IRL: Bell, Simmons excited about their chances

IRL: Bell, Simmons excited about their chances

The look of the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series paddock is changing rapidly right now. Earlier this week, Panther Racing announced it was parting ways with rookie Mark Taylor, and a day later Al Unser Jr.'s retirement became ...

The look of the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series paddock is changing rapidly right now. Earlier this week, Panther Racing announced it was parting ways with rookie Mark Taylor, and a day later Al Unser Jr.'s retirement became official.

Townsend Bell.
Photo by Jaguar Cars and Wieck Media Services, Inc..
That meant there were two seats available on the 22-car grid for Sunday's Argent Mortgage Kansas Indy 300, race #7 in this year's 16-event campaign. It didn't take long, however, for the musical chairs game to stop.

Yesterday, Panther Racing confirmed American Townsend Bell as driver of the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet for this weekend and, hopefully, the balance of the season.

Bell, the 29-year-old Californian who finished ninth in the FIA F3000 Championship for Arden International last season claims the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race has always been his ultimate goal. That changed following his 2001 Dayton Indy Lights Championship and his foray into the Champ Car World Series with Patrick Racing.

Once considered a rising star in the CART territory, Bell had a big case of crash-itis, ending his stay with Patrick Racing after nine starts in 2002. Bell went on to drive in Europe with the intent of making his name there and becoming the next American Formula One driver. He earned tests with BAR Honda and Jaguar's F1 team but never got the ride he'd hoped for.

"It's a bit of a shock to be here in Kansas in a new uniform," Bell acknowledged this afternoon. "I was sitting on a beach in California working on my plans for 2005" last Sunday when the call came from Panther Racing to come join them. "We'd been talking the last couple of years," he said.

Claiming his experience in the IRL is "none whatsoever", Townsend Bell is still looking forward to his first experience with the Panther Racing team, his Dallara chassis, Chevrolet engine and Firestone tires. He's got experience racing against several drivers in the IndyCar Series from the CART days.

"This kind of racing is very much like Indy Lights. I'll get adjusted to it tomorrow morning at 200mph," Bell noted. "It's kind of a homecoming because I have driven against many of these drivers in the past." Bell claims he's had four or five different opportunities over the past 18 months to race in the US but "I said no to stay focused on F1."

It was Chevrolet who initiated conversations that led to Bell's hiring at Panther. "The IRL these days is so professional and competitive," Bell said. "I went to Phoenix to talk with people, met the Chevy guys there for the first time and they had an interest" in seeing him come to the League. "This is a good opportunity to meet these guys and see what they do different or better."

Of his time with Patrick Racing, Bell can only say "at the time I was so frustrated with the situation. I almost got into a Menards car in 2002, but decided to sit back and spend a couple of months figuring out what to do next. I got refreshed, developed a new approach to my racing," Bell admitted. "The Champ Car situation put a 'ding' in my career."

At this point in time Bell is "playing catch-up big time. Tomas [teammate Scheckter] and I both see the benefit of building this team. Andretti Green Racing is the role model for multi-car teams now and we're trying to go in the same direction."

In his CART career, Townsend Bell was notable for his aggressiveness. "I came out of CART as too aggressive, went to Europe and discovered there were 20 guys worse than I was. I think a lot about safety and what's smart, what's aggressive."

Over the next couple of races, Bell is simply going to try and find his way in the Indy Racing League. "I'm not a magic solution. I'm going to take a methodical approach and build a relationship with this team. It's fair to say maybe in the past I've tried too hard but we both, Tomas and I know how to win."

Jeff Simmons.
Photo by Ron McQueeney - IRL.
Bell has a longer commitment from Panther Racing than does the man who must follow the legendary Al Unser Jr. as driver of U.E. "Pat" Patrick's #20 Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone challenger. That car, bearing associate sponsorship from Stacker 2 will be driven at Kansas Speedway this weekend by Menards Infiniti Pro Series graduate Jeff Simmons, who made his first IndyCar Series start at this year's Indy 500.

The only two-time champion for the Barber Dodge Pro Series, Simmons, 27, made his first IRL start in the biggest race of the year, taking over the #21 Pioneer Dallara/Toyota of Mo Nunn Racing on limited practice time and placing that car 29th and solid in the field for the 88th Indy 500. Simmons finished 16th in a steady drive.

Jeff Simmons had been out of motorsports for two years, lacking the funding to gain rides and going around trying to find a team that would take him. Last year Simmons framed two victories and two pole positions in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series with Keith Duesenberg Racing yet couldn't land a full-season ride with that team in 2004. He did race in the Futaba Freedom 100 at Indy for A.J. Foyt Jr., finishing second to series point leader Thiago Medeiros.

"I'm thrilled to be up today," Simmons grinned during this afternoon's press conference. "Replacing a legend is a best case/worst case scenario, I guess, but I'm simply getting an opportunity to show myself, establish myself in this League," Simmons asserted.

He performed his Rookie Orientation Program test with A.J. Foyt Racing prior to the start of the month of May and "talked with teams all month" about getting into a car. "I'm getting used to these last-minute deals," Jeff said of the 24-hour time frame that found him nominated for the Patrick Racing ride. "Patrick Racing were winning the Indy 500 before I was born and they won years after that, as well," he stated.

'Patrick Racing is one of the most successful teams in open wheel motorsports. I've always been pretty good at developing a car and thought this would be the opportunity of a lifetime for me. People who have money usually get the rides but Buddy Rice and I, coming up the ladder system are in a similar situation.

"After four years as a professional racer, winning two championships in the Barber Doge Pro Series and coming in second as a rookie in last year's Menards Infiniti Pro Series," Simmons thinks it's "I deserved this opportunity.

"Chevrolet has a pretty strong program and they are making progress, starting to catch up" to Honda and Toyota. Jeff Simmons, too, is starting to catch up to the guys he's been competing against since his Barber Dodge, Dayton Indy Lights and Menards Infiniti Pro Series days. Now he's got a chance to join them in the top level of open wheel racing, the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series.

Will Simmons continue in Nashville two weeks from now? "Mr. Patrick told me, 'If you crash two cars right away, you're going to make my decision easy. This [deal] is a lot like Indy; it's kind of like a one-off deal."

That decision has not been made, but Simmons' good result this weekend would go far to helping him keep his ride intact with the long-time open wheel entrant.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Mark Taylor , Al Unser Jr. , Townsend Bell , Buddy Rice , Jeff Simmons , A.J. Foyt Jr. , A.J. Foyt , Mo Nunn , Thiago Medeiros
Teams Panther Racing , Arden International