Justin Bell has had the kind of racing career many drivers would give their eye teeth for, but that wasn’t enough for him. With ambition, perseverance and no shortage of charm, this Englishman has made the transition from race car driver to television personality, and he’s not done yet – not by a long shot. He’s been a part of the sports car racing broadcasting team for ESPN and Fox Sports, covering events including the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Petit Le Mans. Bell also hosts the televised Barrett-Jackson auctions and co-stars in “Shut Up and Drive” with former-IndyCar racer, Townsend Bell. (No relation.)
If you think he’s a busy guy, let’s be sure to mention his work with Jay Leno on The Green Car Challenge and on the internet with Jay Leno’s Garage. Bell also has his own program, World’s Fastest Car Show on Motor Trend’s YouTube channel. Between filming and racking up frequent flier miles, his social media followers get cool behind-the-scenes looks at his various projects. All delivered frequently and with a heaping dose of Bell’s cheeky sense of humor. I was lucky to catch up with him recently to discuss his career as a television personality and what it was like to follow in the footsteps of Le Mans legend, Derek Bell.
MLAS: You guys have a lot of fun with that Lexus IS F Sport on Shut Up and Drive.
JB: I’m having a good time. We thrash it to absolute the limit ‘cause our show is basically about Townsend and I finding a road that we like, and closing it down and driving fast. Racing each other, we have to go fast. So it’s great, really good fun!
MLAS: I think that’s the dream right there for a lot of people.
JB: It is. It’s so funny. The fans really love the concept. They just love us driving quickly so it’s like everyone wishes they could do what we do, which is find your perfect stretch of road and have the cops close it off. So it is a dream.
MLAS: I think that’s part of the attraction with Pikes Peak. It’s a road that you can drive on but then you get to close it off and race it.
JB: Racing, for so many people, when they watch us all race at these amazing race tracks around the world, not everyone gets a chance obviously to ever do it. It’s a little removed. They may be fans but they don’t truly, if you’ve never experienced, understand what we do in a way. Whereas if you watch football or baseball or basketball, most people have played that at school or college or whatever; but getting on a road. Anyone that likes driving that has half a brain loves the thought of driving their car fast and not getting stopped by the police. It’s like the perfect scenario! We’re fulfilling people’s dreams for them. It’s quite funny. We get to do it.
MLAS: You guys definitely do! It’s a lot of fun watching that show. Do you guys have any input on where you get to shoot?
JB: The production company comes up with three roads and then put them up on the website, where they take suggestions from the fans. They choose three of them and it’s like a voting thing online at http://msn.foxsports.com/nascar/page/shut-up-and-drive-vote. That’s where they choose which road we race on. It’s kinda crazy.
MLAS: You’ve raced at so many different venues. Do you have a favorite?
JB: Generally I like to say I like the race tracks I’ve won on (laughing). I think those are the ones I like the most but I think like, Laguna Seca in California. I love that. I’ve had a great time racing at Le Mans in France. That was always a big favorite for so many reasons. But those would be my favorites, definitely in America, I like Laguna Seca. I just really love it; and in Europe, I definitely think Le Mans is one of the most amazing racetracks. I’m sure for a whole new generation Circuit of the Americas will be their favorite track, yeah? It’s crazy, an amazing circuit. So it depends on what you’re driving at the time and where you are in your career maybe, and if can you win there. Then you make your mind up on which you like the best.
MLAS: You’re so comfortable in front of the camera. What was it that prompted you to shift your focus towards media?
JB: I think maybe I always wanted to be like a performer as a kid. I don’t know but racing was what I did and I loved it. But I was always I think quite a good interviewee and people enjoyed interviewing me, I think, and I got the opportunity, even though I had done some TV. When I was during my twenties, all I wanted to do was race cars, so that wasn’t something I tried to develop. But once I got into, you know, I’m not going to say the later stage of my career because it makes it sound like I got old – but definitely when I got acquainted. You know [when] you’ve raced for a great many manufacturers and you’ve won some cool races. The options to do more TV work really started to come my way and it was exactly the right thing for me to focus on.
MLAS: One of the interesting things I’ve noticed, and I’m not being ageist here, is that the gentlemen who do racing analysis are of a “certain” age, but guys like you and for example, Tommy Kendall are much younger.
