Q&A: NBCSN’s Townsend Bell on what Fernando Alonso can expect at Indy

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Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. was as far away from the Formula 1 world Fernando Alonso is used to, but it marked the avenue where he could have his first introduction to his new, brief world he’ll be in this May with Andretti Autosport, McLaren and Honda at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Our NBCSN IndyCar analyst and ten-time Indianapolis 500 starter, Townsend Bell, had a chance to speak to Alonso on the grid at Barber (top video, above) and then offer insight as well from the booth with colleagues Leigh Diffey and Paul Tracy there, on what Alonso can expect. Bell also intricately knows the Andretti Autosport team from his driving there last year, and offered this amount of insight.

We caught up with Bell for a quick Q&A for what Alonso has to look forward to in Indianapolis, starting with his first test tomorrow:

MST: How refreshing is it to see someone of Alonso’s caliber come over willingly to do Indy and give up Monaco as a result?

Townsend Bell: “Shocking and refreshing in one swoop. After talking to him in Barber last week I have no doubt this is something he’s very serious about with a clear expectation for success. He has a ‘Senna-like’ quality to his personality that I think is magnetic. Count me among the many that wish him well in the quest.”

MST: From your time in F1 paddocks, how much have you gotten to know Alonso? 

TB: “I used to see him in the Renault F1 hospitality when he was the ‘Reserve Driver.’ He looked positively miserable at having to watch and wait his turn. The sign of a future champion!”

MST: The challenge of Indy is unlike anything else. Are the 230-plus mph speeds going to be something for him to adjust to, or will his bigger challenge be adjusting to dirty air/turbulence?

TB: “Driving in clean air will come naturally. The challenges include, but not limited to: Traffic, momentum, passing, car setup, in cockpit tools, pitstops, restarts, spotters, windy days, temperature change, fan access, Casino night, and Robin Miller. Other than that he should be fine.”

MST: You know the Andretti Autosport atmosphere… how much of a benefit will having all that data sharing among the five other teammates be to him? How much of a surprise will that be that it is so open compared to F1 where it’s beat your teammate?

TB: “It will feel very open and friendly – bizarrely so – until the green flag drops. Then it will feel like he dropped into a World War II dogfight. It gets primal…really fast.”

MST: How much of a culture shock will Indy 500 be to him? Besides the on-track stuff, how do you think he’ll adjust to the constant hounding in the paddock, extracurricular activities, media responsibilities, etc.?

TB: “I might fly out just to watch him enjoy the dairy farmer’s rookie brunch and casino night. Also hope ‘Rocket’ (Kevin Blanch, from INDYCAR’s technical team) makes him run ROP after a full day private test. “We need to see 10 laps at 205 mph or less” Priceless.”

MST: You can’t ever fully prepare for the magnitude of race morning at Indy. Is there anything he can do to simulate that or is it just key for him to soak it all up and savor the moment?

TB: “He’ll love it. 300,000 passionate race fans cheering on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Nothing better.”

Here was Alonso after Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, when yet another Honda power unit issue resigned him to a failure to start:


Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”