Indy 500 Insights: Townsend Bell’s broadcast and driving balancing act

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Every year, Townsend Bell puts together a one-off Indianapolis 500 program. The 2014 edition will be Bell’s eighth ‘500 appearance, after making his debut in 2006 and running every year consecutively since 2008. This year, he returns to KV Racing Technology, the team where he posted his career-best ‘500 finish of fourth in 2009, and where he seeks to improve upon it this year. The NBC Sports Group Verizon IndyCar Series analyst is able to provide both a driver’s an analyst’s perspective in the field. For part two of this daily series through this week (see Part 1 here), we look at how Townsend shifts from being in the broadcast booth to getting back behind the wheel.

Although Townsend Bell’s last season racing more than just two or three Verizon IndyCar Series events was in 2008, he’s remained sharp behind the wheel with his annual Indianapolis 500 appearance and a burgeoning sports car career every year since.

But when he isn’t driving, he’s quickly established himself as one of the leading analysts in motorsports, as analyst for NBC Sports Group’s IndyCar Series coverage.

Bell has spent time on pit road and then shifted to the broadcast booth full-time ahead of the 2013 season. As an analyst, Bell has had to change his mindset to monitor the rest of the field.

When asked how working as an analyst has made him a better driver, Bell took time to answer on today’s NBC Sports Group conference call previewing the weekend – more than 50 hours of coverage will be spread across the networks and on NBC Sports Live Extra over the coming days.

“It’s a great question, and I never would have imagined how much analyzing the sport from the view of a TV analyst would improve my own analysis when I’m behind the wheel,” Bell told reporters. “Frankly as a racing driver, and I think Jeff (Burton, NASCAR on NBC analyst) would be similar, you don’t care what (other drivers) are doing. It’s all about you and your team and you don’t really have the time, because so you’re so focused on your own program.

“But working in TV while I’m still racing – it’s forced me to do a good job as an analyst, to do well objectively. I’ve been surprised with so much I’ve learned.”

Bell had some past knowledge working with F1 on NBC Sports analysts David Hobbs and Steve Matchett when he raced a single season of Formula 3000 in 2003, and has since had the opportunity to work with both alongside lead F1 and IndyCar announcer Leigh Diffey on most IndyCar series broadcasts.

“I don’t see any downside. I’m still at the race track,” Bell said. “Working with NBC, and there’s a competitive attitude at NBC, and insistence from Sam (Flood, executive producer), on quality and telling the best stories. We’re always analyzing how we can do a better job. Working with Leigh and David … for me, it’s a pleasure to feed off their intensity and energy.”

In an interview with MotorSportsTalk earlier this week, Bell explained as a driver, he’s coming into this weekend’s Indianapolis 500 in the No. 6 Robert Graham-Royal Purple-Beneteau Chevrolet for KV Racing Technology not much different than the other 32 drivers.

The Indianapolis 500 is the first oval event of the season, so every driver is starting from square one for 2014.

“One thing that’s nice for me is that Indy is completely unique from any other race on the IndyCar schedule,” Bell told me on Monday. “So every other racer, full-time or not, has the same kind of challenge that I face. There’s only a one-track mind, and nothing else really carries over. It’s the first oval of the season, and I’m working off the rust in parallel with the rest of the field.

“It’s been awesome – a really good balance,” he added.

And on Friday this week, Bell will wear both hats – likely while wearing his new driver cap in the process. He’ll complete the final hour of practice for the Indianapolis 500, then head up to the NBCSN broadcast booth for coverage of the rest of Carb Day.

NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage airs beginning at 11 a.m. ET on Friday, with the final hour of practice for the Indianapolis 500. The Indy Lights Freedom 100 is on at noon ET, with the rest of Carb Day and the Pit Stop Competition on at 1.

Bob Varsha and Wally Dallenbach will be in the booth, joined by Bell once he’s done with practice. Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider and Robin Miller will be on pit road; Lee, Anders Krohn and Jake Query will call the Indy Lights race.

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”