Townsend Bell Is Slowing Down
Or so he says. What it’s like having a Navy SEAL breakfast with a professional race-car driver.
Townsend Bell is slowing down. He’ll tell anyone who will listen. He’ll imply it with his tone. He’ll flat out say it. He’ll tell it up, and he’ll tell it down. And he’ll do it with the chuckling resignation of a man who has very little left to prove.
The Beneteau Barracuda 9:
Bell made a wise choice with his first boat. The Barracuda is a manageable size, but nice and seaworthy thanks to that Air Step hull. She’s easy to maintain thanks to those outboards, and also relatively easy to clean, given that she shares some layout similarities with a center console. But of course she’s not a center console, and has that protected area that’s good for little kids, or for getting some succor when the weather turns nasty. She’s even got a little berth and a small but very functional helm station on her hardtop. You can fish her, you can cruise her, you can do just about anything you want with her. Just have a good time. Because remember, this is your first boat, and she’s going to help create a lot of memories.
But then you get him talking.
Bell, 39 years young, is a driver on the IndyCar circuit. He’s sandy-haired and tan the way only natives of the great state of California seem to get. His average frame is still roped with the lean muscle of a former captain of the UC-Santa Barbara water-ski team (yes, that’s a real thing). A strange brew of live-wire intensity and ambient cool emanates from Bell, and out here in L.A., where we’re meeting, a starry-eyed tourist could be forgiven if, at a certain angle, in the right light, they mistook him for Matt Damon.
We were supposed to go mountain biking. Shove off from Marina Del Rey on Bell’s Beneteau Barracuda 9 and spend the day among the rolling hills and shrubby seaside deserts of Catalina Island. He’s big into that these days. It’s both how he stays in shape, and how he blows off steam. But then at 9 o’clock the previous night, a curious e-mail from Bell had pinged into my phone as I sat in my hotel room. “Have to audible tomorrow,” it read. “We’ll do a Navy SEAL breakfast in Malibu.” OK, then.
This is how we found ourselves pulling past the breakwalls of the Playa Del Rey Inlet on a typical Southern California morning—the sky TV-fuzz gray, the ocean the color of oiled steel, and the horizon gently undulating like the torso of some fast asleep Leviathan.The sunlight sparkled across the water, knifing directly west at a right angle to our destination, the hills of Malibu, looming in the distance, still robed in the ghostly morning fog.
As we pushed past the aegis of the inlet, the Pacific greeted us with her rolling swells, the peaks of which act as launch pads while the troughs are wide enough to become back-breakingly flat in between. The swells were 5 feet high, and the going got a little bumpy, even at the slow speeds we were making. “It’s a little bit of a rough ride right now,” said Bell from the helm, “but don’t worry that’ll pass in a second.” And with that he pushed forward on the throttles, causing the twin 225-horsepower Yamahas behind us to squeal with delight.
I grabbed onto my seat with a vise grip watching the speedometer climb close to 40 knots as the boat bounced along. Then I saw it, one of those large, diabolically timed swells that you notice just a touch too late, and realize you’re about to launch toward the heavens whether you like it or not. Bell must have seen it too, though he made no effort to change course. We shot up the dark-blue mound at 37 knots, and flew off the crest. The props burst free of the water, their low drone momentarily transmogrifying into a steely scream. The landing was going to suck.
And just as we reached the peak of our arc, when the Gs hit zero and that feeling of weightlessness pools in your stomach like grease from a hungover breakfast, Bell turned to me, cool as a fan, and smirked. “This one’s kind of a big one.”
It turns out one reason Bell was so calm just then was because he trusted his equipment. The Barracuda has Beneteau’s Air Step hull, which is designed to smooth out the ride the faster you go—which it did—a welcome paradox. So on we went, swell after swell, rising and falling all the way to Malibu.
As we entered Paradise Cove, just south of Malibu’s Pt. Dume, I looked around for a mooring field or a breakwall, anything really, other than a lonely patch of kelp, the restaurant on the beach, and a commercial fishing vessel off our port. But there was nothing else to be seen.
Bell hopped to, and dropped the anchor about 120 yards off the beach. “Ready for a swim?” he said, stripping off his shirt. This was our Navy SEAL breakfast. And I was sort of ready for it. As Bell tied a drybag to himself, I checked out the surroundings—the kelp field, the dark water, and the lack of anyone else in said dark water—and wished I hadn’t watched a Shark Week special on great whites in Malibu literally two days prior.
