Townsend Bell Travels Fast And Far

Townsend Bell at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [Joe Jennings Photo]

Townsend Bell at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [Joe Jennings Photo]

Watkins Glen, N. Y. – Townsend Bell has been traveling the world in recent weeks to race and otherwise with his travels encompassing sports-car racing, doing television commentary and competing in two of the most renowned motor races on the planet — the Indianapolis 500 for the ninth time and the 24 Hours of LeMans as a rookie.

“We’ve been going since early May, going from Laguna Seca to Indianapolis to Detroit to LeMans twice to do television commentary in Texas and Daytona and now to Watkins Glen,” said Bell while sitting through a rainstorm at the Glen last weekend. “I am having a blast and I am lucky to be working with great people.”

According to Bell, LeMans was a terrific experience. Teaming with two others at the famed French track, Bell and his co-drivers steered their Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 to a podium finish in their class.

“It was my first time and I had never been there to see it,” he commented. “But I had studied up on the history of it, so I was prepared for the magnitude of the event, having done the Indy 500 several times and was prepared for the scale of it, one with a heavily European twist. What I didn’t consider was how fantastic the race track was – incredibly challenging to learn and a unique one to race on. I really enjoyed it, much more than I was prepared for.”

Bell used computer simulations to learn the track, plus he had to make a required trip to Paris in April to go through a simulator exercise.

For LeMans, Bell was joined by Jeff Segal and Bill Sweedler (his IMSA teammate), none of whom had ever raced on the challenging circuit. “We were three, rookie American cowboys, and we pulled off a small miracle by finishing on the podium,” Bell noted. “On paper, you would have looked at our collective LeMans experience and have said, ‘These will be the first guys to go out of the race,’ but with us ending up on the podium was something I will never forget.”

He found the long race more demanding than anticipated while driving some 10 of the 24 hours but the results were worth it. Adding to the enjoyment was that Bell’s wife and children were on hand, and they were thrilled with the experience and also with spending two weeks in Europe.

LeMans was not on Bell’s bucket list of races to do as the Indy 500 had occupied his attention since seeing the legendary race at the age of 10. Sports-car racing was another form of racing that didn’t gain hid attention until becoming exposed to various types of competition other than Indy.

“I went to my first Formula 1 race in Indianapolis in 2000, and I thought, ‘This is cool,’ so I tried to get into F1 and did race in Europe’s minor leagues for a year and got a chance to do some F1 testing,” Bell said. After a brief spell in Europe, he returned to IndyCar.

An offer to race in the 12 Hours of Sebring kindled his interest in sports-car racing, and he went to victory lane the first time out. “I had a blast as it was incredible racing. It was so competitive with neat cars to drive,” he commented. “I’ve been in sports cars now for four years and couldn’t help but get interested in LeMans. One infection led to another.”

At 40 years of age, Bell is no newcomer to racing by any means, having been bitten by the bug as a teenager in California. He started off in karts before accelerating through the Skip Barber programs and into Indy Lights where he took the 2001 championship.

His Indy Lights success earned him a two-race Champ Car test, one that led to a full-season run in 2002. For the 2003 season, he spent the year in Europe competing in Formula 3000. Returning to the United States a year later, he joined the IndyCar Series midway through 2004, spending much of the next four years there.

Bell’s Indianapolis 500 debut took place in 2006 and to date in nine races, his best result was a fourth in 2009. “The Indy 500 means everything to me,” he said.

A month ago he drove a colorfully adorned No. 24 Jeff Gordon tribute car to a 14th place finish. “It was a totally spontaneous decision on my part to pick that number and since I’ve always been a fan of Jeff’s, I got his blessing to use the number and the 24 font. Serendipitously, he became the pace car driver on race day and we got to see him then and share the tribute (photos) insides the cockpit with him,” noted Bell.

For the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen, Bell and Sweedler splashed their way through the ever-changing weather to garner fourth place in the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia. The race, which featured multiple caution periods and one red flag period, turned into an extra challenge for the drivers. Bell guided the car throughout the final two hours when it rained the hardest, moving the Ferrari from eighth to fourth when the checkered flag fell.

“For a variety of reasons, this was an incredibly difficult race,” said Bell. “But I think we made the most with what we had, and all things considered, we ended up with a good finish and a good amount of points. The track was changing throughout the entire six hours, and we were fighting all the time to stay on the dry line with traffic coming because there was so little grip off-line. One of the mirrors had been hit so I had to rely on the rear-facing camera quite a bit, which was interesting! And as if Watkins Glen wasn’t a challenge already, it was especially challenging in the rain.”

Doing color commentary on television isn’t something Bell sought out but after being pursued for a long time, he relented and now enjoys doing so. As a result between the Red Bull Global Rally Crossing and Verizon IndyCar Series broadcasts, he’s on the air every other week. Of course his race schedule takes precedence.

“This is the busiest I have ever been by virtue of doing LeMans, which included three separate trips to Paris,” Bell said, who obviously enjoys pursuing his passion for speed wherever it takes him.

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