NTT IndyCar Series Brings Motorsports to The Thermal Club

In a first for professional racing and the Coachella Valley, the IndyCar drivers made a practice run at the private residential racetrack.

Ronald Ahrens Sports

IndyCar will return to The Thermal Club for preseason practice in 2024. 

A decade ago, paving machines crawled around The Thermal Club, laying down 5 ½ inches of polymerized asphalt to create a racetrack. This year, in early February, its traffic consisted of 27 needle-nosed cars from the NTT IndyCar Series. Drivers and the teams that support them brought America’s premier racing league to the Coachella Valley for the first time. They gathered at the club for preseason practice — spring training, if you will, when drivers first get behind the wheel to test out upgrades and modifications made to their cars during winter break. The 2023 season would kick off a month later in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

After a combined 2,560 laps by all drivers over two days in Thermal, the teams returned to their home bases in Indianapolis impressed with the five-star treatment. Tim Rogers, founder and owner of The Thermal Club, went home to La Quinta reaffirmed in the instincts that led him to establish one of the world’s elite country club racetracks. 

“Yes, I feel very good,” Rogers said later in a phone interview. “It’s a validation that we made a world-class facility.” 

Will Power chats with a pit wall engineer before heading onto the track.

All it took was a huge investment — $275 million to date — and persistence in developing the 450-acre site south of Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in Thermal. Announced last fall, the IndyCar visit put The Thermal Club on the same footing as the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and PGA West, which host the BNP Paribas Open and The American Express, respectively. A difference was the lack of a public audience to witness the cars on the 3.067-mile course. Thermal Club members and their guests watched from the balconies of their private villas that line the track, reveling in the never-before-seen backdrop of palm trees and distant mountains in connection with the open-wheel sport.

Josef Newgarden, the Tennessean who is a two-time IndyCar season champion and full-time Adonis, gushed after the final test session, saying, “I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt. Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job — it was a fairly flawless test.”

When Thermal opened, May 13, 2013, skeptics said it wasn’t a real racetrack. “Real” racetracks are supposed to penalize mistakes with big wrecks and lots of carnage. Indeed, as track designer Alan Wilson noted, a prime objective was to provide a generous paved runoff area, so gentleman drivers can save their precious Porsches and McLarens before making contact with a fixed object. In select locations, the wayward car departing the pavement will encounter a large sand trap to slow things down before making impact with the guardrail. 

Many famous road-racing courses twist and turn through hills, as at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where the IndyCar season will end in September. Thermal has no blind crests and nothing like Laguna’s hallowed Corkscrew turn. Instead, it’s dead flat and lies 135 feet below sea level. On the other hand, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is flat, and winning the lauded Indy 500 brings immortality. Thermal offers its own technical challenges with tricky dual-apex turns here and increasing-radius ones there. 

Late in the final practice session, Newgarden found the track to be “unfriendly offline” when he pushed too hard in Turn 9. 

“I was basically asking to spin,” he said. 

Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske called Thermal “an awesome little track.”
Simon Pagenaud previously visited The Thermal Club to film an episode of Cam Newton’s 2020 video series, Iron Sharpens Iron.

After winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2019 — joining the pantheon of heroes who have triumphed at what is commonly referred to as “the greatest spectacle in racing” — driver Simon Pagenaud had the chance to visit The Thermal Club while filming a guest spot on a video series. 

The Frenchman reminisced on his path to IndyCar ahead of practice during mandatory media days at the Palm Springs Convention Center. The son of a grocer in Montmorillon, a commune some 250 miles southwest of Paris, Pagenaud self-financed his early races by opening a driving school at the local circuit and selling seat time to his father’s business associates. “Actually, I was on a project in France to build something similar [to The Thermal Club]. Had the backing, but my career took off,” he shared, admitting enduring Thermalistic visions for the future. 

From the very beginning, Rogers aimed the residential club at people who could helicopter over from Orange County or blaze their Gulfstreams onto the neighboring airport’s 8,500-foot strip. They would forget all their administrative duties and M&A hassles while blasting around “private pavement.” More than 5 miles of track translates to several course configurations; a delectable side dish is the 1.1-mile karting track. “We could have professional kart races here if it’s something the members would like,” Rogers said. There’s also exclusive space for the BMW Performance Center West to instruct and entertain clients of the Bavarian brand. 

