Meyer Shank Racing driver Felix Rosenqvist #60 of Sweden heads...

Meyer Shank Racing driver Felix Rosenqvist #60 of Sweden heads down the back stretch during the IndyCar Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg auto race, Sunday March 10, 2024, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Credit: AP/Mike Carlson

THERMAL, Calif. — Felix Rosenqvist and Alex Palou will lead the field to green in Sunday morning's pair of heat races that determine which 12 IndyCar drivers will advance into the exhibition Thermal $1 million Challenge.

The made-for-TV all-star race of sorts will consist of only 12 of IndyCar's 27 drivers, but the dozen who do compete will have to get into the event via a pair of earlier heat races. The starting lineups for the heat races were set Saturday in a pair of eight-minute qualifying sessions.

“Going into qualifying, it was like we were supposed to feel less pressure because there's no points, but I was actually more nervous than ever," Rosenqvist said.

Rosenqvist paced the stacked first group with a lap at 1 minute, 38.5831 seconds around the permanent road course located in a private members-only club near Coachella and outside of Palm Springs. The first group was comprised of all three Team Penske drivers, including Josef Newgarden, winner of the season-opener two weeks ago, two drivers from Andretti Global and six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon.

“It's going to be an angry pack in the mirror for sure,” said Rosenqvist. “If you can get away clean, you might have it. I think it’s all about the start and getting away.”

The top six finishers in the heat races will advance into the “A Main” and race for a $500,000 prize over a 20-lap race split into two 10-lap segments.

The purse was supposed to be $1 million, but half the money was supposed to come from members of the Thermal Club who were to be paired with a driver. The club members then balked at the buy-in that would have seen the amateurs run their own race and then combine their result with the IndyCar driver they were paired with to split the prize.

The members are still paired with teams but the experience has been more of a three-day immersion in which the wealthy car enthusiasts are exposed to professional motorsports organizations.

The heat races are 10 laps — or 20 minutes, whichever comes first — and laps under caution won't count.

“People will get aggressive to try to get into the big show,” said McLaren driver Pato O’Ward.

Rosenqvist beat Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske, Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing, and Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Newgarden and Will Power of Penske will start fifth and sixth. Dixon was ninth in the first qualifying group for Chip Ganassi Racing and Colton Herta and Kyle Kirkwood of Andretti were 11th and 13th.

Palou of Ganassi was slightly faster than Rosenqvist in the second qualifying group at 1:38.5675. He beat teammate Marcus Armstrong, Graham Rahal, rookie Linus Lundqvist of Ganassi, Rosenqvist's teammate at Meyer Shank Racing Tom Blomqvist, and Pietro Fittipaldi.

Palou led several of the practice sessions leading into qualifying.

McLaren thought it had the front row covered with Callum Ilott and O'Ward until Marcus Ericsson of Andretti spun and backed into a tire barrier to bring out a red flag. It left just enough time for IndyCar to allow the drivers to make one final qualifying attempt, but the McLaren drivers didn't go back out because their tires were already shot from their first efforts.

Alexander Rossi ended up the highest-qualifying McLaren driver at seventh, while Ilott and O'Ward dropped to eighth and ninth.

O'Ward said the changing weather conditions in the desert have made for a difficult two days of track time as heavy winds stirred up dust that limited visibility and made cars hard to control.

“This track is very sensitive to heat and wind and it was getting really dusty,” O'Ward said. "It wasn't the most perfect lap for me. It was always wanting to go the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. It was just really gusty, almost icy, out there."

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