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American Dream

Bell Followed His Heart All Way to CART Circuit

April 12, 2002|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Between Townsend Bell's junior and senior years at UC Santa Barbara, the CART rookie realized he was on his way to a conventional business career and if he wanted to follow his off-and-on dream of racing cars, he'd better get to it.

"I'd heard a lot of men, when they were in their 40s or so, say, 'I wish I'd given golf a shot,' or, 'I might have been a good driver if I'd only tried; now it's too late,'" the San Luis Obispo driver said. "I decided I didn't want to talk like that when I got older, so I enrolled in the Skip Barber Racing School to see if I had what it took."

It was Bell's third stab at racing. His first, as a 13-year-old karter, ended when he was hit by a trailer in a non-racing accident and it took him a year to recover and rehabilitate. At 16 he tried again, but when his parents divorced, his budget disappeared and so did his focus.

At 21 he was back. He will be 27 on April 19.

"Failure is in not making a stab at it," he said. "But looking back, I had a blind, somewhat naive attitude. I went straight to driving school, did some amateur racing and after each race I seemed more encouraged to keep on.

"Of course, my idea of racing was to jump into a Barber Dodge and stand on it for 45 minutes and see if something good might happen. Looking back, I am amazed at how little I knew about racing, and how I got this far."

Bell also uncovered another secret to racing--corporate sponsorship.

"I put together a package for part of the 1998 Barber Dodge season, but that really put the pressure on me because after my sales talk, my sponsors expected me to win, or be up front, or the money would disappear."

The next year, Bell finished third in that series and had enough high finishes to move up to Indy Lights with Dorricott Racing in 2000. He finished second to Scott Dixon of New Zealand, then last year became the first American champion in that series since Bryan Herta in 1993 with six victories and a record eight poles in 12 races.

Team owner Pat Patrick, one of the founders of CART, had drivers Jimmy Vasser and Roberto Moreno, but when Vasser announced he was switching to Bobby Rahal's team in 2002, Patrick began looking for a replacement. He was impressed by Bell's having won Lights races on oval, road, street and superspeedway courses. CART races on all of those.

As a test, Patrick invited Bell to run in CART's two European races as a third driver.

"It was pretty hectic," Bell said. "I landed on Sept. 11, which was traumatic itself, and then qualifying got rained out in Germany so I had to start in the rear because I had no points [for the season]. It rained again in England, but in both races I did a lot of passing and felt pretty good."

He finished 13th in Germany and 12th in England after starting 27th each time.

Sunday, in the 28th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, he will be making his fourth CART start in Patrick's No. 20 Reynard-Toyota--but his first in the U.S.

In the season opener at Monterrey, Mexico, he didn't last the first lap.

"We had half a lap of glory," he said. "I started off ninth and, going into about Turn 5, I ran out of room trying to pass Kenny Brack. It was slippery and it just didn't pan out."

The ensuing accident also took out Vasser, who was right behind Bell.

Prospects have come and gone in recent years as young American drivers have sought success in CART. Bell is the latest and, at the moment, the only one.

The only other Americans in the 20-car field when practice starts today will be Michael Andretti, 39, and Vasser, 36.

"I'm really glad to be back racing in Southern California, where I've lived most of my life," Bell said. "It's also a home event for Toyota, which makes it extra important. And I'll have lots of friends and family attending. I just hope I can show them something, the way I did last year when I won the Indy Lights race."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Career Highlights

Townsend Bell is one of two rookies on the CART circuit this season:

* 2001 Dayton Indy Lights champion

* The first driver in the Dayton Indy Lights Championship Series to lap an entire race field, Milwaukee, 2001.

* Won Bosch Platinum+4 Speedway Challenge for the driver earning the most points in the year's oval races.

* 2000 Dayton Indy Lights rookie of the year

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This Week's Races

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CART

Toyota Grand Prix

When: Today, qualifying, 1:30 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 1:30 p.m. (Speed Channel); Sunday, race (Channel 11, 12:30 p.m.).

Where: Long Beach Street Circuit (temporary road course, 1.97 miles, 11 turns).

Race distance: 90 laps, 177.12 miles.

Next race: Bridgestone Potenza 500, April 27, Motegi, Japan.

WINSTON CUP

Virginia 500

When: Today, qualifying (Fox Sports Net, noon); Sunday, race (FX, 10 a.m.).

Where: Martinsville Speedway (oval, 0.526 miles, 12-degree banking in turns); Martinsville, Va.

Race distance: 500 laps, 263 miles.

Next race: Talladega 500, April 21, Talladega, Ala.

BUSCH GRAND NATIONAL

Pepsi 300

When: Today, qualifying, 10 a.m.; Saturday, race (FX, 1:30 p.m.).

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