Racecar Driver Townsend Bell Owes His Passion to the Indy 500
For one week a year, 40-year-old racecar driver Townsend Bell gets to pursue his childhood dream. That’s when he returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana, climbs into the Robert Graham Special Indy car and works to qualify for and then race the Indianapolis 500. Bell saw his first Indy 500 at age 10, and the sights and sounds and smells of that race sparked his desire to race cars. He started with go-kart racing near his home in San Luis Obispo, California, and worked his way into open-wheel racing in Europe before returning to the States to race in the IndyCar series. Currently he has a full-time seat in the WeatherTech United SportsCar series, where he started racing Porsches, then Ferraris and now Lamborghinis on road courses from Daytona, Florida, to Le Mans, France, competing in endurance events where he swaps turns with two other drivers that can last as long as 24 hours.
Driving sports cars—heavily modified vehicles that bear some resemblance to the versions one can drive on the street—keeps Bell’s racing synapses honed and sharp, but it’s Indy that marks his favorite week on the racing calendar. “Le Mans may be the biggest sports car race in the world in terms of spectators, but you’d never know it,” Bell says. “The crowd is spread out over 10 miles. Indy is an amphitheater of speed with 300,000 spectators and the fastest cars and bravest drivers. It’s so much more electric.”
It’s not an easy transition, though. Bell likens it to going from ground combat to air combat. “In sports car racing, 130 mph is about as fast as I take a turn, depending on the track,” he says. “At Indy, I’m doing 210-220 mph at a minimum through each corner. It takes magnitudes more finesse to do it well once, but I have to keep doing it well 800 times over the course of a 500-mile race.”
Racing at 200-plus mph gets to the heart of what makes Indy unique among the world’s great races. The 650-hp cars are purpose-built to do one thing: go as fast as possible for as long as possible. Unlike road circuits, braking in the turns is not a critical skill at Indy; there’s only a 20 mph difference in speed between the straightaways, where the car is going full speed, and the corners, where all Bell has to do to slow down is lift his foot off the gas.
After nine years of racing at Indy—his best finish was 4th place in 2009—Bell has learned to soak up the specialness of the competition, as well as appreciate the unique situation afforded him by his sponsor, upscale clothier Robert Graham, and the Dreyer & Reinbold racing team behind the Chevy- powered car. “I’m very fortunate to work with a strong team of known people and assets,” he says. Indeed, Indy is the only open-wheeled race the team enters all year, but it’s the most visible, and to make sure they stand out, Robert Graham’s designer is involved in every detail of Bell’s racing suit, the crew’s uniforms and the car’s graphics. The unveiling of the car’s paint job attracts almost as much ink as the car’s top speed reached during qualifying.
“Robert Graham designs area favorite among race fans,” Bell says. “They love how we go bigger, creatively, every year.”
This year’s car and uniform will remain under wraps until late March, but Bell expects something special for what he hopes will be his 10th year racing the Indy 500. And while a win is always the goal, Bell has already enjoyed the cumulative dividends of his weeks in Indiana. One year, he and his teammates Bill Sweedler and Jeff Segal won the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and placed third in the most famous endurance race of them all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, on their first attempt.
“Road racing rewards being aggressive, but Indy rewards finesse,” says Bell. “And the finesse that I pick up at Indy helps me be a more successful sports car driver, pure and simple.”