JB: Tommy is a great example. He had a horrific accident. It forced into retirement in many ways, but he really was the only game in town for many, many years. He was the TV/car guy. For me, I’ve never wanted to be just a broadcaster. You know, [just] cover races? I enjoy doing it. The fans enjoy me doing it. I have an understanding, and I think I bring my humor to it but what I like is hosting shows. The minute I wanted to do TV, I wanted to be the best TV host around cars I could be. You understand what I’m saying? It’s like I wanted to be the top car TV host. That was my goal. I still have a bit of a way to go but that’s what I’m working on.
MLAS: Absolutely! If you’re going to do something then you should do it wholeheartedly. You clearly have a passion for it and it’s not just a job for you.
JB: That I think is the essence of any successful sportsman is that they have the desire to compete, the desire to be the best. And whatever you turn your hand to, after you’re racing or during your racing, normally you apply the same energy to it. And for me the television is absolutely, I commit to it the same way as I did when I was racing – all the time.
MLAS: When did you decide to go into you original family business as a racer?
JB: Would I have been a plumber? I don’t know. You can imagine that when your father is in the elite sort of sport or situation of doing really well at it, I don’t think for many years as a young kid you know that they’re doing anything different from anyone else’s father. I’ve spoken to people whose parents are actors or musicians, and really it was, “Doesn’t everyone’s father play drums at Wembley?” or things like that. I’m sure Patrick Dempsey’s kids just think it’s normal he’s on TV every week. So it’s when you get to your early teens that you realize that it’s something quite special. As I said, I don’t know if I wanted to be an actor, but I wanted to be in television or movies. I was an artist more than I was anything else. [But] I was seventeen when I realized that I really wanted to race cars.
MLAS: That’s interesting because you hear that a lot of guys start out when they’re four or five. Some dads put them in karts when they’re very young saying, “Okay son, remember to hit your apex.”
JB: Certainly, the parents have to be interested in it before the kid. Otherwise it doesn’t happen. Kids can’t take themselves to places or pay for it, so it has to come from your father or mother. Then again in my case, my dad was racing, so the last thing he wanted to do was to spend his money on me racing. He had no interest in it. He didn’t want me to do it. My mom definitely didn’t want me to race. She was well against it. I used to race motorbikes from nine years old to my late teens. I was competing in a motorsport, it just wasn’t cars.
MLAS: What was it like to race with your father at Le Mans?
JB: That is where I suddenly realized that this was what I wanted. The minute I drove a racecar, I understood my father for the first time. I understood decisions he had made in his personal and business life, because racing is such a pure thing. It’s the ultimate test really of man and machine. It’s an amazing experience. So I understood my dad really for the first time properly, but to race with him at Le Mans in 1992 in the ’88 Porsche 962. Now Dad’s career [had] slowed down but it wasn’t like over in any way; and he was just amazing to be one of the most famous racers in the world, was one of the most famous drivers there. It was incredible to share that with him. Then we went to 1995 in the McLaren F1, and we led like ten hours, I think it was, into the night and it was Father’s Day. In the end we finished third. We had a mechanical problem, but still to be on the podium at Le Mans with your Dad who’s won it five times? It was crazy. It was. It was a crazy experience, and you know whatever else happens for the rest of your life, that will never be taken away.
MLAS: A lot of times there’s that gap with the generations of race car drivers, and a lot of times you will hear about fellas competing against their fathers in a series that’s a little bit more recreational; but to be a team mate with your father at Le Mans? That is just a unique situation. That must have been fantastic.
JB: It really was. It was beyond amazing actually; and you know, it brought us even closer together. Not that we needed it. But you’re right, with so many people, generations skip or the timing is off. But I’m very glad that it worked. You know I have a fourteen year-old who’ll never experience that. He missed.
MLAS: He doesn’t race?
JB: Thank God, he’s built like a linebacker so thank goodness! I think he’s going to be doing something [else]. He’s more intelligent than me so hopefully he’ll be smarter…
MLAS: Well you never know he might be a team owner or something? Get wildly famous in business and get ridiculously rich and have a team.
JB: Exactly, that’s a good way of doing it!
MLAS: For a long time, you were known as being part of Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage. How did that job come along?
