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Drivers Chasing Indy 500 One-Off Rides Work as Hard Off Track as On It

Townsend Bell could write a how-to guide for putting together a competitive program to drive in the Indianapolis 500. He was a strong contender in many of his 10 starts, despite the challenge of racing eight times on an Indy-only program when “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was his only Verizon IndyCar Series race of the year.

But Bell has accepted the reality that the Indy 500, for him as a driver, has become more a memory than a quest. He’s not working to put together a program for May and likely will miss the race for a second straight year.

“That’s by my choice,” said Bell, who serves as an analyst on NBCSN’s Verizon IndyCar Series telecasts.

“Unless,” he added, “the fairytale phone call were to come, and I don’t know what that would be. My phone’s always on, but I haven’t been working on being there.”

Bell wouldn’t be waiting for calls if he were pursuing a ride, which he says costs $1 million “to do it right” on an Indy-only basis. He’d be making those calls. And sending emails. And meeting prospective sponsors with a pitch that convinces them to jump on board for the ride of their life and a sense of glory that only a great run at the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil can deliver.

Securing the dollars to land a ride is a huge undertaking that doesn’t happen with a meeting and a happy handshake.

Ask Bell, who steered a small-budget ride into a fourth-place finish in 2009, qualified fourth two other times and led a dozen laps in 2016. Or Pippa Mann, a six-time 500 starter known for her tireless year-round efforts to get those two weeks in the race car at Indy. Or Sage Karam, who’s working to make his fifth start this year while doing everything he can to gain the funding to land a full-season ride.

“It’s a lot of work, and it should be a lot of work because companies are investing a lot of money,” Bell said. “They’re not just there to have fun. They need to sell products, sell services and motivate their workforce, inspire their customers. It should require a lot of elbow grease to get it done.”

Mann, who raced the past five years at Indy for Dale Coyne Racing, may define the determination and effort it takes, on and off the track, to make a program work. There’s hardly a moment she isn’t striving for the next dollar to go racing.

“I keep hoping that one of these years there will be a May where I’m not actively worried about the money side of things and trying to tie down final sponsorship deals once the driving starts,” said Mann, who does most of the work herself to find and maintain backing. She’s the main point of contact for 80-90 percent of her sponsors and partners, and there are days when she handles 100 or more emails.

“The big thing to remember is that while I have help from a few friends who I am very grateful to, I do a lot of this myself,” she said. “And I’m not only trying to put together a program for the Indy 500, I’m also trying to put together a program to return to sports cars.”

Mann hopes to announce her plans for the 2018 Indy 500 much earlier than past years. She isn’t saying whose car she will drive, but she’s forever grateful for the support she has gotten from Dale and Gail Coyne and the entire Dale Coyne Racing organization.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve gone from getting things announced as May kicks off, to getting my program announced in April, and last year at the end of March,” Mann said. “Hopefully I’m actually on an even better timeline in regards to this year.”

What is it about Indy that makes a person work so hard for an entire year – or a lifetime in some cases – to achieve two weeks on the track in May? Mann saw her first Indy 500 in person in 2009 from Turn 4 when she was driving in Indy Lights, and realized then that it was worth any amount of effort necessary to participate.

“I love driving racing cars. And just like most other drivers out there, we have to work extremely hard to have the opportunity to do what we love,” she said. “It’s just part of how the sport is these days. You can either complain about it or suck it up and try to get the most you possibly can out of the given situation and be grateful for the opportunities you have.”

Part of acquiring and maintaining support is forging a strong partnership with those who fund the program. For Mann, it’s vital to spend time with sponsors, fans, appearances, etc., to give them value for their backing, because there’s much more to it than putting the name of a company on the side of the race car.

“I think the biggest thing to remember when you’re looking to convince people to get involved with motorsport is that, in the 21st century, a decal on a racing car is not worth anyone’s investment,” Mann said. “The thing that makes sponsorship in racing a viable proposition is activation. A decal on a race car has to be the cherry on the icing on the cake.”

