Saturday’s Four-Hour Race Will Conclude after Dark
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s enough of a challenge for competitors in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge to race on a track that is new and unfamiliar to most drivers and teams. Then add the pressure of that new track being the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the most historic and famous racing venues in the world.
But wait, there’s more! The Indianapolis Motor Speedway 240 is one of only two four-hour “endurance” races on the 10-event schedule in the Pilot Challenge, along with the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. On top of that, the Indy enduro will be run in twilight conditions, starting at 4:30 p.m. ET and finishing at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
Sundown in Indianapolis is set to occur at 7:52 p.m., meaning the track will generally be shrouded in darkness when the checkered flag flies. IMS has numerous video boards that effectively light up the pits and the main straight, but the rest of the 2.439-mile, 14-corner road course features no permanent lighting. Temporary lighting was erected near the fast chicane leading to the back straight for a recent private test.
While IMSA is establishing a new tradition at Indianapolis after a nine-year absence, the IMS road course is no stranger to sports car racing. The Michelin Pilot Challenge field features a former two-time Indianapolis winner – Daniel Morad, who won a Formula BMW USA race on the original iteration of the IMS road course in 2007 and followed it up just last year, claiming a sports car endurance race in a GT3-specification Mercedes-AMG GT3 similar to those that compete in the Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) and GTD PRO classes of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
“I believe I’m tied with Juan Montoya for the longest gap between wins at Indianapolis – 15 years,” laughed Morad. “If you’re quick somewhere and you have a good result, you always like it a little bit more. Indianapolis has three distinct sectors, and it’s interesting to drive. It’s physical and you never get much of a break. Experiencing the speedway during the transition into night is going to be neat.”
Morad didn’t log any nighttime laps during his 2022 sports car win at IMS, putting in a three-hour stint to start the eight-hour contest. And while the game plan for Morad and co-driver Bryce Ward in the No. 57 Winward Racing Mercedes-AMG GT GT4 in the Grand Sport (GS) class has not been set, he’s prepared to take the night shift if circumstances dictate.
Ward and Morad won the 100-minute race on the streets of Detroit in early June, three weeks after they claimed a podium finish in the two-hour event at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“I drove at night a little bit in practice at Indianapolis last year,” Morad said. “It’s cool. The visibility is not the best because it’s not well lit on the infield. But we have lights on the car so you can see it all well enough. And it’s only going to be a factor for the last 40 minutes or so.
“I’m looking forward to going into the night,” he continued. “We’ve never driven GT4s at night; we don’t even have endurance lights for the cars that point outward and light up the apex, so that will be interesting. I like the variety of the Pilot Challenge series in general. This will be my first proper attempt at one of the four-hour races, and I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
Another aspect of racing into the night at Indianapolis that will not be as tricky as at some other circuits is that drivers spend little time pointed directly into the sunset. That only occurs toward the end of the lap, as the cars turn right from the “short chute” between Turns 1 and 2 of the famous IMS oval back into a sequence of corners that points them back onto the pit straight.
“The hardest part about the period going into nighttime is the glare when you’re driving directly into the sunset,” Morad said. “It’s hard to see. At some places when you’re going down a straight, you’ll take one hand off the wheel to just block the sun out to try and spot your reference points. Once you get that, it’s just all about timing and knowing where you are, because you’re driving blind for a certain period.
“At Indy, through Turns 11 and 12, the sun shines through the grandstands and gets into your eyes. But that lasts for 10 minutes, not even. Then when it goes full dark, it’s hard to keep track of where your competitors are. The headlights behind you are just a bright light, so it’s really hard to know precisely where people are. You have to judge the distance and the depth to the other cars, things like closing speeds.”
Mason Filippi, who shares the No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Hyundai Elantra N TCR in the Touring Car (TCR) class, believes racing into the night at Indianapolis will be comparatively simple compared to more rustic and rural tracks.
Wilkins and Filippi rank third in the TCR standings, with victories at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Lime Rock Park.
Filippi cited Sebring International Raceway and the Nurburgring Nordschleife, where he and several Hyundai teammates competed in a 24-hour race earlier this year, as tracks that are ultra-challenging in the dark.
“Racing in the dark can be intimidating, and the only thing that can prepare you is to have an open mind,” he said. “It’s especially difficult when it’s wet and there’s only one line, because if you get off-line, when you get back on the dry, it’s like hitting the cushion on a dirt track.
“But it can also be quite helpful as a training tool because you’re relying on timing and trusting your instincts and your familiarity with the track,” he added. “There are always moments at night, but it’s part of what makes the challenge of sports car racing so unique. I’m excited that our race at Indianapolis includes a nighttime element.”
Forty-four cars are on the IMS entry list, 28 in GS and 16 in TCR. Both classes feature tight championship battles with two races to go. Christian Szymczak, Kenny Murillo and the No. 72 Murillo Racing Mercedes are 10 points ahead of Robby Foley, Vin Barlett and the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT4 in GS. In TCR, Harry Gottsacker, Robert Wickens and the No. 33 Bryan Herta Hyundai are 50 points better than Chris Miller, Mikey Taylor and the No. 17 Unitronic/JDC-Miller MotorSports Audi RS3 LMS TCR.
Following three Friday practice sessions, Michelin Pilot Challenge qualifying is set for 11 a.m. ET Saturday. The race streams live on Peacock (in the U.S.) and IMSA.com starting at 4:30 p.m.