IndyCar - Townsend Bell Preview
INDIANAPOLIS, May 25, 2011: On four previous occasions, Townsend Bell has competed in the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. But his fifth start, which will come this Sunday in the 100th Anniversary of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” will arguably be his best chance, yet, at hearing the Gordon Pipers as he pulls into victory lane, drinking the traditional milk given to the winner, and putting his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy alongside the legends of the motorsports world.
Bell has been quick and consistent all month in his No. 99 Herbalife24 Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Sam Schmidt Motorsports (SSM), and he qualified fourth last Saturday, giving him his best-ever start in the Memorial Day weekend classic. His SSM teammate, Alex Tagliani, won the pole for the “500,” and suddenly Bell and Tagliani have gone from darkhorse status to serious contenders for the 95th running of the Indianapolis 500. (The first “500” was conducted in 1911, but races were not held in 1917-18 and 1942-1945 due to World War I and World War II, respectively).
Perhaps most impressive about Bell’s month is that Indianapolis will likely be the only IZOD IndyCar Series event he will compete in during the 2011 season.
Not that he wants it that way. Bell, like any driver, would love to compete during the entire season. But rather than wait around for the phone to ring, Bell works 12 months a year to ensure that he gets to compete at Indianapolis. His racing life truly does revolve around the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and, because of that, he’s become a bit of an Indianapolis specialist.
Other than in 2008, when he drove in six races other than the Indianapolis 500, his appearances in the 2006, 2009 and 2010 “500s” were his only IndyCar Series events of the season. Twice he has finished in the top-10 – a 10th-place effort in 2006 and an impressive fourth-place result in 2009. He’s also been a solid qualifier as he has started 15th or better in four of his five races (2006, 2008, 2010, and 2011).
Competing as a one-off isn’t easy, and only twice in the last 50 years has a driver whose only IndyCar start of the season came in the Indianapolis 500 gone on to victory. Jim Clark (1965) and Graham Hill (1966) scored victories at Indianapolis while taking time from their full-time Formula 1 World Championship driving duties. Parnelli Jones came close in 1967 when, in his only start of the season, he led four times for a race-high 171 laps in Andy Granatelli’s famous STP Turbine. But a mechanical failure with four laps remaining left him agonizingly short of his second “500” victory.
Bell, who won the 2001 Firestone Indy Lights championship, knows the challenge that comes with competing in only one race a season. But two things have greatly assisted Bell in his quest for glory at Indianapolis.
First, never before had Bell returned to Indianapolis driving for the team he competed with the previous year. That changed for 2011 as he returned to SSM for the second consecutive year. He worked with team manager Chris Griffis and several other crew members in 2010, which helped give Bell and the team familiarity – something that cannot be overstated. For 2011, he was reunited with Gerald Tyler, who was his engineer during his fourth-place effort in the 2009 Indianapolis 500, as well as during his 2001 Indy Lights championship season.
Second, Bell’s fitness routine and assistance from sponsor Herbalife have once again put him in top physical condition as race day approaches. To say Bell is a fitness fanatic would be a bit of an understatement, and his association with Herbalife, a global nutrition company that has helped people like Bell pursue a healthy, active life since 1980, is a natural fit.
To prepare for the grueling month of May, and also excel during it, Bell relies heavily on Herbalife’s nutrition, weight-management and personal care products, including the new Herbalife24 line of performance nutrition products, which will be featured on Bell’s car during Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 and will be available worldwide beginning this month.
Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. Louis Meyer won the 25th Anniversary “500” in 1936, while A.J. Foyt (1961) and Bobby Rahal (1986), won the 50th and 75th Anniversary events, respectively. Bell would like nothing more than to win the 100th Anniversary race and put his name alongside Harroun, Meyer, Foyt and Rahal, as well as join Clark and Hill as “one-off” winners – along with adding his name to the most prestigious club in automobile racing.
Townsend Bell, Driver of the No. 99 Herbalife24 Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Sam Schmidt Motorsports:
How will you approach the final one-hour practice on Carb Day (Friday) and the rest of race weekend?
“We were lucky to get out and practice Sunday (second day qualifying) on full (fuel) tanks. We got two decent runs in and got a pretty early read on the balance of the car. I feel like we’re a step ahead of where we would have been (had we not gotten to practice on Sunday) and that’s important because we only have an hour of practice on Carb Day. Gerald (Tyler, engineer and race strategist) will have a enough information so he can sit down with the other engineers and come up with a good game plan so we’re doing final tuning, if anything, on Carb Day.”
