ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Josef Newgarden earned a $1 million sponsor bonus Sunday for winning at Road America, where his third win of the season completed a trifecta of victories on IndyCar’s different circuits.
After winning on the oval at Texas and the street course in Long Beach this season, Newgarden headed to Road America searching for a road course win that would make him the first IndyCar driver this season to win on all three circuits.
The reward was a $1 million payout from The PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge, which split the bonus between Team Penske and charities of Newgarden’s choice. It’s part of a new partnership between industrial staffing giant PeopleReady and IndyCar that will continue to award a $10,000 donation to every race winner for the remainder of the season – split between the driver, their team, and their charity of choice.
The Team Penske driver selected Wags and Walks of Nashville and SeriousFun Children’s Network. It was the first year of the challenge and claimed before the halfway point of the IndyCar season; Newgarden is the only driver with multiple wins through eight of 17 races.
“I was just trying to stay focused on what I had to do,” Newgarden told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “We’ve had a lot of success with this car, and Team Chevy’s bringing it with this engine.
“To finally get it done and to most importantly give that money to charity. Half that money is going to charity with SeriousFun Children’s Network and Wags and Walks Nashville. I hope they are happy about that. That’s a lot of money coming their way.”
Newgarden beat Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing by 3.371-seconds following two late restarts, but Ericsson reclaimed the points lead with the runner-up finish.
Alexander Rossi, the Andretti Autosport driver who started on the pole in search of his first win in three years, finished third and was followed by teammates Romain Grosjean and Colton Herta.
Chevrolet won the race with Newgarden, but Honda took the next four spots. Felix Rosenqvist of Arrow McLaren SP and Scott McLaughlin of Penske were sixth and seventh for Chevy.
Newgarden had a 2.8-second lead over Rossi when Pato O’Ward’s engine failed with six laps remaining to set up the first late restart. Then Helio Castroneves spun for another caution.
Newgarden got a great jump on Rossi on both late restarts and never looked back.
Rossi had his hands full first with Ericsson, and then with his own teammates, as his losing streak extended to 45 races. His pole-winning run Saturday was his first in three years.
Newgarden won for the second time at Road America, but he was headed toward the win a year ago until his gearbox failed in the closing laps and it handed the win to reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou.
Palou’s chances of defending last year’s win vanished almost immediately due to an early tangle with Ganassi teammate Ericsson. When Ericsson made a move to Palou’s inside, the right rear of the Swede’s car made contact with the front left of Palou’s, and the Spaniard went off course.
“He was trying to win the race on the third lap,” Palou said. “The car broke. That’s it. Game over.”
In a postrace interview with NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee, Ericsson apologized to Palou for the contact but also said he felt it was “a nice racing move” and a justifiable action.
Will Power, meanwhile, dropped from the IndyCar points lead because of his own early incident. A poor qualifying effort put Power in 15th at the start and he was hit from behind by rookie Devlin DeFrancesco just eight laps into the race. Power ended up 19th.
“Man, you can’t really do much about it,” Power said. “He is a young guy and he’s made some big moves this year that resulted in some incidents.”
DeFrancesco received a stop-and-go penalty for making avoidable contact, and Power dropped to second in the standings, 27 points behind Ericsson.
O’Ward’s engine failure dropped him from third to fourth in the standings; Palou dropped from fourth to fifth. The win for Newgarden, meanwhile, moved him from fifth to third in the points.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson had a frustrating day because of contact with Tatiana Calderon at the back of the pack on the first lap. Johnson went off course to bring out a full-course yellow. He finished 24th.
Calderon was in the field with Simona de Silvestro, marking the first time an IndyCar event has included two female drivers since de Silvestro and Pippa Mann entered the 2015 Indianapolis 500.
“I think it was really important to finish this race,” said de Silvestro, who was making her first start on an IndyCar road course in nearly nine years. “We had so much going on with me getting back in the car, getting to know the team again and working with my engineer. But we finished and I think we can be pretty happy because things started to come together at the end. It’s something to build on.”
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?