Continuing its appeal to a new fan base, McLaren expands Indy 500 livery to three cars

Arrow McLaren SP/Undefeated

In a preseason NTT IndyCar Series survey of more than 53,000 fans, Arrow McLaren SP ranked in a tie for second (with Andretti Autosport and behind Team Penske) among favorite teams.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown said that’s by design — literally.

“Our drivers are a big part of it, and I think a lot of credit to our digital and comms teams with this huge focus on the fan and communicate to them through our drivers, merchandise, digital channels, promotions,” Brown said. “We put a lot of effort into what can we do different. What do the fans want to see.

MONTH OF MAY DETAILS: What to know about the Indy 500 next month on NBC

“It’s the whole reason we went back to papaya in the first place. That’s what the fans wanted. Fans know how important they are to us, and we have a good two-way relationship. We’ll take the surveys and study them. Without the fans, there’s no motorsports.”

Arrow McLaren SP took another step toward fan engagement Tuesday by unveiling its Indy 500 liveries, which are an expansion of a partnership that began last year through Vuse and the Undefeated, a clothing and lifestyle brand.

Next month, the liveries will be featured across all three McLaren cars, firesuits and the Brickyard garages of Pato O’Ward, Felix Rosenqvist and Juan Pablo Montoya in an expansion of last year’s “intersection of art and racing” design (which was featured on the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet that is sponsored by Vuse).

“What’s really cool about it is yes, they all have the same design, but each car looks completely different in its own way,” O’Ward told NBC Sports. “It’s kind of like the color-swapping in a way, but it’s enough to really be able to distinguish which one is the 5, 6, 7 car, and I’m really happy that all the partners on the team got together.

“Obviously, it’s Vuse that are the ones that traditionally have been pushing this, and even since last year, they want to bring innovation and artwork into a different world, and that’s what we saw last year with Felix’s 500 livery and (at) Nashville. So I think it’s really cool the partners all came together and were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ As soon as we heard the Undefeated was going to do it, we were like yeah for sure it’s going to be unique. It’s not going to be like oh, we’ve seen that before.”

After using a “tiger camo” look in 2021, Undefeated founder James Bond and his designers opted for an “asymmetrical” color palette approach that incorporates olive green with McLaren’s familiar fluro papaya and blue for the three Indy 500 cars.

Though green paint schemes typically are associated with ill fortune in auto racing, Rosenqvist laughs that “I’ve had only good luck in green cars.

“It’s really a unique livery, and it’s super exciting to just have something different all the time,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m always appreciative when I get to jump in a car that looks good and has a unique design, and this time also green, which I love on a race car. I didn’t personally pick that, but I’m very happy it’s on the car. And it’s just cool in general that it’s designed by people who are not normally designing race cars, and I think that’s an awesome thing.

“You don’t really see a lot of green cars in the IndyCar field right now. We still have the papaya and blue, which defines as a team and the colors we always have, but I think it’s just super cool and probably very unexpected. Everyone knows we’re going to do something cool, but no one would expect us to come out with this color.”

Both drivers view the designs as a way to grow Arrow McLaren SP’s foothold with a younger audience. In the IndyCar poll, the team was selected by 17 percent of fans as its favorite team (and 39 percent in the top three) but enjoyed much higher support among youth.

More than 60 percent of fans between ages 16 to 34 ranked Arrow McLaren SP in its top three, including more than 30 percent at No. 1.

“At the end of the day, we’re here for entertainment,” O’Ward, 22, said. “In our eyes, we’re here to win and be champions and try to win the biggest race in the world, but there are so many things that go along with winning and truly having a good year and growing your fan base, and I think a lot of that is all the interaction that we have with fans. I think that’s what makes us apart from any other teams is that we really care about all the fans that are big McLaren fans.

“We want to bring new and young people into learning about our sport. When you do these cool things, you don’t only reach motorsport people, you can reach people that like artwork. You can reach people that like cars in general. You reach so many different audiences while trying to merge two different worlds together because at the end of the day, a livery is a work of art.”

Said the 30-year-old Rosenqvist: “I think our main purpose is to bring young fans to the sport, and we’re trying to do these kind of things to engage with young people coming to the races and to be innovative. We always try to take the next step to how can we reach the next generation of people who are going to be racing fans. Today’s fan base, especially young ones, they want to see more action and engagement.”

The 106th Indy 500 will take place May 29 and will be broadcast on NBC. IndyCar teams will be testing for the race Wednesday and Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (both test days will be shown live on Peacock Premium).

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