Lando Norris will return for IndyCar iRacing Challenge finale at Indy

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After becoming eligible by winning his IndyCar iRacing Challenge debut, Formula One’s Lando Norris will return for the series finale Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

The McLaren driver said after his victory at Circuit of The Americas that he hardly had raced ovals in simulations before but was willing to try with permission from the team.

“That will be a big challenge because I think there’s a lot of these IndyCar drivers a lot more used to oval racing,” he said. “I’m not at all. It’s going to be tricky. This is like them kind of coming into my world. I think the oval stuff, how you save the tires, the fuel saving and everything, I think that’s much trickier. I’m going to be having to play catch-up a bit more.”

ENTRY LIST: Click here to see the 33 drivers in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge finale

WATCH: IndyCar iRacing Challenge at IMS, Saturday, 2:30 p.m., NBCSN

Norris was among the biggest names on the 33-driver entry list released Thursday morning for the First Responder 175 Presented by GMR. Helio Castroneves, who races full time in IMSA, also is in the field by virtue of being a former Indianapolis 500 winner who has competed in the iRacing Challenge (at Motegi).

There were 29 drivers guaranteed entry in the field as either full-time IndyCar entrants, iRacing Challenge winners or Indy 500 winners who had competed in the iRacing Challenge.

The final four slots were determined Wednesday in a special iRacing qualifying session with Scott Speed, Stefan Wilson, James Davison and RC Enerson making the field.

Among those who attempted but didn’t make the race include Robert Wickens (who had raced the past four rounds) and defending NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Busch, who finished 13th at Twin Ring Motegi. Fan favorite James Hinchcliffe also isn’t in the field, along with previous IndyCar iRacing Challenge starters Kyle Kaiser, Felipe Nasr and Spencer Pigot.

A 15-minute qualifying session from 2:30-2:45 p.m. Friday will set the starting lineup for the First Responder 175 presented by GMR. The qualifying session will be broadcast on iRacing’s YouTube channel.

Click here to see the 33 drivers entered in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Here’s the release from IndyCar:

The Month of May will begin and the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge will end on the most famous start-finish line in global motorsports – the Yard of Bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The last of six rounds of the virtual racing series, the First Responder 175 presented by GMR, will start at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday, May 2 and be televised live on NBCSN. The 70-lap, 175-mile race will take place on the world-renowned 2.5-mile oval at IMS, home of the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. That race was scheduled for Sunday, May 24 but postponed to Sunday, Aug. 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 33-driver field of NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers and competitors from other global racing series – just as in the Indianapolis 500 – will take the green flag in the virtual race using the iRacing platform.

In an example of the virtual world mirroring the real world, Simon Pagenaud may be the driver to beat this Saturday at the Racing Capital of the World.

Pagenaud won the biggest race in the world in 2019 – the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge – and also has won the two previous oval races in the virtual series that started March 28 after the start of the actual NTT INDYCAR SERIES was delayed by the global health crisis.

2016 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Pagenaud proved in his two INDYCAR iRacing Challenge victories that he can win in almost any scenario.

Pagenaud triumphed with strategy and fuel mileage in the Chevrolet 275 on April 11 at Michigan International Speedway, winning by 13.4059 seconds in the No. 22 DXC Team Penske Chevrolet. One week later, he held off five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon by .3429 of a second after a spellbinding duel to win the Firestone 175 at Twin Ring Motegi.

2014 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Will Power also should be a main contender to finally enter Victory Lane in the final round of the series. Power has finished in the top six in all five rounds so far in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, including a best of second April 4 on the road course at Barber Motorsports Park.

2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Power led 74 of 198 laps contested on ovals so far in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge, more than any other driver. Power’s best oval finish was third April 18 at Twin Ring Motegi, an event in which he appeared to be headed for his first victory until the nearly lapped car driven by Oliver Askew collided with him with nine laps remaining. Power led a race-high 61 laps at Motegi.

Another Team Penske driver, Scott McLaughlin, is a fellow hard-luck case on ovals. Two-time reigning Virgin Australia Supercars champion McLaughlin dueled with Power for the lead at Motegi when he was collected and eliminated in the incident between Power and Askew.

McLaughlin’s best finish so far on an oval was second, behind Pagenaud, at Michigan in the No. 2 Snap-on Team Penske entry.

Sage Karam is another driver who should contend for victory Saturday in the First Responder 175 presented by GMR despite tough luck on ovals. NTT INDYCAR SERIES veteran Karam led a race-high 49 laps at Michigan but finished 14th in the No. 24 DRR WIX Filters Chevrolet. Experienced sim racer Karam led five laps at Motegi and finished seventh.

It also will be interesting to how the differing learning curves of Dixon and rising Formula One star Lando Norris convert to results Saturday at IMS.

2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Dixon has vast experience at the real IMS, with 17 career starts in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” But he had almost no sim racing experience before the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge yet nearly beat experienced sim racer Pagenaud for victory on the last oval event, at Motegi, in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

Dixon still led 13 laps at Motegi despite his inexperience in virtual racing. So, he must be considered a contender for victory at Indy, where he has led 452 laps, tops among active competitors and ninth all-time.

Norris, 20, has been sim racing for more than a decade and competes regularly in the virtual world as a member of the elite Team Redline when he’s not racing around the world in F1 for McLaren.

He showed that skill and speed by blitzing the field in his INDYCAR iRacing Challenge debut April 25 on the road course at COTA, winning by 1.445 seconds over Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O’Ward despite a spin early in the race. But Norris lacks the real and virtual oval racing experience of most of his rivals, so can he carry the speed he showed on the right and left turns of COTA to left turns only at Indy?

Indianapolis 500 winners Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves haven’t enjoyed much success so far in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge, but they will be among the favorites to enter Victory Circle at IMS if real-world results translate to the virtual world.

2013 Indy winner Kanaan has a best finish of 18th at Michigan in the two oval races in the No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet, while three-time Indy winner Castroneves finished 29th in the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet at Motegi in his only start so far in the series. But Kanaan has led 346 laps on the IMS oval in his 18 Indy 500 starts, while Castroneves has been out front for 305 laps in his 19 “500” starts.

The fuel window for this 70-lap race is approximately 30 to 35 laps, so strategy could play a big role. Brave drivers and strategists could gamble on enough fuel savings and extended caution laps to reach the checkered flag in one stop, while others may play it safe and benefit from the fresher tires gained from a second stop.

A 15-minute qualifying session Friday will set the starting lineup for the First Responder 175 presented by GMR.

The INDYCAR iRacing Challenge will not crown an overall champion but will add a special element where INDYCAR will make a donation to one of its partner charities.

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