Indy 500 Insights: How Townsend Bell puts a deal together

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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 one of this daily series through this week, we look at how he put his 2014 deal together.

Preparations for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 begin pretty much the day after the current year’s Indianapolis 500 takes the checkered flag.

And for Townsend Bell, erasing what was a frustrating 2013 attempt in the race is the goal.

In a second Panther Racing entry, Bell started 22nd and finished 27th – he did have one moment where he made an excellent save exiting Turn 2, after a lurid slide. But otherwise, Bell’s 2013 ‘500 experience was the story of new partnerships.

It was the first time he’d raced the ‘500 in a Chevrolet, after running with Honda in all six of his prior attempts. It came in the recognizable yellow-and-blue Sunoco colors, matching the livery for DreamWorks Animation’s Turbo, which premiered in theaters later that year.

And it was the first time we got introduced to his yellow with blue polka dot Robert Graham hat.

source: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

It’s a wonder the hat didn’t gain its own Twitter account, but it was one of the most memorable parts of Bell’s 2013 experience. It even made it to the Indianapolis 500 banquet, where Bell had a suit and rocked the hat while giving the speech.

This year, with support from Robert Graham NYC, now the primary partner on the No. 6 KV Racing Technology entry, and additionally from Royal Purple and Beneteau USA, Bell is back for his second stint with the team where he found his greatest Indianapolis 500 success.

As a one-off entry, it’s difficult to succeed, but having the partners behind makes the effort possible.

“I’ve been fortunate to have had some great supporters through the years,” Bell told MotorSportsTalk. “We’re all linked… me, my sponsors, and we’re all linked by a common thread of being driven by the dream to win the biggest race in the world. Great people jump on board to pursue that. Everyone’s been handpicked for the job.”

The team’s not afraid to have fun – witness Bell’s Robert Graham checkered driver cap now adorned by every member of his No. 6 KVRT crew.

The livery itself has gotten people talking, with a zipper down the middle to reveal a burst of speed. The inside of the car, wrapped in the color explosion, is also something to behold.

“In terms of getting partners together, I’m lucky to have a group that believe in me and want to have some fun at the same time,” Bell says. “We’ve had a great time entertaining, hats and things like that. It’s been fun. But we’re here for one main reason.”

That reason is, from a joke on Twitter, “dealing with lactose intolerance” – in reference to hoping to drink the milk Sunday afternoon.

IndyCar has big plans on, off track for first test at Thermal Club: ‘It’s an amazing facility’

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Quantity isn’t a problem for NTT IndyCar Series drivers seeking source material for their first test on track at The Thermal Club. There’s plentiful video of the drivers making laps on the private track that bills itself as a world-class facility.

It’s quality that’s an issue with trying to do homework for their first (and possibly last) test on the 17-turn, 2.9-mile road course.

Thermal is billed as a motorsports country club of sorts, giving the rich and famous an opportunity to drive and store vintage cars at racing playground that has more than 200 members and $5 million, 30,000-square-foot homes sprouting constantly.

IndyCar’s arrival Thursday and Friday for its first full-field open test in the preseason since 2020 will mark a new era of professional racing at Thermal, which primarily has catered to amateurs (often in a fantasy camp-type setting).

Colton Herta tried doing some YouTube research on Thermal recently but gave up after watching the third lap of “some dude in a Ferrari” navigating the course that is nestled in the Coachella Valley just south of Joshua Tree National Park and north of the Salton Sea.

“It’s difficult to watch some of the onboards because it’s not really professional drivers, and they have like the cones set out on the track, where to turn in and where to get on the brakes, so it’s kind of irrelevant,” Herta said. “Yeah, I watched a little bit before I got too bored and turned away. But the track walk will be important. That’s going to be the biggest thing.”

The track walk happened Wednesday afternoon after two days of wall-to-wall media obligations at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Conor Daly and Scott McLaughlin were among many drivers who were antsy to head southeast to the ritzy track (where many drivers have been staying in high-end casitas on the 470-acre property this week). Herta said his main concern was having enough runoff area as drivers knock off the offseason rust because “you do tend to drop a wheel here and there, have a spin if you’re getting back in the car for the first time in a few months.”

“I sort of don’t really know where the track goes,” McLaughlin said. “I feel like I’m going to get lost out there.”

With IndyCar increasingly limiting test time, Daly said sessions such as Thermal “are really, really important. We can train all we want, but there’s nothing like getting in these cars to drive to really prepare yourself for the first race. It’s going to be important to try to do as many laps as possible.”

Of course, what makes Thermal even more rare is that it’s not on the IndyCar schedule nor has it been a testing venue in the past. Sebring International Raceway also doesn’t play host to a race, but it’s become a tried and true place for teams seeking to hone their setups.