It seems like an obvious question, but how critical is it to keep the car in one piece on Carb Day, but also push the limit and get ready for the biggest race in the world?
“The mentality of keeping the car in one piece extends all the way into the race, anyway, so I don’t think it changes much. Although, I tend to leave a little bit more of a margin on Carb Day. It’s important to get yourself in a state of mind of going racing and pushing hard, so I tend to get after it and try to get in some traffic and work on the car. If it feels good, hopefully we can put it in the barn early. Maybe burn off a couple of (practice) pit stops early, if we can.”
You have not done a live race pit stop since last year’s Indianapolis 500, and neither has your crew, which normally works in Indy Lights, where there are no live pit stops. How important are the pit stops on Sunday?
“Super important, but I’m confident in that last year, under the same circumstances, the SSM guys did a great job for me on pit lane on race day. We didn’t have any mistakes and, hopefully, we can do the same this year.”
What are the emotions like when you make the walk from Gasoline Alley to pit lane on race morning?
“It’s always fun, and this year will be extra special because we’re starting up front and it’s the 100th Anniversary. We’ll have more than 200 guests and VIPs from Herbalife in town and they’re a tremendous source of extra inspiration and motivation on race day and it will be fun to represent them once again.”
The pre-race ceremonies for the Indianapolis 500 are the most famous in all of motorsports. Do you see or hear any of that when you are preparing to get in the car?
“It’s almost like watching it through a glass window. More and more I try to soak those things up because I know I’m not going to have them forever. And I want to make sure I take the time to soak it all in because it’s a rare experience that you even get to participate in the Indianapolis 500, let alone get to start up front. So, we’ll be focused but also trying to soak in the experience.”
The start is always exciting and chaotic. What is your plan for the start of the race?
“Hopefully, it’s a little less chaotic up front than what I’ve been used to (starting farther back). You can’t have much of a plan other than staying really focused and make high-percentage decisions going into the first corner. If there is an opening, we’ll look to capitalize on that.”
Double-file restarts have been a hot topic all season, and especially entering the Indianapolis 500. What are your thoughts on that?
“They’re likely to cause more trouble, but according to the powers that be, that will be better entertainment for the fans. So, we’ve got to trust in their decision-making and trust that they’re doing the right thing for the race, the sport and the future direction. And if that’s the decision they’ve made, then we’ll just get after it and make the most of it.”
As one of the 33 drivers competing, what would you tell the fans to expect? Are they in for a great show?
“No question. Top to bottom, you have a very talented group of drivers and you have race winners and champions buried deep in the field and that’s going to make for a great show on race day.”
If you could, talk about everything SSM has done with both cars this month in terms of not just bringing them up to speed, but really setting the pace this whole month – being among the leaders.
“Yeah, it’s pretty impressive when you look at the organization that Sam has and the amount of things that he has going on, and to still produce the quality that he’s given us here is exceptional. You know, my car got off an airplane from Brazil a day late because of the rain delay down there, and the team just hustled big-time. Guys were working through the night to try to get the thing turned around and to oval spec and Indy spec, and they pulled it off. It’s great to have a chance to go fast here, and full credit goes to the team for making it happen.”
Your car number is 99, but you also have the number 24 on your car. Talk about that.
“Well, my sponsor Herbalife, they’ve been with me for four years. They’ve got a great new line of products called 24. It’s for the 24-hour athletes. There are seven different products in the range. It’s a big part of going fast and going fast for a long time – having good nutrition – so that’s what they’ve put together.”
Do you use the products?
“Of course, yeah, every day. Since I’ve had an association with that company, Herbalife has just given me tremendous support in terms of understanding the nutrition I need before, during and after racing. I used to think just a bowl of pasta and some water was the way to go, but with this new 24 line, it’s pretty impressive what they’ve come up with. They’ve worked three years on it, and they’re launching it at the Indy 500 and the Tour de California back home.”
You’ve had a long association with Herbalife throughout your career. Talk about that and what the company means to you.
“This will be my fourth year with Herbalife. The first year, they were a personal sponsor on my helmet and then became a much bigger supporter, and we’re now going into our fourth year together. They’ve been the best sponsor I’ve ever had. They not only provide us everything we need to go fast and make sure we have a quality racing program, but they also help us on the nutritional side and help me, specifically, to maximize my nutritional program before, during and after any of my physical training and, obviously, during the entire month of May. The best thing about Herbalife is that they want to win and they make sure we have the tools to win. You can’t ask for anything else from a sponsor.”
