Bell: “A wild Indy 500 without the finish we desired”

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NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell will be writing a series of blogs for this month. Here’s his fifth and final entry, filed after a 14th place finish in the No. 24 Robert Graham Special Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing.

Bell’s day began with a chance to meet Jeff Gordon, who Bell was honoring with the No. 24 car selection choice, and then featured a wild ride as he avoided several accidents and gained spots thanks to great pit work. 

Past blogs of the month are linked here (first blogsecond blogthird blog, fourth blogcockpit analysis).

Bell with Gordon family. Photo: DRR IndyCar

Hey there, it’s Townsend Bell with my final chapter from the 2015 Indy 500.

It’s been a pretty long couple of weeks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a variety of interesting aspects.

We were very pleased with our Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing team’s race setup on the No. 24 Robert Graham Special Chevrolet. I felt good about how the race car worked in traffic and with a lot of fuel in the tanks. In the first week of action, we were in the top-10 (and second once) almost every day of practice runs. Then Chevrolet brought in the qualifying body kits and our car wasn’t as good, to be honest. At least, that was the case with our car.

But we still felt good going into qualifying last Sunday. But, after Ed Carpenter’s violent crash on Sunday morning, the Verizon IndyCar Series officials decided to change the turbo boost readings and go with race trim body kits. We were pleased with that decision. Okay, we feel good about that call and our settings.

Unfortunately, we had some type of issue in qualifying and I was upset that we were 26th on grid. I knew we had a better car than 26th. It felt pretty on Friday’s Carb Day too.

After the parade and various appearances on Saturday, I focused on moving through the field in Sunday’s 99th Indy 500. Our team is sensational on pit stops and the engineering staff led by Jeff Britton was confident we could move into the top-ten by the middle of the race. I know Dennis Reinbold, our team owner, felt we had a very good race car and told the team that before the race.

Photo: DRR IndyCar

One of the highlights of the day came before the start of the race when five-time Brickyard 400 champion Jeff Gordon, serving as the Indy 500 pace car driver, brought his family by our Robert Graham Special.

I was always a big fan of Jeff’s. It was his style and how he handled himself. When Dennis (Reinbold) asked what number I wanted for the Indy 500, I ran through some numbers but said stop at 24. I want to do a tribute to Jeff at the Brickyard. He is a legend there.

So we picked the No. 24 in the same script as Jeff’s Chevy stock car. And we also took all of his winning Brickyard photos and made a montage in our cockpit for this year’s race. We didn’t know he would drive the Corvette pace car too. It was a great tie-in. And very nice to chat with him and his family before the race today.

As I climbed in the race car for the start of my ninth Indy 500, I still get a little bit of butterflies in the stomach, but I do feel good sitting the cockpit with the helmet on. I kinda go into a little zone. I knew I needed to be patient start in the back of the 33-car field. We actually started 23rd due to drivers being injured and switching cars.

Photo: DRR IndyCar

The race got weird immediately when I looked left of me and Conor Daly’s car was fire on the pace laps. I tried to wave to him to pull off and he finally did it. I felt very badly for Conor as we were neighbors when my family lived in Indy quite a while ago. In fact, I think Conor was nine year old. Gee, I feel older when I see him now driving in the Indy 500.

At the start of the race, I saw that Sage Karam and Takuma Sato got together on the outside of the turn short chute. I was sure that Sato was going to hit my right rear tire when he came off the wall. I had to do a big swerve to the inside to avoid him. Now that got my attention.

My first stint Sunday was pretty shaky as the car was pushing (understeer) badly. But we took on a half-turn of front wing on our first pit stop and the Robert Graham Special really came alive. I think I passed like nine cars in the next stint. We really didn’t make too many changes throughout the race after that. We were running in the top-10 by lap 100. That was our goal.

But it was a wild race in the middle of the field. I thought there was going to be a couple of big crashes on the back straight. I’m not sure how everyone made it through some of that stuff. At times, there were people on the inside in the grass and in the gray stuff near the wall. It was just pretty crazy. I’m not sure of the television viewers saw that on the telecast but it was very wild from my seat.

Bell races Ryan Briscoe, in the No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Honda. Photo: INDYCAR

The last stint wasn’t the best but our Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing crew was spectacular on the last pit stop. In fact, they were outstanding all day with the pit stops. Overall, the conditions were difficult at the end and we didn’t have the setup to stay in the top-ten. Graham (Rahal) took fifth and I raced with him a lot today. I passed Marco (Andretti) several times and he place sixth. We just were a little light in downforce later in the race.

I’m happy to take it to the checkered flag. Just wish we would have finished further up on the scoring pylon. Taking 14th is a tough with all of the hard work our team put in this month at Indy.

But as a single-car team, I think we proved that our team could be a contender in the Indy 500. I’m anxious to get back to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” next year.

I want to congratulate Juan Pablo Montoya and his Penske team for winning the 99th Indy 500 in a sensational duel with fellow Chevrolet racers Will Power, Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon. Juan is a great champion.

Now, it’s off to Detroit this coming weekend for me. I’m racing in the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship this Saturday and then flying directly to Le Mans, France Saturday night to test for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In less than a month, I’ll will have competed in the two biggest auto racing events in the world, the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That is a thrill.

Thanks so much for following us at the Indy 500. See you again soon.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).