From the pages of Vintage Motorsport: Pointless Challenge

From the pages of Vintage Motorsport: Pointless Challenge


By John Oreovicz for the Feb/Mar 2024 issue of Vintage Motorsport

The NTT IndyCar Series’ creation of the $1 Million Challenge – a made-for-television, in-season, non-points exhibition race set for March 22-24 at The Thermal Club near Palm Springs, Calif. – certainly created a talking point for the sport’s fanbase. It also stirred memories of the last time Indy car racing put up a non-points, big cash jackpot in an attempt to increase awareness and excitement. No, not the stillborn Hawaiian Super Prix set for November 1999, but the Marlboro Challenge, founded on much firmer footing.

It was not without controversy. Emerson Fittipaldi is credited with attracting Philip Morris USA into the CART series in 1986, first to sponsor his car fielded by Patrick Racing. Within a year, the tobacco giant was all-in. A week before the start of the ’87 season, CART CEO John Frasco unveiled the Marlboro Challenge, a limited-field, non-points event consisting of pole winners (who would receive a $5,000 bonus), race winners, and top points scorers. The inaugural edition would be staged at the Tamiami Park circuit in Miami on October 31, 1987 – the day before the PPG/CART IndyCar World Series season finale. 

The $730,000 purse for the Marlboro Challenge exceeded all other races on the CART schedule outside of the Indy 500, and its inclusion as a high-profile sideshow to the title decider upset CART’s title sponsor PPG Industries. The company’s racing director Jim Chapman, told Indianapolis Star reporter Robin Miller: “We don’t want to make a federal case out of this. I told (Frasco) we didn’t object to the event, but we do object to the timing and priorities that permit the prize money to exceed not only the purse for the official Miami race, but for any other official race on the CART schedule.”

But the furor soon died down, and with the ’87 CART championship already decided in Bobby Rahal’s favor, Rahal drew the No. 2 grid spot for the inaugural Marlboro Challenge. The then two-time series champion dominated the 42-lap race to collect $225,000. Fittipaldi was Rahal’s most convincing challenger, but his Lola-Chevrolet ran out of fuel midway around the penultimate lap. That left Danny Sullivan and Team Penske to collect the $135,000 prize for second place. 

“I think with about seven laps to go they hung out a ‘Fuel’ sign, and I thought, ‘My God…please!’” Rahal said in Victory Lane. “The last two laps, my fuel light was flashing on and off and on. It looks like the race was more of an economy run than a dash.”

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A new promotion called the Marlboro Million was added in 1988, inspired by similar schemes launched in stock car racing and golf. Any Indy car driver who won the Marlboro 500 at Michigan Speedway, the Marlboro Grand Prix at the Meadowlands, and the Marlboro Challenge would take home a seven-figure payday. The Challenge grid would now be based on poles and wins from the season proper, instead of a random draw. 

The second Challenge, also held in conjunction with the Miami season finale, was delayed two hours by tropical storms. Rain started again on the pace laps, but by the end of the race, the sun was shining brightly. Mario Andretti took the early lead, but Unser Jr. spun him out in an incident that foreshadowed their contentious collision six months later in Long Beach. Michael Andretti then passed Unser for the lead before the mandatory pit stops. 

Michael again reclaimed the lead from Unser when Al Jr. emerged from his stop, but Junior reeled him back in as the track dried. Unser made a move for the lead with two laps remaining, but hit a puddle and crashed at Turn 9, allowing Andretti to win by 2.455sec over Fittipaldi.

Unser got his revenge in 1989, when the CART season finale and Marlboro Challenge moved to Laguna Seca Raceway. The younger Andretti led the first 12 laps while Unser slashed his way forward from fifth on the grid, taking second place from Rick Mears in a jawdropping out-braking maneuver around the outside of Turn 2. Junior then took Andretti for the lead into The Corkscrew and gapped the field by 23 seconds before backing off to save fuel. He banked $250,000 for winning by 4.1sec over Sullivan, who inherited the position when Fittipaldi again ran dry. 

The 1990 Marlboro Challenge relocated to Pennsylvania International Raceway, later known as Nazareth Speedway, marking the first time the event would be staged on an oval. Nazareth was tricky and fast, with minimal banking, three unique corners, and even a bit of elevation change baked into its 0.946-mile layout. Not surprisingly, it produced a classic Rick Mears victory. He started third, lost a place to Penske teammate Sullivan at the start, then came under fire from Fittipaldi (by then another Penske teammate). But the race came back to Mears as he picked off Sullivan, Unser, and Andretti in a series of decisive Turn 3 moves to eventually beat Fittipaldi and Unser. 

“After the pit stop, I could lean on the car pretty good,” Mears said. “We’ve been close but no cigar this year trying to get a win, so this is a nice uplift for the team.”

With his familiar Pennzoil livery exchanged for Marlboro red and white, Mears was again the man to beat in the 1991 Marlboro Challenge, back at Laguna Seca. He showcased his road racing skills from the start and was headed toward a well-judged victory over Michael Andretti until his Penske-Chevy suffered a fuel pick-up problem in the last corner of the final lap. Rick bumped it back to life, but by then, Andretti had steamed past to steal the $250,000 top prize. To add insult to injury, Mears would have collected the $150,000 Marlboro Million bonus, thanks to his earlier win in the 500-miler at Michigan. 

“That little hiccup at Laguna really cost me a pretty good chunk,” Mears reflects with a chuckle. “I saw coming down the hill that I had a big enough gap to Michael so he couldn’t divebomb me in the hairpin, and I thought I had it pretty well made. When that thing coughed coming out of the corner, I about fell over.

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“The Marlboro Challenge was always fun, and it paid a few bucks, too. The guys enjoyed it, and Marlboro did a good job putting it on. It was a good thing across the board.” 

The sixth and final Marlboro Challenge shifted back to Nazareth in October 1992. “Marlboro Man” Fittipaldi finally claimed a Challenge win, over Andretti and newcomer Paul Tracy, but controversial penalties levied by chief steward Wally Dallenbach against Michael Andretti and Rahal killed their chances and any prospects for a competitive race. “This decision cost us at least $140,000,” fumed Rahal after finishing sixth. 

PM USA put the Marlboro Challenge “on hiatus to refine the concept” prior to the ’93 season and replaced it with the Marlboro Pole Award, which paid $10k for each pole position and added a $15k bonus for winning from pole. The $15K would accumulate until the next win by the top qualifier. The Pole Award followed Marlboro from CART to the Indy Racing League and continued until 2006; Dario Franchitti’s pole-to-flag win at Vancouver in ’98 netted a $330k bonus, the largest in the history of the program. 

A million bucks is no longer the startling figure it was in the ’80s or ’90s, but still grabs attention. Will IndyCar’s gamble on the $1 Million Challenge at The Thermal Club pay off like a winning lottery ticket? Stay tuned.



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