Bell’s Andretti Indy 500 opportunity set to fulfill lifelong dream

Photo: Tony DiZinno
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Interestingly, NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell’s first full-time season as a driver in North American open-wheel racing was Michael Andretti’s last full-time season, in 2002 in the CART series.

In 2006, Bell made his Indianapolis 500 debut. That same year, Andretti came out of a three-year retirement and lost in a heartbreaker, as Sam Hornish Jr. passed both him and Marco Andretti in the final laps to snatch the win in the 90th running.

Ten years later, Bell and Andretti’s paths have intersected again as Bell will complete Andretti Autosport’s five-car lineup for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in the team’s No. 29 Honda. Commercial partners are expected to be announced in Long Beach.

It’s a marriage of convenience – Bell’s confirmation came with only three projected remaining extra spots at Andretti, KVSH and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – but it’s also a marriage of opportunity for both parties.

It gives Bell his best shot to win the Indianapolis 500, provided the Honda aero kit and engine is better than it was last year. It also gives Andretti Autosport another veteran presence alongside Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz, with Alexander Rossi now able to draw on four experienced teammates ahead of his first month of May.

“Running with Andretti, at Indianapolis, for the 100th running… for a kid who’s been in love with the sport as long as I have, it’s a dream come true,” Bell told NBC Sports.

“I know how important the Indy 500 is to Honda, and they’ve been a great support in helping to make this happen with Andretti, and wanted it to happen with Andretti. They’re an organization with a strong winning pedigree. I’m excited to go in and make this as strong as possible.”

Bell returns to Honda for the first time since 2012, when he also last worked with Rob Edwards, then the general manager at Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports and now the director of race engineering and operations at Andretti Autosport.

It’s no surprise the opportunity to work with Edwards again was one of the key selling points.

“I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for him, with his leadership, precision and organization,” Bell explained. “So Rob had reached out to me when he knew I was talking with Michael, and talked in terms of what they could deliver.”

Andretti, too, has hailed Bell’s arrival – and made an interesting comparison.

“I think it’ll bring a lot to the party. A little bit like (the late) Justin (Wilson) last year, it helped a lot having him in the fifth car, and I think it’ll be a similar situation with having Townsend, having someone of similar experience around there,” Andretti told NBC Sports.

“He’s fast around there. He’s always in the top 10. I think it’ll be good.”

Bell also looks forward to the chance to work with Craig Hampson, the veteran engineer.

“That’s pretty special. He has such a great reputation,” Bell said. “Speaking with Paul Tracy, PT is never one to hesitate to give you an opinion. When I told him I was working with Craig, his eyes lit up as he said, ‘Man, that’s gonna be a strong program.’ I’m very fortunate.”

It’s a welcome landing spot for Bell after a frantic few months for his 2016 racing plans. His planned full-season effort to defend his IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class championship with O’Gara Motorsport came unglued when O’Gara’s motorsports program dissolved for unexpected business reasons; Bell and longtime co-driver Bill Sweedler struck a deal with Change Racing to run that team’s second Lamborghini Huracán GT3.

And while it’s early April, this is still an earlier announcement of Bell’s ‘500 program than last year with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

“It’s been a weird first quarter of the year. Last December I would have told you I’d never had a more solid stable situation,” Bell said.

“Things got out of our hands a bit quickly. It took a while to get things back on track, but now we have.”