The twelfth instalment of my latest series.
My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.
Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.
I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However, I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.
The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede Kenny Brack, with fellow Brazilians Cristiano da Matta and Helio Castroneves finishing third and fourth.
Michael Andretti finished fifth ahead of his teammate Paul Tracy in sixth, with 1996 CART Champion Jimmy Vasser in seventh. The fourth Brazilian in the field Tony Kanaan was eighth ahead of home favourite Dario Franchitti.
Spaniard Oriol Servia rounded out the top ten for Sigma Autosport, while just outside the top ten, Italian Max Papis came home eleventh. After Papis in eleventh was the second Patrick Racing driver Townsend Bell, who is the feature for this week.
Townsend only contested the two European rounds of the 2001 CART Championship in Germany and then Rockingham a week later, the two events marking his step up into the category after two seasons in the Indy Lights category.
Prior to his time in the Indy Lights Championship, Townsend started his career in karts before graduating to cars in 1997 at the age of 21,
He moved up into single seaters in 1998, competing in the Barber Dodge Pro Series, contesting in all bar three rounds, ending the year sixteenth, achieving a podium at Atlanta. He remained in the series the following year, winning once at Lime Rock Park as well as finishing on the podium an additional three times, concluding the season third in the standings.
It was Townsend’s final season in the category as the turn of the millennium saw Townsend graduate from the Barber Dodge Pro Series to Indy Lights, racing for Dorricott Racing alongside Casey Mears. It was a hugely impressive debut season in the category for Townsend as he and Casey finished second and third respectively, only missing out on the title by eleven points, to Scott Dixon.
Townsend second season in the category was in ever greater success however as he won the title in convincing fashion, winning six of the twelve races, beating nearest rival Dan Wheldon by 44 points.
Such was his dominance and impressive form in 2001, he also made his CART debut for Patrick Racing for the two European rounds of the season at Lausitz and Rockingham. His teammates for the two races were Roberto Moreno and 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser in which he fared well against them, his best result being twelfth at Rockingham.
His strong performances in 2001 ensured he went full time in 2002 with Patrick Racing, however he was replaced halfway through the season by Oriol Servia. It would prove to be his final appearances in the CART championship.
2003 saw Townsend join Jaguar Racing as an F1 Test Driver as well as contesting the 2003 International F3000 Championship for Arden International alongside Swede Bjorn Wirdheim. Townsend fared well in his first season in Europe, ending ninth with a sole podium while Wirdheim won the title for the team then run by now Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner.
His performances were enough to see him return to America, now in IndyCar, which was quickly becoming the dominant single seater category in America as the split at the top level was still ensuring. He joined Panther racing for the second half of the season, finishing a high of fifth, only contesting in a sole event a year later.
He contested a single event in IndyCar once more in 2006 however this was the Indy 500 ensuring he made his debut at the great race, ending the race 22nd for Vision Racing.
The Indy 500 was Townsend’s only appearance in 2006, returning for a part-time season in 2008 for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, finishing in the top ten on three occasions, following a year away from motorsport. It was his only season with team before switching to Jimmy Vasser’s co-owned team KV Racing Technology for a single race in 2009, the Indy 500.
It was his best result at the race to date, finishing fourth, which began a run of seven consecutive appearances at the race for some of the best teams in American motorsport such as Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Andretti Autosport.
As well as his Indy 500 appearances, Townsend has contested other great races such as the Le Mans 24 Hours, making his debut in 2015 in the LM GTE Am category for Scuderia Corsa alongside Jeff Segal and Bill Sweedler.
The trio fared very well, finishing 24th overall and third in class ensuring they achieved a podium finish in their first outing as a team. The trio remained together for the 2016 event, again in a Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 contesting the category against teams with the likes of Adam Carroll and Andrew Howard amongst them. The trio however, performed superbly completing 331 laps finishing the race first in class, Townsend’s only class victory to date. His final appearance at Le Mans was in 2017 where he again finished third in class alongside Sweedler with the duo now joined by Cooper MacNeil.
Since 2017, Townsend has returned to America, competing in the IMSA series on a part time basis, with 2019 being his first full season in a category since 2003. Townsend raced in the GT Daytona class, or GTD, a class for GT3 machinery in a Lexus RC F GT3 for AIM Vasser Sullivan, finishing on the podium three times on his way to eight in class.
2020 has seen Townsend remain with the squad for his second full season with the team. To date, he sits second in class with a single victory to his name.
Since 2017 Townsend has also worked behind the microphone as he now a reported for NBC IndyCar alongside fellow lead anchors Leigh Diffey and Paul Tracey. As well as his IndyCar pundit work, Townsend has also filled in on the channel’s F1 coverage.
Despite his lack of full-time seasons throughout his career Townsend has achieve a lot during his time behind the wheel and contested in some of the biggest races in the world. If he continues his fine form this year, he could see another fantastic result by the end of the season. Combine this with his pundit work, I hope we see a lot more of Townsend into the future.
Pictures: www.motorsport.com, www.motorsportimages.com, www.snaplap.net