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

Photo: Tony DiZinno

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.”

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”