Karam, who has driven three of his four Indy 500s on one-off programs, has talked with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for a return to that team in May, which at this point may be his only time in a race car this year. He drove 12 Verizon IndyCar Series races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2015, and last year drove in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship.

“I am so hungry and ready to go back to work. I know what I have to offer, but it’s just that money has been kind of tough for me right now,” Karam said. “I know I want to be in INDYCAR, I know that’s where I should be. I’m going to do whatever I can to get back, and hopefully in the near future I’ll be racing there full time and show what I can do.

“My biggest goal is to stay within everyone’s eyes. I want to go to as many races as I can this year if I’m not racing full time. Just stay in owners’ eyes, stay in sponsors’ eyes. I’m sending out emails, I’m calling people, doing everything I can. I’m trying to focus more this year on trying to find more partners and furthering my 2018-2019 plans. It’s just really, really hard. You can send out a thousand emails in a month and you might get 999 who say no, but you might get one yes. That’s what you hope for.”

Like Mann, Karam doesn’t have a management team doing the work. Karam’s father Jody and mother Karen are a big part of the effort.

“She’s at work talking to people who may know people,” Karam said of his mom. “You're trying to find some sort of business-to-business angle. There’s a lot of people in my corner working really hard to get me back into a full-time position.”

Once a driver gets a potential sponsor to listen, what’s the best way to propose an Indy 500 package? Bell sells it as an opportunity with nothing but upside.

“I’ll say, ‘You can’t lose on this. I’ve got a chance to win the biggest race in the world, do you want to come with me? Because if we win, it’ll be awesome. It’ll be great for your brand,’” he said. “I need them to take a little bit of a chance, but in order to mitigate the chance I need to make sure that the business justification is worth it even if we crash on the first lap.”

When the money comes in and a driver gets a ride, there’s little time to celebrate. Indy-only programs face challenges that full-season teams usually don’t by the time they roll onto pit lane for the first time in May. The biggest, Bell says, is personnel – a driver and crew that will take time to reach peak performance because they haven’t done it in a year.

“By virtue of being a one-off Indy program, that means essentially that all of your crew is also doing it as a one-off in that specific capacity,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re unemployed the rest of the year. A lot of times teams will utilize personnel that are highly experienced and highly capable, but they’ve been elevated in the organization or they have tenure and they don’t want to travel full-time anymore.

“But they’re still rusty, like I am for the first day of practice. The greatest compromise is always the people, and I’m one of those people. I’ve got to do everything I can to make up for not being in the seat all the time – be extra crisp, extra prepared, laser focused. I’ve got to be on it and so do all the people.”

Two weeks of practice and qualifying still won’t fully prepare a one-off team for what it will face in the race. It may take 180 laps and a half-dozen pit stops to feel fully in sync, Bell said.

“Frankly, you really aren't totally tuned up until the last 20 laps,” he said. “The guys have had all the stops to practice and you kind of put it all together. But you’re never going to be as good as the best full-time teams because that wouldn’t make scientific sense.”

His drive to fourth place for KV Racing in 2009 is a good example of how a team can turn limited resources into a quality showing. He qualified 24th but, through smart deployment of personnel and a strong drive, Bell finished behind only Helio Castroneves, Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick.

Bell followed that with other strong runs in the 500 – starting fourth in 2011 with Sam Schmidt Motorsports before finishing ninth, and driving from fourth into the lead for 12 laps in 2016 with Andretti Autosport before a pit road crash knocked him from contention to a 21st-place finish.

Nobody needs to remind him how close he has come to Indianapolis 500 glory.

“Close enough to taste it,” Bell said.

But, no longer actively seeking an opportunity, no longer doing the huge amount of work it takes to acquire the money and pull together a program for those two weeks at Indy, Bell also knows he may not get another chance like that again.

He admits it eats at him.

“Only once or twice a day,” Bell said, pausing for a moment before adding, “for the rest of my life.”

The 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is the sixth of 17 races on the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. Indy 500 practice begins May 15 with two days of qualifications to set the 33-car field on May 19-20. The race airs live at 11 a.m. ET May 27 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. For ticket information to all month of May activities at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 12, visit IMS.com.



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