INDIANAPOLIS – Townsend Bell isn’t just promoting California Pizza Kitchen on his race car, he conceptualized his own pizza recipe.
Just like when the 41-year-old Californian is behind the wheel, his recipe for success is about searching for the ideal ingredients with the best possible equipment.
Three days before the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, the Andretti Autosport driver was making his pizzas in the team’s hospitality tent Thursday with the use of a 2,000-pound oven flown in by his CPK sponsor. He even took on 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti in a pizza-making challenge (pictured above).
“We’ve got a white truffle light cream, like almost a whipped cream, fennel sausage, two different kinds of mozzarella, basil, super thinly sliced mushrooms, like almost potato chip-thin mushrooms, a little bit of organic fresh oregano,” Bell said.
When it comes to racing, even for a “one-off” driver competing in only this Verizon IndyCar Series race, no driver has a greater appetite to persevere for 200 laps on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and wash down the accomplishment with that traditional swig of milk.
Actually, Bell shrugs at the traditional spoils associated with such a conquest.
“Gravy,” he said. “I don’t really think about the accolades or the status. I’m not wired as a status kind of person. I just want to win the damn race.”
His No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda qualified fourth, which equals his best previous starting position (2011) in nine Indy 500 starts. His best finish was also fourth in 2009 for KV Racing Technology.
“It’s not just the love, it’s the desire to succeed,” Bell said. “It’s the very same thing that drives people to run a marathon, climb a mountain, all those sorts of things, whether they’re physical, artistic or intellectual, get a master’s degree. It’s desire that drives you to do those things.
“In racing, this is for me the highest mountain, it’s the tallest peak, and that pulls me in to see if I can be the first one to the top.”
Andretti Autosport is his eighth different team at IMS, considering two of his previous teams later merged with others. But this is his first ride with one of the series’ three super teams, and all five of Michael Andretti’s cars qualified in the top 14 spots. No disrespect to past employers, but Bell agrees this is likely his best chance at winning. His boss likes his chances, too.
“I had 100 percent confidence in him that he was going to do well here,” Andretti said. “He’s been impressive the last two or three years with just stepping in to do the one race. He knows what he needs here to go fast and be competitive.”
Bell was disappointed he didn’t win the pole after his car turned the fastest practice lap on the Fast Friday practice no-tow list May 20.
“We certainly had the car to do it and everybody had worked so hard,” he said. “Even though, gosh, as a one-off, we’re starting fourth. That’s great. But I was bummed. I was really bummed.
“It felt like deja vu, standing out there thinking I had the chance. When I got out of the car I was second, disappointed not to have pole. Then your mind starts going, ‘Well, maybe we’ll get a chance on the front row,’ and that didn’t happen. So it was deja vu to 2011, when I qualified fourth and we had a great race car that day, too.”
Bell hasn’t pursued a full-time series ride since 2008, although he would welcome the discussion. He’s raced sports cars full-time in recent years with several victories, including an IMSA championship last year. He raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year and plans to do so again next month.
But everything else runs a distant second to the Indy 500.
“This is like my second home,” he said of IMS. “Far and away, nothing comes close. This stands alone.”
Sunday’s race will fall two days shy of the 30th anniversary of Bobby Rahal’s only Indy 500 win, when an 11-year-old Bell witnessed the race in person for the first time.
“My family wasn’t in racing. I wasn’t racing anything. I was just a fan, sitting just past the start-finish line in the lower grandstands,” Bell said. “The race was run a week later because it was initially rained out. Flew from California, sat in the grandstands, race canceled. Flew back home with my dad (Patrick). Flew back the next week for the race.
“Arie Luyendyk crashed off of Turn 4, Kevin Cogan was leading, Bobby Rahal got the jump on the restart.”
While the 100th Indy 500 is so celebrated, Bell shares his appreciation for what that centennial number means.
“I think the fact that it’s the 100th, it just emphasizes the history, the significance,” he said. “Every time I hear the 100th, what I think about is all the guys that have gone before me and what they dealt with and how things have evolved, how much safer the cars are now, in a way, how much more difficult it would have been in the ’60s driving something that didn’t have nearly the creature comforts that we do, and all of the innovation through the years.
“I do reflect on that maybe a little more this year in a way that’s very humbling and appreciative of all of the thousands of people, teams, drivers, sponsors, fans that helped make this the greatest race in the world.”
From a historical perspective, how would Bell like to be remembered in his passionate annual pursuit?
“The guy was fast,” he said.
That meant he could win.
“You’ve got a shot,” Bell said. “I guess that’s the validation that every racing driver is looking for. You want to win, but you always want to be fast.
“Frankly, you go down the list of winners and it’s the best guys. And I want to be one of the best.”