Indy 500 memories loom large in one driver’s race prep

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Townsend Bell is the IndyCar color commentator on NBC Sports Network and a professional driver. He’ll drive the No. 60 Sunoco Turbo Chevrolet during the 97th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

My road to the Indianapolis 500 essentially started in 1986. I was 10 years old and living far away in the San Francisco area. Being 10 meant it was “my year;” my time had come in the Bell household. You see, there was this deal with my dad and my two brothers.

My father had promised us that when we turned 10, we got to select a destination for an all-expenses paid trip. Nothing lavish, but just some quality travel time between dad and his newly turned 10-year-old.

My older brother chose New York City. My younger brother would choose Alaska. My pick: the Indianapolis 500.

Mother Nature, as she can be, actually had me make the trip twice due to a rain-out on race day and in those days, the race was pushed to the following weekend. So my dad kept his word and we flew back out to Indy and I was treated to a great race, with Bobby Rahal taking the win.

I was awestruck. I not only knew that I made the right choice for my “trip,” but I knew that I had to get back there. And not for a seat in the grandstands, no, from that point on I was determined to return to Indy in the seat of a cockpit.

It took 20 years, but in 2006 I finally made my Indy 500 debut. It was a dream come true. In each of my six starts at the famed Brickyard, I’ve had to pinch myself.

Every May, when I make my trek from California to Indianapolis, I think about those trips I took with my father back in 1986. This May was no different, and as soon as I arrived I was consumed by it all once again. The sports cars and broadcast booth can wait. This is Indy.

Sunday, I’ll be making my seventh attempt at a run for victory and the chance to plant my face firmly on the Borg-Warner Trophy. I’ve still got the passion of a 10-year-old boy, and now it’s matched with the experience/determination of a veteran.

What’s more, I’m driving an iconic livery. Mark Donohue made the Sunoco colors synonymous with the winner’s circle at Indy in 1972. Now I’m looking to do the same, at least before DreamWorks Animation does.

“Turbo,” the new 3D animated comedy debuts in theaters on July 17 and my No. 60 Sunoco Chevy is visibly featured in the  DreamWorks film. I’d just like to make the car an Indy 500 winner before its run on the big screen.

Reuniting with Panther Racing this month has been fantastic. The team has given me a great car and I’ve been impressed with their operation. Their focus and preparation has not only served me well, but has been a benefit to my sponsors, including Sunoco, Turbo, Bowers & Wilkins, EcoDrink, Robert Graham, Motegi Racing, Heelys, and Sargent & Lundy.

Could 2013 be “my year,” like it was in 1986? Time will tell, but one thing is for certain, the 10 year-old in me is about to get another hell of a ride around this place.

You can follow Townsend Bell on Twitter @TownsendBell99.

Fernando Alonso likes NASCAR country, but he’s not leaving F1 any time soon

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Jimmie Johnson strolled into the Charlotte Convention Center and did a double-take when he saw Fernando Alonso hanging out in a hallway.

“What’s he doing here?” NASCAR’s seven-time champion wondered.

Alonso made the trip to North Carolina to make an appearance at NASCAR’s annual preseason media tour. No, a ride in NASCAR is not imminent, but the two-time Formula One champion is about to embark on his first major sports car race .

Alonso will race this weekend in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for United Autosports, the sports car team owned by his McLaren F1 boss, Zak Brown. It was Brown who paved the way for Alonso to compete in last year’s Indianapolis 500, and he is helping the Spaniard knock prestigious races off his wish list.

Alonso spent about 10 minutes chatting with Johnson, and the duo was eventually joined by sports car aces Scott Pruett and Joey Hand, who were brought to the NASCAR event by IMSA to help promote the Rolex, and then Cup champion Kevin Harvick.

The meet-and-greet with Alonso was a thrill for Johnson. Alonso was equally impressed.

“The first time I heard his name it was probably 2003 on the NASCAR video game,” Alonso said Tuesday. “I used to choose him, not knowing him, just because of the car. I remember playing with another friend of mine, he likes a chocolate company I will not name now, and he was choosing that car and I was choosing Jimmie’s car.

“But that was the first time I heard of him, and obviously the success that he has in the years in motor racing, he became a legend of our sport, and massive respect.”

Johnson said he’s always been a fan of Alonso’s and spent some time telling Alonso how well he ran in the Indianapolis 500 last May. Alonso led 27 laps and seemed to be in contention for the win until his engine expired 21 laps from the finish.

“He handled himself so well, really did a great job, and I think brought a lot to the table,” Johnson said. “He brought worldwide attention to motorsports and it was really good for us here stateside.”

While in NASCAR country, Alonso was asked about potentially trying a stock car someday. It’s not something that could happen soon, he said, but it is something he’d like to at least attempt.

“Right now, it looks quite far. The driving technique and the experience all those guys have, it’s difficult for me to achieve that level,” Alonso said. “I will never know until I try, so I would like one day to test a car and after that, driving the car, I will know how enjoyable it will be in racing.

“Outside (watching), the races are great because they are all in a group, it is not predictable at all and until the last lap, you don’t know what is going to happen. We love watching from the outside, but I don’t know from the inside.”

Alonso has so far only had three days of testing at Daytona in the sports car to adjust to a closed cockpit, as well as driving at night and in traffic. Trying different series has been a thrill for him, and he’s still eyeing a way to get Le Mans on his schedule.

“It’s one thing that I would like to do, I would like to compete in the best races in the world, and Le Mans and is one of the top races,” he said. “If that day will be this year or not is still to be discussed, but maybe yes.”

More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/