Bell: “Carb Day is many things to many people; mine was many jobs”

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NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell will be writing a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month. Here’s his fourth entry, filed after a busy, busy Carb Day.

The driver of the No. 24 Robert Graham Special Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing was on track for practice  in the TAG Heuer Pit Stop Challenge with his crew, then back on TV for live hits for NBCSN’s NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special. 

Past blogs of the month are linked here (first blogsecond blog, third blog, cockpit analysis).

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Townsend looks ahead to the Indy 500. Photo: INDYCAR

Hi again, it’s Townsend Bell, and we are a day away from the 99th running of the Indy 500, the biggest race in the world.

After qualifying last Sunday, it’s been like a whirlwind of events and activities. But first, last Monday, one of our fellow racers and good friend, James Hinchcliffe, was in a horrific crash in practice.

The right front suspension broke on the No. 5 car and Hinch had nowhere to go except into the wall at a violent rate. The G load was 125 and the suspension went through the car and caused Hinch some incredible injuries.

It wasn’t until later in the day that we found that James nearly died on the track. The Holmatro Safety Team literally saved Hinch’s life. We must salute those guys for their spectacular efforts throughout the Verizon IndyCar Series. What a great crew!

I was able to fly to New York City Monday night for an Indy 500 Media Day with my primary partner this year, Robert Graham. We toured the Robert Graham showroom and saw some of their new line of men’s clothing. We did a few interviews including with Forbes Magazine and flew back to Indy on Tuesday night.

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Big day for drivers with kids. Photo: INDYCAR

Even though we don’t have cars on the track from Tuesday through Thursday of race week, we still participate in a variety of events to promote the 500.

On Wednesday, I went to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis which is one of the top five children’s museums in the world. Just a sensational place for kids. The museum has a special Hot Wheels exhibit this summer and I was able to race Hot Wheels cars against some kids, sign some autographs and take photos with many of the children.

Later in the day, all 33 drivers went to the Forever Fit Park for a fitness and game day with 9,000 Indianapolis Public Schools children. What a crowd.

Thursday at Indy is usually a day for the drivers to meet with a host of media members. Each driver has their own table and the media walk up and ask questions individually. Similar to media day at the Super Bowl, it’s funny what type of questions you have thrown at you that day.

In addition, I had some phone-in radio interviews and a live television spot with Fox Business network. It’s always important to get media exposure for your partners like Robert Graham, Royal Purple, Chevrolet, Loftus Robinson, American Wheels and others.

Later Thursday night, we attended the “Yellow Party,” a great charity cancer event developed by the defending Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and his wife, Beccy. Just a tremendous cause.

Of course, Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is “Carb Day.” That title goes back to when the engine ran carburetors and the crews would dial in the engines for the race. Now, the Carb Day event is one-hour final practice for the 33 drivers and a ton of other activities including the TAG Heuer Pit Stop Challenge as well as several top bands in concert including OAR, 38 Special and Jane’s Addiction.

There was a huge crowd (over 75,000) at the Speedway Friday and it is like a rite of Spring for the locals. Partying is part of the tradition at Carb Day.

For me, it was a busy day, but it was exciting too. Our Robert Graham Special Chevy race car felt pretty good in race trim Friday. We’ll make a couple of adjustments to improve the car for Sunday’s race. We have been very quick on our pit stops all month and I feel confident about our chances in the race.

In the pit stop challenge, I thought we had an excellent chance to advance to the final. We set the quickest time of the entire Pit Stop Challenge in the first round at 12.144 seconds to defeat James Jakes’ team. But we didn’t get the solid stop we wanted against Will Power’s team in the second round. And we lost with a 13.336 to Will’s 12.755. We’ll improve on that aspect too and have strong stops in the race.

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Through Gasoline Alley. Photo: INDYCAR

Following the Pit Stop Challenge, I went immediately to the IMS winner’s circle where the NBC Sports Network crew was setting up the booth for the Friday afternoon telecast. I was there in my driving suit and my Robert Graham hat and ready for my other job as race analyst.

I really enjoy talking about the races with my colleagues Paul Tracy and Leigh Diffey. But this weekend, Leigh is calling the Formula One race in Monaco for NBC Sports. Marty Snider, Kelli Stavast and Kevin Lee were on hand here in Indy for NBC Sports too.

On Saturday, we have a fan autograph session, a public driver’s meeting and the annual 500 Festival parade in downtown Indianapolis. That is always fun for my family – wife Heather and my sons, Jaxon and Jensen.

Overall, we have had a good month here at Indy and, on Sunday, we have to be patient and pick our spots in traffic to have a good performance. I hope you enjoy the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”



The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500