomed a driver who’d starred himself, for McLaren, and for the Indianapolis 500 – even if the result was a similar one he’s been used to this year.

“Anyway, (it) was a great experience, the last two weeks. I came here basically to prove myself, to challenge myself. I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car. I didn’t know if I can be as quick as anyone in an IndyCar,” Alonso reflected Sunday.

“It was nice to have this competitive feeling, even leading the Indy 500, you know. One lap you put on the lead there, it was already a nice feeling. I was passing, watching the tower, saw the 29 on top of it. I was thinking at that moment if Zak or someone from the team was taking a picture, because I want that picture at home.

“Thanks to IndyCar, amazing experience. Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”

Zak Brown, executive director of McLaren Technology Group and the man who was integral in bringing Alonso and McLaren to Indianapolis, could only echo those thoughts.

“If we put aside the last 20 laps, which is a massive disappointment, if we reflect back on the past month, it was outstanding. Fernando didn’t put a wheel wrong. He showed what a world class world champion he is today.

“When Fernando and I first spoke about the Indianapolis 500, I wasn’t sure what Fernando’s response would be because I think not many race car drivers in this world are brave enough to do what Fernando just did. Not just from a physical standpoint, but the whole world was watching Fernando race today. He put himself out there and exposed himself, delivered the goods, which isn’t a surprise to anyone that has watched Fernando race.”

Alonso has left the door open to a return, although that will likely depend on how his F1 future sorts itself out – he’s a free agent at year’s end. But he figures he’ll be better in a second go-’round.

“Obviously if I come back here, at least I know how it is (with) everything,” he said. “It will not be the first time I do restarts, pit stops, all these kind of things. So will be an easier, let’s say, adaptation. Let’s see what happen in the following years.

“Yeah, I need to keep pursuing this challenge because winning the Indy 500 is not completed. It holds a new challenge if I can find a car that slow me down somehow.”

Lastly, Alonso did have some milk – albeit in a slightly different type of container than the one teammate Takuma Sato had as he won the race.

“Thank you for all media. I didn’t won, but I will drink a little bit of milk,” he laughed, as he drank out of a tiny milk carton usually served in schools or lunch boxes.

“You followed me for two weeks every single minute, but I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the welcoming. See you in Austin.”

And with that, the odyssey of Alonso at Indianapolis has completed its first chapter.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, walks away from his car after his engine expired during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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