MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Bruce McLaren was a Kiwi, born and raised in New Zealand, and his eponymous F1 team and high-technology supercar company are based in England.
And yet McLaren very much wants to be North America’s official team.
The crowd roared Wednesday night at the Formula One Opening Party for the Miami Grand Prix when the Papaya orange – that’s the shade, don’t get it wrong – appeared on stage. In a city used to superstars and the super wealthy, the spectators seemed to be bouncing at the very sight of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo.
Their bosses were there, too, but the inaugural Miami Grand Prix has been built around the star drivers and, wow, does McLaren have a crew. Norris was voted most popular among women in a fan vote, and Ricciardo, the Australian who drinks champagne from his shoe after a win, has the biggest personality in the paddock and counts the United States among his favorite countries.
And then there’s the IndyCar trio of Pato O’Ward, Felix Rosenqvist and Juan Pablo Montoya, among the first to drive the sprawling course around Hard Rock Stadium when they took laps Wednesday in McLaren road cars.
O’Ward, who turns 23 on Friday, is a Mexican who resides in Texas and IndyCar’s most recent race winner. Like Norris, he won his series’ favorite driver among female voters.
Montoya, part of McLaren’s lineup at Indianapolis, is a former McLaren F1 driver, and the Colombian was a longtime Miami resident and one of the race ambassadors. Rosenqvist relocated to Indianapolis, and the Swede has blended into the community.
It’s the IndyCar team that is McLaren’s ticket to building a base in sponsor-rich North America, which has finally taken notice of F1, and major companies are scrambling to get involved. It’s fertile ground for Zak Brown, the head of McLaren Racing who just happens to be a regular race fan from California.
Brown has had a meteoric rise from owner of an Indianapolis-based marketing firm that dominated the market during NASCAR’s halcyon days and pushed Brown to the front of motorsports. He’s now the quirky American running the late Bruce McLaren’s team his own way.
Brown is a straight shooter who wants to have fun but takes little credit for McLaren’s gains in relevance both on the F1 grid and in fan popularity. McLaren was voted favorite F1 team in a fan survey, and Brown said McLaren’s image has been cultivated through its drivers and a commitment to spotlighting them through thoughtful social media aimed at the targeted younger demographic.
“The drivers are the right age, right personality,” Brown said. “Pato is a combination of Lando and Daniel. Lando’s quite reserved. Quite witty. Daniel comes dancing into the garage. That’s how Pato is with his presence. Pato has the youthfulness of Lando and the extroverted personality of Daniel.”
“Drivers are a big part of it. I think a lot of credit to our digital and comms teams… what do the fans want to see? 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.”
The quest to capture the market is working, but also not that competitive. F1 has only one team owned by an American – Gene Haas – but the series has no American drivers; McLaren signed 22-year-old Colton Herta, an IndyCar star from California, to a testing contract that begins later this year.
McLaren is using this week, one of a recently unthinkable two U.S. races on this year’s F1 calendar, to continue to build its presence. There’s a full “SpeedShop” experience that’s been billed as “top secret” and “the most immersive (race) experience outside of sneaking into the McLaren garage.” The SpeedShop sold out and was offered only to U.S. McLaren fan club members.
At The Wharf in Miami, a customized 2022 McLaren GT is on display all weekend as part of the “Vuse Ultimate Ride” challenge. The car is a collaboration with streetwear brand UNDEFEATED and will be awarded to a fan at the Formula One race in Austin, Texas, in October.
“While designing new liveries for Vuse and Arrow McLaren is thrilling, having the chance to help celebrate and reward someone who is on the ground putting in the work and giving back is rewarding,” said James Bond, founder of UNDEFEATED.
Brown just wants to give away a McLaren and make another new fan for the team.
“Without the fans, there’s no motorsports,” Brown said.
The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test
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.
“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.”
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).
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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?