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.

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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