“It’s a first-class facility, no doubt. Thermal really rolled out the red carpet.”
Josef Newgarden

With his wife, Twanna, who has worked in all the couple’s businesses over their 45 years of marriage, Rogers, 70, has belonged to fancy golf clubs and come to understand how to translate superior levels of service to a sport long dominated by European princes and American meatballs. The club has 210 members. The initiation fee is $175,000, and membership costs $2,400 per month. On top of that, members agree to build a 6,000-square-foot or larger trackside villa within five years. All told, buy-in requires more than $5 million. The report so far: 135 lots sold and 75 villas built (with very large garages). Rogers sits on a stack of valuable lots.

“We built a house for one member, and now we’re building a car museum across the street from his house to store his collection of 60-plus cars — very high-end, multimillion-dollar cars,” Rogers said. “I would say, the big thing here is the friendship and the bonding they get when they drive. They talk about cars, they’re on pit road together, they go have lunch together, they have dinner together. We had a group of members who went over to Iceland and did ice driving.”

Well before The Thermal Club, the Rogerses had a “very large” contract to supply gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. “That was our biggest business. Then we had convenience stores and sold those off in Northern California.”

Besides The Thermal Club, current interests include their nine Tower Markets in the Coachella Valley. The couple also owns 700 acres of date palms near the racetrack. The markets, date palms, and club employ about 225 people. MCI Construction, of Indio, has built the majority of the trackside villas and all the club buildings. And The Thermal Club only continues to grow. “We probably have 250 construction workers here every day working,” Rogers noted. 

Benjamin Pedersen zips past in car No. 55.
Four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.

With its expanding scope of activities, The Thermal Club capitalizes on a local tradition of auto racing that began with the Palm Springs Road Race. When the green flag waved in 1950, the Road Race took postwar preeminence as the first sports car competition on the West Coast; it ran on 14 occasions, sometimes twice a year, until 1959. The courses varied in configuration but were always held around the Palm Springs airport. Notable competitors included James Dean, winner of a short qualifier in 1955, six months before his death. In the subsequent race, he finished third but was bumped up to second after winner Ken Miles’ disqualification on a technical infraction. Carroll Shelby won the 1957 race in a Maserati but ran second the next year to Dan Gurney, both in Ferraris. The Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix revived racing on city streets from 1985 to 1996. 

Thermal catches the NTT IndyCar Series on an upswing. It has a great television contract with NBC. There are new star drivers with an international flair. In February’s practice, the Swede Marcus Ericsson, 2022 Indy 500 winner, clocked fastest overall with a lap of 112.182 mph — just ahead of Danish sophomore Christian Lundgaard at 112.016 mph. At the tail end of long, glorious careers, Brazilians Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan are among those hoping for one more Indianapolis 500 ring. (For Castroneves, it would be a record-breaking fifth Indy win.) Idaho’s Sting Ray Robb, New Zealand’s Marcus Armstrong, and Denmark’s Benjamin Pedersen are in the rookie class. Their mate Augustín Canapino, of Argentina, had never touched his Dallara-Chevrolet before Thermal but caught on fast.

Beyond the personalities, IndyCar emphasizes diversification through its Race for Equality & Change initiative. Evident at Thermal, most every team has female members. One that is almost all-women is Paretta Autosport, owned by Beth Paretta; they have not entered this season but competed several times in 2022 with Swiss driver Simona De Silvestro and are expected to return in the future. On the sponsorship side, golf legend Annika Sorenstam announced her Fizzy Beez ready-to-drink cocktail would support an Indy 500 entry. In the offing is a multicultural cast of young drivers, male and female, who are being groomed in development series. 


Andretti Autosport driver Romain Grosjean.


Josef Newgarden of Team Penske.


Pagenaud in car No. 60.

Sustainability has become another emphasis, and Firestone — supplier of all IndyCar tires — has developed a green-sidewall slick that uses natural rubber from the guayule shrub native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Fuel-provider Shell has developed a 100-percent renewable, ethanol-based fuel that was on trial during the practice sessions. 

“I can’t speak highly enough about that [sustainability] step,” Newgarden emphasized after the final session. “We should be shouting from the mountaintops.” 

In the years before the pandemic, IndyCar held preseason practice in Sebring, Florida (a remote location with a rough track) and Austin, Texas (fog, rain, cold). With its winning combination of accessibility, fair weather, and luxury facilities, The Thermal Club sits in a prime position to cultivate a lasting relationship with the sport. 

Rogers confirmed he has a date for IndyCar’s return in 2024. “After that, it’s really up to Indy. We have the facility — we could certainly host a race.” 


Newgarden's helmet.


Power heads onto the track.