IndyCar Testing/Luxuriating In Desert

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 4 2023

Graham Rahal speeds through the Southern California desert during Friday’s test. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

INDYCAR ended its traditionally lengthy offseason Thursday and Friday at an untraditional California venue during an open test paced by reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Ericsson was quickest among four CGR drivers placing in Friday’s top-10 as the two-day NTT IndyCar Series test concluded at The Thermal Club in that Inland California locale. Never heard of community founder/entrepreneur Tim Rogers and The Thermal Club? It’s because you reside in the wrong income tax bracket.

A mere 2.5-hour drive east from Los Angeles International Airport and 33 miles from idyllic Palm Springs, The Thermal Club is a members-only community where the $5.2-million admission fee includes mandatory purchase of a lot and construction of a 30,000-square-foot home within five years of joining.

Terra Haute, Indiana, it’s not.

But Southern California’s desert climate does provide INDYCAR with a near-weatherproof winter test destination, as well as an opportunity to showcase America’s premier open-wheel drivers and teams to a decidedly upscale audience whose garages are stuffed with Porsches, Ferraris, Mercedes, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis and the occasional bourgeois C8 Corvette.

This was INDYCAR’s first preseason open test since the weather-plagued 2020 session at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, and its first appearance at Club Thermal. The 470-acre property opened in 2012 and since has morphed into a premier playground for club racers and sports car enthusiasts.

INDYCAR’s teams most recently had fired their twin-turbocharged Chevrolet and Honda V-6 engines in anger on Sept. 11, 2022. That was when Australian Will Power clinched his second series title with a third-place finish in his No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet at the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on the 2.238-mile/11-turn WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Northern California. 

On Friday, Sweden’s Ericsson posted a hot lap of 1-minute, 38.4223-seconds/112.182 mph over The Club’s 3.067-mile/17-turn road-course in his No. 8 Honda, a time nearly one second quicker than Colton Herta’s Thursday lap of 1:39.3721 in the No. 26 Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian.

“If feels great to be back in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda,” Ericsson said in a team news release. “We’ve had quite the extensive test program here over the past two days. We worked very  hard in the winter to try to get different things on the set-up side where we think we can improve our package for road and street-course races. We’ve gone through that program and think we’ve found some really interesting things that will make us stronger as a team. That’s very promising and, of course, we’ll have a lot of data to analyze, but I’m confident that we made some improvements.”

Denmark’s Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing placed second at 1:38.5682/112.016 mph in the No. 45 Honda. The series’ 2022 Rookie of the Year, Lundgaard also was second-quickest Thursday and the only driver to finish in the top-five during both test days.

Kyle Kirkwood, the 2021 INDY NXT by Firestone champion, was third Friday at 1:38.7885/111.766 mph in the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda. Kirkwood joined Michael Andretti’s organization after driving for AJ Foyt Racing as an INDYCAR rookie in 2022. Kirkwood rallied after placing 15th overall on Thursday’s time sheet after missing the afternoon session due to a clutch change. That hiccup negated the second-quickest lap he laid down Thursday morning.

“It’s a new team for me, new group of guys, kind of jelling with them to see how everyone operates,” Kirkwood said. “I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right? 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. Honestly, it felt pretty easy to get to the top in this car. It’s not really needed to try and overextend anything.”

Fellow-second-year driver Callum Ilott was fourth overall at 1:38.8404/111.707 mph in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet. Ilott, of Great Britain, was the quickest Chevy-powered driver and led the afternoon session with his best lap.

Ganassi rookie Marcus Armstrong rounded-out Friday’s top-five at 1:38.8409/111.707 mph in the No. 11 Honda. Teammate Alex Palou, the 2021 series champion, was the third-quickest Ganassi driver and seventh overall at 1:38.8718 in the No. 10 Honda.

“This was an amazing place and I’m very happy we could come out here and test,” said Palou, tne Spaniard who won the 2022 season-ender at Laguna Seca. “It’s been a while since Laguna, so it felt amazing to drive an Indy-car. We’ve been able to achieve a lot of things we wanted to here at Thermal. I think the CGR team did a great job during the week here. We can’t wait to get to St. Pete to go do the real thing now. We have four weeks to go through everything and we’ll be ready to go to try to get to Victory Lane.”

Power placed sixth overall at 1:38.8702/111.674 mph in Penske’s No. 12 Chevrolet.

Six-time series champion Scott Dixon was 10th at 1:38.9762/111.554 mph in his trademark No. 9 Honda. “It was fun to get back into an Indy-car after the downtime in the offseason,” said Dixon, a native of New Zealand and third in the final 2022 point standings. “Obviously, a big thanks to everyone at Thermal for getting us out here. It’s a new track and one different to what we typically run on.

