One-shot drivers "all-in" for Indy 500
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Townsend Bell woke up the day after finishing fourth in last year’s Indy 500 and waited for the phone to ring.
It never did. Not once. One day turned into one week, then one month.
Not one potential sponsor called to ask if the part-time driver was interested in picking up more work.
A year later, Bell is still a little baffled. Sure, he understands times are tight. Yet the businessman in him figured a top-five finish in the biggest open-wheel race in the world by an American – not a common occurrence these days in IndyCar – would generate a call or two.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “You’ve got to ask them.”
Yet he’s back here anyway, one of a handful of drivers hoping to turn a cameo IndyCar appearance into a more regular gig. Former series regulars Tomas Scheckter and Ed Carpenter and rookie Sebastian Saavedra also are looking to turn heads with a respectable run Sunday.
“I’m a racer, that’s why I’m here, this is what I love to do,” Bell said.
Even if it’s for just a couple weeks a year.
The pipe dream is that Herbalife, who is sponsoring Bell’s No. 99 Honda on Sunday, or another company is so wowed by his performance at the 2.5-mile oval that it writes a check on Monday morning offering to pick up the tab for the rest of the season.
The reality is Bell expects to be back home in southern California early next week working his other job: teaching young drivers how to sell themselves to sponsors.
Yes, a driver who can’t find full-time sponsorship is teaching other drivers how to become attractive to sponsors. Bell gets the irony. But he doesn’t consider this a “those who don’t do, teach” scenario.
“I like to think of myself as the teacher demonstrating that it can be done,” he said. “At the same time I’m not that interested in trying to push water uphill.”
Meaning he’s not going to keep calling the same people he’s been calling for the last year begging for a ride. They have his number. They’ll call if they’re interested.
“If there was an opportunity that came up that was competitive, I’d love to be racing full time,” he said. “The fact is, there isn’t.”
That doesn’t mean that things can’t work out.
Will Power came to Indy a year ago ready to head to the unemployment line, figuring his brief run as a third driver for Penske Racing was over. He finished fifth, eventually joined Penske full-time and a year later sits atop the points standings.
This year, however, there aren’t any teams with “Help Wanted” signs hanging from their haulers.
Finances are so fragile even drivers who are thriving are having trouble finding steady employment. Ryan Hunter-Reay is fourth in points heading into the 500 and already has a win this season. But his No. 37 Andretti Autosport Honda only has enough sponsorship to get through next week’s race at Texas. He’s optimistic something will be worked out, but there are no guarantees.
Bell has no such worries. It’s part of the freedom that comes with getting just one shot a year. There’s no points race to worry about. He’s all-in when the green flag drops.
Could Herbalife take some of the money – he estimated the investment to run at Indy somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million – and spread it out over a couple lower-profile races? Maybe. He’d rather not.
Bell prefers coming to Indy with a chance to win rather than ticking off laps at the back of the field in another race. He’s driving a car co-owned by powerful Chip Ganassi Racing. Things could be worse.
“Instead of trying to beat myself up about, ‘Gee I want to be out there racing all the time,’ what I’ve done is ‘OK, where is there opportunity and how do I make the most of that?” he said.
Bell will start 10th on Sunday and feels he has a legitimate chance to kiss the bricks after reaching Victory Lane.
It’s sentiment shared by Carpenter, who found himself out of a ride when Vision Racing suspended its IndyCar operation in January.
A last-minute sponsorship deal put Carpenter back on the track for the first time since October. He qualified eighth in a car owned by Panther Racing. He, too, thinks he can contend.
Like everyone else, Carpenter hopes to use the first half of the race to get to the second, then see what happens. There’s no need to take risks early. He knows Fuzzy’s Vodka isn’t sponsoring him to watch the checkered flag fly while sitting in the garage with a busted chassis.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to sit back and turn the 500 into the world’s fastest Sunday stroll.
“I’ve finished 11th a couple times. I’ve finished eighth. I’ve finished fifth,” he said. “I’m ready to win.”
Indy aspirations aside, Carpenter is a realist. No matter what happens Sunday afternoon he doubts he’ll be driving again this season.
If Vision Racing returns – a big if considering the team must be out of its current shop by the end of June – it won’t be back until 2011 at the earliest.
Scheckter’s mindset is a little more optimistic. He’ll start 20th for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, his seventh team in nine Indy starts. Unlike Bell, he’s confident the phone will ring if he works his way to the front.
Scheckter, like the rest of his “one-off” brethren, hope the next job offer is 500 miles away.