You’ve reunited with Gerald Tyler, the engineer you worked with at KV Racing in 2009 when you finished fourth in the Indianapolis 500. He was also your engineer when you won the Indy Lights title in 2001. Talk about working with him again.
“He gives me a lot of confidence. He’s a real stickler for the details and there’s no better place to be a stickler for the details than Indianapolis. We’ve known each other for a long time, now. We have a pretty good batting average together and, hopefully, we can make it even better.”
Obviously, if you had your preference, you’d be in a car for every IZOD IndyCar Series race. That said, how do you prepare for an Indianapolis 500 one-off effort?
“You want to make sure you’re doing everything possible to be in a position where you’re not at a disadvantage for not having driven an IndyCar in 12 months. Mentally, it’s kind of automatic as I think about the Indianapolis 500 every single day. It’s kind of like a disease, but in a good way. You think about it all the time, what you want to improve on, mistakes made in previous Indianapolis 500s and performance opportunities. I try to think of all the little things we’ve done in the past that were right and not forget those. It’s just getting in your mind what the perfect Indy 500 month looks like and getting ever closer to that goal. So, from a mental standpoint, it’s fairly automatic because it consumes a lot of my free bandwidth in terms of thought. From a physical standpoint, I do everything I can to make sure I’m physically prepared and ready to get going. It’s challenging, but we’ve learned to do it fairly well.”
You’ve entered your second Indianapolis 500 with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Talk about Sam, the team and the remarkable achievements SSM has enjoyed since its inception in 2001.
“Last year, I’d tell everybody I could how amazing Sam is in that, here’s a guy with four Indy Lights cars, a dominant Indy Lights program, he runs an Indy 500 program, travels 200 days a year, has other business interests, is a father of two and has as foundation. You ask yourself, ‘How does he do it?’ And also, ‘Why am I not doing more?’ And you think, ‘I should be doing more and I should be working harder.’ He’s an example for anybody, regardless of physical condition, about how to maximize your time and maximize your efforts for yourself and those around you. And that was a year ago. Now, you look around and he’s got a full-time IndyCar team, plus his Indy Lights program, plus a collection of other deals at Indianapolis. And it’s a lot, but he seems to pull it off with a lot of planning and process. It’s been fun to have just a little insight into how he does things.”
What does the Indianapolis 500 mean to you?
“It is, and will forever be, a life-defining experience in terms of being the first-ever major car race I went to when I was 10 years old. Winning it has kind of become a lifelong, persistent challenge and goal. The first milestone was just being in the Indy 500, which was a significant accomplishment given where I started as a kid, just wanting to do some go-karting. Being there was kind of the first goal, finishing was kind of the second goal and running at the front was next. You just sort of work toward winning, and I’m kind of out of excuses. >From here on out, it’s just focusing on, ‘OK, how do we win this thing?’”
Are you amazed when you think about the fact you’re competing in a race with a century of tradition and history?
“I guess it’s kind of subconscious. I’ve been to a lot of the big car races – Daytona, Le Mans, Monaco – and there’s something different about Indianapolis because the depth of tradition is so much greater than any other race and it’s almost sort of an unspoken vibe. You just know you’re part of something special. The 100th Anniversary has kind of brought that to the surface and reminded everyone. You appreciate and respect everything that’s gone on before you, from the building of the facility, to the guys who competed, the evolution of safety and the evolution of speed.”
What is your first memory of the Indianapolis 500 as a child?
“My first memory of the track is rain, because it was canceled when I went. It was 1986 and they had to move the race to the following weekend, so I had to fly all the way back to California and then fly back to Indianapolis the next weekend. So, I remember rain and I learned that rain is a part of the Indianapolis 500 and that you have to watch the weather, and it rains every year at some point during the month. That’s just part of the deal. My other lasting memory is standing at a urinal and realizing that David Hasselhoff, better known as Michael Knight (on the TV show Knight Rider) was standing at the urinal next to me. When you’re 10 years old and Knight Rider is the show of all shows, that’s pretty cool. It was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Michael Knight.’”
What is your favorite thing about Indianapolis, away from the racetrack?
“I like being downtown a lot. I like staying downtown because there’s a ton of restaurants and you can walk everywhere. It’s probably one of the nicest cities in the country. It’s safe and it’s family friendly downtown. I really like it there and my family likes spending time there, as well. Last year, after the race, we went out on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium and ran around a little bit, which was really cool.”