JB: I’ve known Jay. I’ve met him over the years, but I was in Pebble Beach doing the Pebble Beach Concours and we got chatting. We got caught up on some stuff, and then about a week later I sent an email to his assistant saying, it was great seeing you. I’ve been to LA. I’m a racing driver that’s trying to become a car guy, a TV guy. Can I take you for coffee, a drink? I don’t know what you do but can I take you to do it? Literally I was driving along through the Starbucks on Ventura Boulevard three weeks later; and the phone goes ‘Unknown Number’ and it was Jay! He said, “Hey Justin, I got your note,” and he went straight into, “You may not know but in two weeks, we’re starting my new TV show, ‘The Jay Leno Show.’ I’m sitting with my producer, we’ve got a racetrack sponsored by Ford, electric cars and we train celebrities and they race. And my producer just asked me who’s going to host it and run it and train the celebrities.” And he said, “Justin Bell. Are you interested?” I said, “I’ll be there now. I’ll be there in five minutes.” So that’s basically it. What a great way to arrive in Los Angeles!
MLAS: I’ll say! After spending so much time in Jay’s Garage, could you tell us what’s in Justin Bell’s garage?
JB: Very sadly, not as much as you’d think. In Justin Bell’s Virtual Garage, there are lots of cars. Thanks a lot in part to my relationship with Barrett-Jackson because they’ve opened my eyes to so many cars. You know I host that for Fox and there are these beautiful cars, but I’ve got a [Audi] 27 TDI and a Mini Cooper – so, that’s my exciting line-up. I would really like an old 911, so I’m looking at that right now. An old Porsche 911 – that would just about be perfect, an old, historic 911.
MLAS: You need to talk to Magnus Walker about that.
JB: Yeah I know Magnus…he’s a really good guy, an amazing guy.
MLAS: Regarding your season racing in the Pirelli World Challenge, will you be doing anything like that in the future?
JB: I had a great time in it, in a Mustang. I won some races and it was great. I love working with Ford. I love racing a Mustang. It was nice to prove to everyone that, you know, this mature racing driver could still kick every one’s butts and I enjoyed doing that. And I should still be racing. I only slowed down because I wasn’t happy with what I was getting offered to drive; and [when] you have a family, you want to make a lot of money and television is a way for me to do that, and it’s my new challenge. But I still love driving fast.
MLAS: You also host “World’s Fastest Car Show.”
JB: Yes, that’s my show. It’s the biggest show. We just finished our last episode. The episode that goes up this week is me driving the pace car at the NASCAR Nationwide race two weeks ago in Homestead. It’s really growing. We’re getting a lot of fans. It’s on Motor Trend’s YouTube channel but people can find it by Googling it or going to http://www.worldsfastestcarshow.tv/.
MLAS: That’s another fun, enjoyable show!
JB: Ah, thank you. You know some are bigger than others and some are smaller. It’s important. I love the web and I love making shows for the web. It’s a really good time, a great opportunity to come up with fun storylines and have no one tell you that you can’t.
MLAS: Whose idea was it?
JB: It was really the combination of a few years of me wanting to do something like that coupled with seeing the opportunity that existed online. It was a funny way it actually came to fruition in two things: one is that Top Gear America didn’t hire me, back in the day; and I always thought you know what? They made a mistake by not having a Brit on the show. So I thought I really wanted to create my own best version of that, in my own sort of image. And I was at a party with Audi in Los Angeles and just met a really nice guy there who was a producer/director, a Danish chap – Nicolai Iuul. He became my partner on the show, and he was like, “Well, what are you doing here?” and I said, “I’m working with Jay Leno and I really want to get a web series off the ground.”
He said, “Well I just moved to LA and I’m a director and producer and I love cars; and I really want to get something like that off the ground.” So in a typical LA/Hollywood story, we met for lunch that week; and then next thing is we had our first sort of deal with Audi, about two weeks later that you see in the show. We then really pushed to see where we could put this show up, and I have a great friend called Martin Lauber from San Francisco, who has a very large brand agency called Swirl and his client happened to be eBay Motors Mobile. He put us together with them. He’s partner in the show now and they’ve been our sponsor for two and a half years, three seasons, eighty shows.
MLAS: I love that no episode is longer than ten minutes and I checked.
JB: Yeah absolutely, that’s why it’s called the “World’s Fastest.” It’s not because it’s fast cars all the time. It’s because, well, it’s a fast show. And we wanted to keep developing it, you know? We want to keep developing it. We have lots, lots of ideas on how [and with] what we want to grow it. Some people want longer episodes. Some people want shorter but you know we’re getting there bit by bit.
