41-year old Townsend Bell has had a varied career in motorsports. In his mid-20s, Bell was considered an up and coming open-wheel talent, winning the Dayton Indy Lights championship in 2001. That resulted in a multi-race deal with Patrick Racing in CART.
Unfortunately, it was a turbulent year for Bell, who showed speed, but tore up a lot of equipment. Bell crashed the Visteon-sponsored No. 20 out of the first four races of the season. An ignominious DQ in Toronto and a crash in Cleveland resulted in his release after just nine races in favor of Oriol Servia.
The release did not end his open-wheel career, though. Bell traveled to Europe and raced in International Formula 3000 in 2003 while serving as a test driver for Jaguar (now Red Bull) in Formula One. There was a chance that Bell could eventually race in the World Championship, but sadly, that never came to pass.
Eventually, he returned to the United States and raced IndyCar for Panther Racing in 2004, replacing the underperforming Mark Taylor. Bell raced the final 10 events of the year, earning one top-five finish.
Since then, he’s focused on TV work and sports car racing. In 2015, he won the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GT Daytona title for Scuderia Corsa with Bill Sweedler. Unfortunately, the realities of motorsports have resulted in both drivers moving around quite a bit recently.
For 2017, Bell (and Sweedler) are racing the endurance events for Alex Job Racing in an Audi R8 LMS GT3. Back in Daytona, we had the opportunity to sit down with Bell to discuss his sports car racing, television and more.
Phil Allaway, Frontstretch.com: Last year, you were driving a [Lamborghini Huracan GT3] and before that, a couple of Ferraris in the GT Daytona class. What kind of differences do those cars have in terms of what they like?
Townsend Bell, No. 23 Alex Job Racing Audi: The R8 is similar in layout to the Ferrari. Its mid-engined, very sophisticated as far as electronics are concerned. The car is really focused on driver comfort, which is nice in terms of having a hand-clutch. It makes left foot braking, which is my style, much more comfortable, especially over a 24-hour race.
The most important thing is: How fast can we go? Every race car is different in terms of what they like and what you learn along the way. Sometimes, it’s the little things that don’t seem obvious at first, but make a big difference.
Allaway: How did the deal come together for you to drive for AJR?
Bell: My first-ever sports car race was with Alex Job Racing back in 2012. It was the 12 Hours of Sebring and we won [with Sweedler and Dion von Moltke].
We raced two seasons with Lotus, then Ferrari. We won in a Porsche in the first race, then switched to Lotus. We switched to Ferrari, then circumstances changed a bit, not so much with AJR, but we went down the path with another team. Now, it feels like coming home. We always wanted to stay with Alex and it’s so nice to be back.
Allaway: The deal for this year is just for the endurance races?
Bell: We’ll see. There’s a real appetite to run more races and we’re trying to make that happen.
Allaway: Things have been really up and down the past couple of years. You’ve had some trouble with team selection. It’s been a tough go.
Bell: In this business, you never really know what’s going to happen. Yeah, we’ve had some ups and downs, but everybody’s linked by the same passion. That passion is racing cars and winning. We’ve had some wonderful teams in that respect. Everybody’s been strong; every team we’ve been with has given us a chance to win.
Sometimes, there’s a lot of elements in life outside of our control that intervene, and so we’ve had some rough patches. But, we’ve always bounced back and it’s nice to land on our feet at AJR.
Allaway: For the entire time that you’ve competed in sports car racing, you’ve been racing with Bill Sweedler as your teammate. Describe what your racing relationship is like with him.
Bell: Our racing relationship and personal relationship is great. He’s become one of my best friends. We have a blast. We like to think that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, but sometimes, that’s a problem because we’re always having a good time and having a laugh. Even when things are bad, we know how to find the humor in it knowing that it doesn’t take much to turn things around. We’ve definitely been at both ends of the spectrum. But more than anything, we’ve been successful together, winning Le Mans, winning the championship, Daytona, Sebring. Through it all, we’ve had a really good time and I’m so lucky to have Bill as a teammate. He’s an incredibly fast driver, aggressive, determined and it’s been a lot of fun.
Allaway: Speaking of Le Mans, you’re the defending GTE-Am class winner with Sweedler and Jeff Segal. It has already been announced that you’re going to be in one of the two entries for Scuderia Corsa there this year. Have you been able to try out the Ferrari 488 GTE yet?
Bell: I haven’t, but I’m really looking forward to it. The 488 really hit the track from the very first event (Daytona last year) and was wicked. It was really, really good. It’s pretty uncommon to be that good right away and they really have a fine piece of equipment. All the people at Michelotto and Ferrari worked really hard to make that happen. They should be proud of what they achieved because it’s really impressive.