But I dove in anyway, and with imaginary monsters nipping at my heels, booked it into the beach. I hit the sand hard, nearly out of breath, and stood up in the knee-deep backwash to check on Bell. He was far behind, still near the boat actually, splashing away happily as he made his lonely way to shore.
At breakfast at the Paradise Cove Beach Café, we sat at an outdoor table on the sand and talked about life and boats. The Beneteau is Bell’s first. He says he sees boating as a way to unwind and also as a transition into the next phase of his life, a phase that won’t involve the high speeds and adrenal thrills of race-car driving. “I like boating because it’s a little slower, you’ve got to think ahead, say, about how you’re going to maneuver through the marina and get into that slip,” he says. “Driving a car is much more instinctual. There’s not a lot of time to think, because things move so fast. And when you’re moving that fast in one aspect of your life, you’ve really got to go pretty far in the other direction in other aspects of your life to achieve balance. Balance is what it’s all about.”
In more ways than one. Race-car driving itself can be described as a balancing act between your own fear—or more specifically, lack thereof—and the amount of traction your tires have on the pavement. And lately, Bell has been pushing his act to new levels. That’s in part because he has yet to finish higher than fourth in the Indy 500. And winning that race has been a career-long goal. He figures he’s only got about five years of racing left in him, and it’s that kind of pressure—being able to see the end of the road—that can sometimes upset even the most highly calibrated sense of equilibrium. Last year at the Indy 500 Bell went 237 mph, faster than he’s ever gone before. This was right before he crashed into the wall with just ten laps to go.
The Indy is the only race his wife Heather can bear to watch. She’s a former actress and the mother to his two sons, ages nine and 11. Their first date was at the Playboy Mansion, he admits with a laugh, rubbing his hand forward on his crew cut. “My buddies were all making fun of me, saying I was bringing sand to the beach,” he says, “but I didn’t care, and it all worked out anyway. Besides,” he continues, “the Playboy Mansion, everybody thinks it’s this super glamorous thing, but really it’s just a glorified Hooters.”
This was too much. I called his bluff. “Really,” I repeated, incredulous, “The Playboy Mansion is a glorified Hooters.”
“For real,” came the self-assured response.
Bell takes a similarly understated stance on his own celebrity. “Nobody in California ever recognizes me. Here?” He nodded towards the surrounding bluffs of Malibu, where trailer homes sell to fauxhemian movie stars for prices in the low seven digits, “No way. But,” he continued with a wry grin, “I am huge in Indiana.”
Not that he’s complaining. Bell’s carved out a very comfortable life for himself in the hills of Southern California. He lives in posh Pacific Palisades. He’s got a Porsche and a Bimmer (his wife drives the Porsche). And from time to time he gets autograph seekers, one time recently in front of his son—a nice, validating perk of the job not every dad gets to enjoy.
These days he’s got a full plate. Besides car racing, he’s also doing a lot of TV announcing, and is shooting a TV show for ESPN that he developed called What’Cha Got, wherein pro MLS soccer players race a Lamborghini around a track for time. Winner takes home the car. (That’s actually the reason we didn’t go to Catalina, he had to do work for the show.)
And of course there’s the boat. His little respite from the day-to-day grind even a professional race-car driver has to endure. He’s already got two-foot-itis though, and has his eye on the Beneteau MC4. But his true goal is to one day get a trawler, and cruise around the globe, or, he admits, as far as he can convince his wife to go. To this point he adds, “In my line of work, you know, I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the world. But you’re working all the time. There’s a flight in, a race, and a flight out. I’ve been everywhere, but I feel like I haven’t seen anything. I want to see things.”
I have no doubt he will. At whatever pace he chooses.
Brokerage Listings Powered by BoatQuest.com
Click to see listings of Beneteaus currently for sale on BoatQuest.com. ➤
Noteworthy Options: Flying bridge; air-conditioning and heat; trim tabs; Lowrance electronics package. Prices upon request.
Warranty: 5-year structural, 2-year stem to stern
Conditions During Boat Test
Air temperature: 72°F; humidity 15%; seas: 4-5'
Load During Boat Test
106 gal. fuel, 26 gal. water, 2 persons, 0 lb. gear.
Test Boat Specifications
- Test Engine: 2/225-hp 4-Stroke Yamahas
- Props: 14.5 x 17 stainless steel Yamaha Saltwater Series
- Price as Tested: $185,000
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.