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IndyCar’s Challenge Before the Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge

Scott Goodyear 1992 IndyCar
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Car FYI Canada



There’s a popular saying in motorsports that money buys speed. However, auto racing competition isn’t always the best source to generate money. Without sponsorships and/or other wealthy parties, the glory to capture victory is an expensive endeavour. Excluding the prestigious Indianapolis 500 where a sizable race purse can make a massive financial impact (for example 2023 race winner Josef Newgarden and his Team Penske organization took $3,666,000 US), the season-long point standings are a barometer for success. This weekend, the NTT IndyCar Series arrives at Thermal Club in Palm Springs, California for a non-points competition with where a driver and team can win a $500,000 American dollars on Sunday for 30 laps of racing. 

The 2024 Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge event takes place on March 24th with two 10-lap heat races and a final 20-lap battle between 12 All-Star contenders. The first time in recent history that such a high-paying, non-championship event was held for the top North American open wheel racing series, this is not the first time IndyCar stars were tempted by a big prize in a sprint-style race. From 1987 to 1992, tobacco company Marlboro pushed an all-star event that provided an exciting challenge in its own right.

Serving as a late season dice with a sizable race purse, the Marlboro Challenge served as a non-points paying fight among the best drivers of the time. Running on Saturday during an existing race weekend, the Marlboro Challenge operated as a shorter length (roughly 100 miles in distance) contest than the IndyCar’s Sunday feature event. A mandatory pit stop would also be part of the race requiring as least two tires to be changed and that the fuel filler be attached.

For the opening two Marlboro Challenge races in 1987 and 1988, the 1.784-mile (2.870-kilometer) Tamiami Park was the host venue. The road course currently known as WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca provided the stage for the 1989 competition while the now-demolished one-mile Pennsylvania International Raceway (remembered by many as Nazareth Speedway) welcomed the 1990 edition of the Marlboro Challenge. Laguna Seca and Nazareth would share hosting honours for the 1991 and 1992 events. The race coincided with the IndyCar series season finale weekend at Tamiami Park and Laguna Seca. 

Unlike the 2024 Million Dollar Challenge at Thermal Club that is open to all NTT IndyCar Series competitors, the field for the Marlboro Challenge events was limited to just 10 cars. Race and pole winners during each race’s respective season or the highest-placed in the series points were awarded a spot on the elite grid. A random draw was used to assemble the starting lineup for the first race while future events saw the more winningest drivers taking the top spots.  

With only a select field of drivers earning the right to compete, the list of winners for the Marlboro Challenge over its six-year history consists of unquestionable legends of North American open wheel racing for the era. Winning the first-ever edition of the 42-lap IndyCar all-star event was taken by Bobby Rahal who took the lead on the opening lap and maintained the advantage. Rahal’s 1987 Marlboro Challenge win netted him and his Truesports team $225,000 of the $770,000 race purse. For comparison, 1987 Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Sr. earned $526,762. The race remained lucrative for all the 10 drivers in the field considering the short distance. The Marlboro Challenge’s purse was adjusted in upcoming years with the 1992 event featuring a million-dollar purse with $300,000 going to the winner. 

The only driver to win the Marlboro Challenge on multiple occasions was Michael Andretti. Andretti’s first Marlboro Challenge victory was captured the 1988 event where he participated in a brilliant, determined fight from Al Unser Jr with the latter driver crashing on the final lap as he last traction on the wet Tamiami Park race track. Driving for Newman-Haas Racing, Michael Andretti took the 1991 Marlboro Challenge staged at Laguna Seca when race leader on the final lap Rick Mears suffered a fuel pickup issue surrendering the win in heartbreaking fashion out of the last turn coming to the finish line. Bobby Rahal (1987) and Michael Andretti (1991) were the only drivers to claim victory of the Marlboro Challenge in the same season as they won the IndyCar series championship. Even in the years that Andretti failed to win the event he remained a contender.

Al Unser Jr. claimed redemption for his failed attempt to win the 1988 Marlboro Challenge by taking the 1989 edition of the race at Laguna Seca. Rick Mears won the 1990 event at Nazareth Speedway that was the first to be held on an oval.

For what would be the final edition of the high-paying IndyCar all-star race, the 1992 Marlboro Challenge at Nazareth Speedway was heavily decided on a pit stop during a caution. The top two contenders of the event up to that point, Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti were penalized for passing the pace car before the pit road blend line. Emerson Fittipaldi drove a Chevolet-powered Penske to victory worth $300,000 on the Nazareth oval uniting the Marlboro-sponsored car with the Marlboro-sponsored race.  

Marlboro proposed during a final edition of the IndyCar all-star race for 1993 but the event never happened. Before the arrival of the upcoming millennium, a more ambitious plan for a high stakes non-championship open wheel racing event was announced. The CART FedEx Championship Series involved in the 1999 Hawaiian Super Prix. Intended to be staged on November 13th of 1999 at  Barbers Point, a former US Navy airfield, the Hawaiian Super Prix would feature the top-12 CART FedEX Championship drivers competing in race with a massive $10-million purse with a winner taking 5 million dollars. The multi-million dollar event in Hawaii failed to happen. 

While each IndyCar driver will only run 30 laps, the winner will essentially take home $16,666.50 per lap of competition (Newgarden’s victory after 200 laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway worked out to $18,330). 

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