Allaway: Scuderia Corsa has a two-car Le Mans effort this year. That should help things having another team to bounce things off of.
Bell: It will be a different dynamic, that’s for sure. We showed up in 2015 with no experience, three American drivers who had never competed in that race.
It was a great sense of pride to be on the podium that first year. Then, to win in the fashion that we did last year, that will go down as one of the great moments for my career. The accomplishment was great, but the way we did it and the odds we had to overcome in order to pull that off made the achievement very satisfying. We’d love to stick with the team and have an all-American lineup again.
Allaway: In addition to your sports car racing, you’ve been doing one-offs at the Indianapolis 500 for the past few years. Do you have a deal put together yet for Indianapolis?
Bell: No, I don’t, but that’s typical. Those types of deals really don’t come into focus until March or April.
Allaway: You’re still actively looking for a ride, though?
Bell: Always looking, always listening.
Allaway: Got to see what’s cooking?
Bell: Not just for my driving career, but also for my TV career. I need to stay on top of what’s [happening] on the INDYCAR side and it’s fun.
INDYCAR’s really done a nice job the last couple of years to find a really nice level of stability and consistency in the schedule and drivers. That gives you a platform to grow.
Allaway: Speaking of INDYCAR, you’re working as an analyst for NBCSN. There’s been a revolving door of analysts based on schedules. How many of NBCSN’s races will you be in the booth for this year?
Bell: I think you’ll see me for all of them.
Allaway: What kind of preparation goes into your role as an analyst?
Bell: Well, I drink a lot of coffee and try to get to get psyched up. (laughs).
We have a great statistician, Mr. Russ Thompson, on the team at NBCSN. We’ve got a couple of guys on stats along with the notes that come out from INDYCAR and the teams in advance of the events. I review the previous year’s races as well.
The best preparation comes from talking to the drivers and team members. I’m trying to understand the context, the texture that’s behind those statistics and information. I think that the better job I can do talking and listening and studying, the better I can project to the fan at home what is happening and what has happened. Also, it’s always fun to see what will happen.
Allaway: You have a couple of years under your belt in the booth. What is something that you learned early on that you never realized when it comes to calling races?
Bell: There’s no broadcasting school that I’m aware of. You can go to school and study communications, but this is one of a few careers that I can think of where you literally just get dropped into the firestorm. At least, that’s how it was for me.
For car racing, you can go to racing school and then start at an amateur level. On my first broadcast, I was live in front of what had to be a million listeners on Sky Sports in the U.K. doing INDYCAR, then doing Formula One for SPEED Channel and now INDYCAR on NBCSN these last five years.
Getting comfortable talking live to an audience, with hopefully some level of insight, intelligence or observation while your producer is speaking to you in your ear is a very difficult thing to get comfortable with. I’m still learning that, but it’s slowly starting to get more normal.
The biggest thing I had to learn was how to deliver and stay composed while processing information about a commercial break coming up, or a pit reporter who’s about to deliver some information. That’s taken a little bit to get used to.
Allaway: Is it just one ear that you have your producer in?
Bell: Yes. The other is the program feed. I’m listening to either what my fellow announcers Leigh Diffey and Paul Tracy or Kevin Lee are saying in addition to what the producer is adding in. At the same time, I’m trying to watch the program feed that the viewers are seeing at home, the monitors and the scoring information to see what might be coming up.
Allaway: It sounds quite complicated at times.
Bell: It is, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve really come to enjoy it. It wasn’t something that I ever sought out or wanted to do. I was lucky to get some opportunities and now, it’s something that I really enjoy. I’ve been working hard to improve every year.
Allaway: This year, the only new venue for INDYCAR is Gateway Motorsports Park. Have you raced there?
Bell: Twice in Indy Lights. I won the first race and had a huge lead in the second race before I had an electrical failure.
The first Indy Lights race I had there is one that I’ll never forget.It was my rookie year and I was really coming on. Scott Dixon had led the championship and I was leading while he was running second. He was catching me and he crashed. That really equaled the points championship so that it gave me a chance going into the last race to beat him overall. I wasn’t successful; he beat me by just a few points. Gateway was a real turning point for that championship season for us in Indy Lights. A tough track, very tough track.
Allaway: How do you think Gateway is going to race with the Verizon IndyCar Series this year?
Bell: Gateway was always a lot like Phoenix in that it had a tight Turn 1 and 2 and a more open, less banked Turns 3 and 4. That hasn’t really changed. There used to be a vicious bump in the middle of Turns 3 and 4; I’m not sure if that’s still there. I think it’ll race pretty well. All the INDYCAR oval races are generally good races and I know that fans, especially long-time INDYCAR fans, they love to see a new oval on the schedule.