Marco Andretti: 'At night, the racing becomes a lot closer'

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Marco Andretti wants to see sparks again at Iowa Speedway. If all goes as planned, he will be the one creating them.

As the NTT IndyCar Series prepares to return to night racing at Iowa Speedway with Saturday’s Iowa 300, Andretti is reminded of his victory on the seven-eighths-mile oval in 2011. He started far back in the field, but he immediately knew he had a fast car.

He also recalls how sharp and bright each pass looked from the cockpit.

“It’s actually brighter at night,” Andretti said. “That’s weird to say, but that’s because everybody puts the clear shields on and you have the bright lights. There’s a little bit more reflection at night, but during the day, you have the sun in your eyes, especially on one side of the track. During the day, the ambient temp and track temp are up, and the tires don’t like that. I think the racing suffers during day races on short ovals. I’m a big fan of night racing.”

The series hasn't held an evening race at Iowa Speedway since 2015, and drivers and fans are welcoming it. Not only does it look more vibrant -- and create sparks as cars bottom out -- it also makes for better racing.

“At night, the racing becomes a lot closer,” Andretti said. “It’s better for the fans. It’s really fun. You see the sparks from the cars bottoming out. Obviously, we’re going to bottom out with all the bumps and patches and seams at Iowa. It’s one of those places where if you have the right setup -- and primarily the right shock package -- it’s going to be a good race for you.”

The return to evening racing at Iowa was the result of fans requesting it. Saturday's race begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Channel 209.

“Fans want to see it,” said David Hyatt, president of Iowa Speedway. “Fans came to us and said, ‘Man, we’d love to see this race back at night.’ So when we started talking about it with INDYCAR, we started trying to find a date that worked. We were able to come up with one.”

What fans get is a sharper look and a sharper race. Visually, night racing pops. But it’s not just how it looks. As the sun goes down, the track cools, offering better grip and closer racing. Andretti compares night racing at Iowa to a smaller version of night racing at Texas Motor Speedway.

“At Texas, we practice during the day, and the cars are a handful,” he said. “But then at night during the race, we’re all on top of each other. It’s the same thing at Iowa.”

To secure a date that worked, Iowa Speedway and INDYCAR agreed to move the race’s date back a week from its place on the schedule the previous two years

“We’ve seen a plateau in numbers from last year,” Hyatt said. “We’re pacing about where we were a year ago. … We do have a core group of season-ticket holders who come out to virtually all of our events, but we’d like to see a whole lot more butts in the seats. It’s a new date. People get it in their minds that it’s going to be the same weekend it was in prior years. We announced it a year in advance, but some people have planned their vacations or have other events they have to go to. So have to reestablish where it’s going to be before we see the true boost, but we’ve heard nothing but positive. Race fans have said, ‘We want to see it at night.’”

So does Andretti, who fondly recalls winning under the lights at Iowa. He’d had good cars at Iowa before the 2011 victory -- he finished on the podium in the first two INDYCAR races there, in 2007 and 2008 -- but this one was different.

“I knew early on that we had a pretty good car,” he said. “On an oval, it doesn’t take long to find out. … After the first couple of laps, you start to settle in. You’re like, ‘All right, this is going to be good.’ You start making your way forward, and you start to see guys in front of you go loose with degradation, but you don’t. You put the car wherever you want -- low, high. You know when you’ve got it, but you still have to execute.”

That they did. Dario Franchitti led 172 of the race’s 250 laps, but Andretti worked through the field, passed Franchitti midway through the race, then battled back and forth with Tony Kanaan to eventually win by 0.792 seconds.

“At the end, you hear me on the radio,” Andretti recalled. “I said, ‘Everybody did their part today.’ That’s what it takes. In INDYCAR nowadays, it’s so competitive. Everybody can do their part and you still might only be on the podium. There might be someone better than you even when you’re at your best. Everybody had to execute, and we did.”

All to celebrate under bright lights.

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