Townsend Bell

A Barracuda With Bells On

By Ann Dermody

A family history of boating comes full circle for this race-car driver and TV sportscaster.

Photo of Townsend Bell and his wife Heather onboard their Beneteau BarracudaTownsend Bell and his wife Heather onboard their Beneteau Barracuda.

"My first real boating experience was kind of funny," says Los Angeles-based race-car driver and NBC Sports' IndyCar broadcaster Townsend Bell.

"My dad bought a 14-foot Zodiac with wood-insert floors and a 25-hp outboard for going down the Mississippi River."

As a family vacation, that wouldn't have been so unusual if it weren't for the fact the Bells lived in San Francisco, some 2,000 miles from the mighty river. "I don't know how Dad came up with the idea. I was 10 years old at the time, and we started out with that boat in San Francisco Bay as the precursor to our Mississippi trip. I can still remember being terrified in the whitecaps of the Bay. Thanks, Dad!"

Photos of Townsend Bell's first trip down the Mississippi

The Bells still had to get themselves and the boat (Townsend's 12-year-old brother and a cousin were included in the motley crew) to the Mississippi. Dad had a plan for that, too. "We literally took the boat on American Airlines as checked baggage," he laughs. "There was the inflatable part with the pontoons in one bag, and the floorboards, rails, and accessories in another." In a third, Bell, Sr. had a specially created Styrofoam case for the outboard. "The total weight of the outboard exceeded the maximum weight of checked baggage allowed, so my dad disassembled the lower unit and carried it on as hand baggage, and the four of us set off for Minneapolis."

The next morning they reassembled the boat, inflated it, and headed off down the Mississippi for two weeks from Minneapolis to St. Louis. "It was a really neat trip, and a part of the country we kids wouldn't have seen, and in a way that we never would have seen it. At night we'd stay in little motels along the Mississippi."

Spirit of adventure and Huck Finn travels completed, Townsend turned to racing go-karts when he was 12 years old. After college (at UC Santa Barbara, where he was captain of the waterski team), he spent the next several years competing in regional and national events, climbing the race car ladder, before his first big win with the 2001 Indy Lights Championship. More wins led to racing in Europe and a stint as a commentator for IndyCar Series broadcasts on Europe's Sky Sports. Since his return to the U.S. in 2004 to race in the IndyCar Series, he's competed in the Indianapolis 500 eight times, and in 2012 won the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring race on his first attempt.

Throw his broadcasting work with NBC and a hectic family life with two small boys into the mix, and boating had to take something of a backseat for a time. Until two summers ago, that is, when his then 10-year-old son Jaxon was enrolled in sailing camp. "He loved it, and I found myself lingering longer and longer after drop-off in the mornings, wandering around thinking to myself, 'Boy, that sure would be nice ...'"

Eight months later, the family became the proud owners of a Beneteau Barracuda, which they regularly take up and down the California coast or over to Catalina. "It's the perfect boat for us because it has an enclosed pilothouse and we can spend the night, if we want," he says. "I throw my mountain bike on it and go over to Catalina to bike."

The temptation of bigger boats always lurks, though, and the day he talked to BoatUS Magazine he was heading to Catalina on a borrowed Gran Turismo. "It'll be our first family experience on a boat with two full cabins. A proper cruiser, if you will. My wife and kids are into it. I think it's fair to say I love boating the most. The kids have fun, and luckily this is the first vehicular indulgence that my wife actually enjoys. She vastly prefers this to the back of a superbike or jumping on an off-road truck." 

— Published: February/March 2015

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