An IndyCar Series hauler is unloaded Monday at The Thermal Club track ahead of preseason testing Thursday and Friday (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

Thermal will be the first time IndyCar is learning an entirely new track since the streets of Nashville nearly two years ago, but in this case, it’s unknown how applicable it’ll be in the future. Some drivers speculated that it could translate to Portland with its length (lap times are projected at more than a minute and 40 seconds), but it’s an unknown how slippery the surface will be for tire wear (probably 20-lap stints, which are relatively short).

“It’s hard when it comes to just two full days of testing because obviously some people will adapt to it quicker than others,” Daly said. “You might feel like a hero, then the next day you might feel like a zero because some people have caught up.

“But these days are important because hopefully it is an indication for us on all the permanent road circuits that we go: Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Indy GP. Hopefully it’s helpful for us in all those scenarios. We’ll see what happens, I guess. It doesn’t matter to us how fast we go, as long as we get something out of it, right? How do we judge some changes? If that’s great for a certain section of the track, right, that could represent a section of another road track we go to. There’s a lot that we can learn, for sure. Realistically we kind of have to keep ourselves  in check with our expectations.”

Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden said drivers “probably shouldn’t come out of here either too excited or too demoralized depending on how it goes because it is not incredibly relevant when it comes to at-track performance. We’re never going to run here again. Well, I shouldn’t say that. We’re not going to run here this year for a points-scoring race. From that standpoint, it’s not relevant.

“What it is relevant for and what I’m excited about is just being on track. We definitely need it on the 2 car. We have a lot of new people. We’re going to maximize this time by just treating it like a race weekend in that we’re doing all the things we would do on a normal weekend to be fast and work well and efficient together. When we come out of the weekend we’ll have something to look at, what did we do well or not well. We have a good, relevant conversation piece to take into (the season opener at) St. Pete. From that standpoint it’s excellent. If we finish 15th on the charts, yeah, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that.”

Said Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Graham Rahal: “I’m not sure how much (the Thermal track) relates. We’re running a Barber tire, similar to the Laguna Seca tire. Who knows what the track grip is like in the desert here. If you look at a lot of the corners, a lot of hairpins, a lot of slow speed corners, but then you’ve got like the end of the back straight is quite a fast left-hander. But they’re varying shapes of corners, decreasing radius, on increasing radius. We don’t have any tracks that do that traditionally.

“We’ve got to pick and choose exactly what we get out of it, but I’m all on board for the Thermal thing, so I don’t want to sound like I’m not. I think it was great to have change. We’ve kind of gone to the same places time and time and time and time again. It’s good to see something new.”

IndyCar also will be measuring the results of the test beyond timing and scoring.

The Indianapolis Star reported there have been informal talks about having a pro-am event in the future. With the test closed to the general public but open to its high-dollar clientele, there could be potentially millions of liquid capital at stake for future team investment if the Thermal Club’s members take a shine to IndyCar.

Thermal was throwing a posh welcoming event Wednesday night that was expected to have drivers, series executives and residents mingling with dancing and drinks.

Simon Pagenaud, who has explored the concept of starting a motorsports country club in his native France, is intrigued by the long-term marriage of IndyCar and Thermal.

“This kind of racetrack — what they do with their members, the passion of cars —  is really something,” Pagenaud said.

Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson likes the appeal of testing in Southern California instead of Central Florida.

“This time of the year, it’s really hard to find places for us to go testing,” Ericsson said. “I’ve only been here for four years, starting my fifth year, and I feel like I’ve done I don’t know how many days of testing at Sebring.

“For me, this is a lot better to come here. I like the idea a lot of having the preseason testing back on the calendar to get all the teams and drivers together.”

Said Alexander Rossi, who will be making his debut in an Arrow McLaren Chevrolet this week: “It’s always a difficult situation in January, February, in the United States to find a track that has the appropriate climate. Not only do we have a beautiful place to come with seemingly good weather, but you’re introducing IndyCar to obviously a demographic that has an interest in racing, with some decent capital behind them. They may not know of IndyCar. They may have known of IndyCar but never seen it in person.

“We’re able to bring and showcase what we believe is the best series in the world in front of people who are passionate about motorsports, participate in motorsports themselves, and maybe haven’t seen it before.”

McLaren teammate Felix Rosenqvist already has been staying at the villas inside the track all week.

“It’s an amazing facility,” he said. “I’ve never been here before. I was really blown away by how neat and tidy everything looks.

“I don’t know if there’s ambitions to race here in the future. That could be an option. I’m just pumped to be in California in January. There’s worse places to be.”