“Looking forward to kicking off the season. This just means we’re getting a little bit closer. We’ll keep working away until then.”

Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden was 12th overall after a best lap of 1:39.0301/111.493 mph in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. “It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days,” said Newgarden, who finished 16 points behind teammate Power in last year’s final standings. “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. In a lot of ways it is relevant. 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, 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.”

The 2023 season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding is set for Sunday, March 5, on the streets of that Florida city. NBC and Peacock will provide live coverage starting at noon (ET).

On Thursday, Herta was quickest overall among 27 drivers running for 5.5 hours, split into morning and afternoon sessions. Herta’s best time of 1-minute, 39.3721-seconds was set during the afternoon session in the No. 26 Honda. Herta also led the morning practice at 1:39.9303, the only driver under 1:40 during that session.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” Herta said. “It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again and just get everybody back into the flow. It’s nice to be back in a car. It’s a fun track to drive.” Herta slipped to 15th on Friday’s time sheet with a best lap of 1:39.1047.

Lundgaard, meanwhile, launched his second full season with RLLR by placing second in the No. 45 Honda at 1:39.3767 _ just 0.0046-seconds behind Herta.

Palou was third at 1:39.3970 in the No. 10 Honda, 0.0249-seconds behind Herta. Frenchman Romain Grosjean began his third INDYCAR season in fourth at 1:39.4826 in the No. 28 Honda, placing two Andretti Autosport cars in the top-four as Team Mikey looks to rebound from a disappointing 2022 season.

Power rounded-out the top-five at 1:39.5690 in his No. 12 Chevrolet, the manufacturer’s leading driver. Overall, less than one second separated the top-18 drivers after Thursday’s sessions.

Armstrong was quickest among the four rookies testing Thursday in preparation for their first NTT IndyCar Series campaign. Armstrong, from New Zealand, was 10th overall with a top lap of 1:39.9077 in the No. 11 CGR Honda. “It’s only my second day in an IndyCar Series car, but this Ganassi car certainly gives me a lot of confidence,” Armstrong said. “It moves very natural, if that makes sense.”


Final 2022 NTT IndyCar Series point-standings _ 1, Will Power, Team Penske, 560; 2, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, 544; 3, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 521; 4, Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, 510; 5, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, 510; 6, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, 506; 7, Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP, 480; 8, Felix Rosenqvist, Arrow McLaren SP, 393; 9, Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport, 381; 10, Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport, 381;

11, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 345; 12, Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, 331; 13, Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport, 328; 14, Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 323; 15, Simon Pagenaud, Meyer Shank Racing, 314; 16, David Malukas, Dale Coyne Racing with HMD, 305; 17, Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter Racing, 267; 18, Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing, 263; 19, Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR, 258; 20, Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing, 219;

21, Jimmie Johnson, Chip Ganassi Racing, 214; 22, Jack Harvey, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 209; 23, Devlin DeFrancesco, Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport, 206; 24, Kyle Kirkwood, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, 183; 25, Dalton Kellett, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, 133; 26, Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing, 78; 27, Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing, 75; 28, Santino Ferrucci, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, 71; 29, Tatiana Calderon, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, 58; 30, JR Hildebrand, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, 53; 

31, Juan Pablo Montoya, Arrow McLaren SP, 44; 32, Simona DeSilvestro, Paretta Autosport, 34; 33, Marco Andretti, Andretti Herta Autosport with Marco & Curb, 17; 34, Sage Karam, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, 14; 35, Stefan Wilson, DragonSpeed/Cusick Motorsports, 10. 



Sunday, March 5 _ Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., NBC/Peacock

Sunday, April 1 _ Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, NBC/Peacock

Sunday, April 16 _ Streets of Long Beach, NBC/Peacock

Sunday, April 30 _ Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham, Ala., NBC/Peacock

Saturday, May 13 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course, NBC/Peacock

Sunday, May 28 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Oval, NBC/Peacock

Sunday, June 4 _ Streets of Detroit, NBC/Peacock

Sunday, June 18 _ Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis., USA Network/Peacock

Sunday, July 2 _ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio. USA Network/Peacock

Sunday, July 16 _ Streets of Toronto, Peacock

Saturday, July 22 _ Iowa Speedway, Newton, NBC/Peacock

Sunday, July 23 _ Iowa Speedway, Newton, NBC/Peacock

Sunday, Aug. 6 _ Streets of Nashville, NBC/Peacock

Saturday, Aug. 12 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course, USA Network/Peacock

Sunday, Aug. 27 _World Wide Technology Raceway, Madison, Ill., NBC/Peacock

Sunday, Sept. 3 _ Portland (Ore.) International Raceway, NBC/Peacock

Sunday, Sept. 10 _ WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Monterey, Calif., NBC/Peacock

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y.) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service, Ford Racing and Used Car Dealer magazine).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 4 2023
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