MLAS: It really is a nice cross-section of cars. I especially liked the episode with the Audi S8, as the fastest luxury car. Another one was the comparison between the Lamborghini Aventador and the Countach? That was sublime.
JB: Oh great, thank you! We really, really, really enjoy making it and I think we’re getting somewhere with it. People are starting to really respond well to it and we’re getting a pretty good viewership per show – and the car manufacturers like it. Next year, we’re going to really indulge, Nicolai and I both love the concept of adventures in cars; and the people that love cars and love travel. For me it’s as much about the lifestyle and the culture and the passion that it is just the technology in the cars. I have some amazing peers that can write and talk about the technology and you know “this model compared to the next.” We’re not a review show. We like cars, so we drive the ones we like, and that’s really the basis of the show.
MLAS: I also like that you have the Pros and Cons at the end of every drive.
JB: Oh yeah, great!
MLAS: It can’t just be, “Oh this car is fantastic! I feel like I was being carried by angels!” Not every car is a Pagani Zonda.
JB: Not every car, so we just have to find the good things that we enjoy. It’s really fun. This year we did thirty shows. Next year, I think we’ll do another thirty and we’ve got to get better distribution. More and more cool cars and more adventures. eBay Motors has been an amazing sponsor! On the eBay Motors mobile app you can see our shows, find out more, obviously that’s the bit that counts for us, and apart from that, you know it’s a very addictive app because I’ll go on and go, “Oh, what’s that minivan or what’s that old VW Kombi van worth? Can I buy one?” It’s quite an addictive app to have on your phone.
MLAS: Oh yes, absolutely. How long does it take to film an episode usually?
JB: We have a good cycle on it. Obviously some are way longer than others. Doing the NASCAR Homestead one – that was a long shoot. So was the Vaughn Gittin that took three days! You know different days with different locations, but we’re pretty efficient. The business model for web content production has forced production companies to be very nimble, efficient and fast because time does cost money when you’re shooting things. So I would say that it’s probably a three-day process by the time you add up the pre-production, the extra shoot day and then the editing. Actually no, if you add in editing it’s a five-day process, but that’s why we can do one a week.
MLAS: As you mentioned the Nationwide Series finale race, did they approach you to drive the pace car or was it the other way around?
JB: We were really looking with Ford at what we could do that would be a really great experience for me that I had never done before. Of course, they were like, well we’ve got this going on and that going on; and I said, “Are you doing the pace car again at Homestead?” It was my producer Taylor (Buzbee) had sort of remembered that from last year, and they were like, “Yeah! Would you want to drive it?” I said, “If I could get on track in it.”
Really it was amazing to see the power of Ford because I don’t know if it came across in the show, but to get to do that, to get to drive the track. We had the track for two hours on Thursday morning on our own before the trucks came in. To get that level of access was absolutely extraordinary; and way above and beyond what a little show like mine should really get. So that’s why it was such an enjoyable, special show for us.
MLAS: I don’t think many people get invited to come and drive the pace car. NASCAR wouldn’t mess around with stuff like that, and I think the last Englishman they let drive a pace car was Richard Hammond.
JB: Was it? Oh that’s funny!
MLAS: Do you have any advice for race car drivers looking to make the transition to media?
JB: (paused a bit) Obviously, I think the natural progression for most people is to become color commentators, which I do and did as well. As in you start talk to about the sport you know a lot about on television. But I always think that’s a very dangerous thing to do [solely] because you are really only the flavor of the month because Allan McNish just retired for example. Now wow! He’s eloquent, he’s funny and he’s won Le Mans three-times so far. He’s a guy who would probably be certainly higher up the food chain, you know, when it comes to doing that thing. So he’ll do a lot of, like he does, the Sky Sports [etc.] color commentary. But I always wanted to be a professional host, you know? I always wanted to be a real TV host, not just someone who knew to talk about my career, my sport. And I think we’ve really managed to make that happen. So when I get out there to audition for other types of shows, car-related shows, it’s all really good for me because I think you become more in-demand.
So my advice for someone who wants to is to really be unique. If you follow the crowd then you’re not going to stand out; and that’s the same advice I give to these young drivers. You have to be rich or know someone that’s rich or you have to be in the 1.001 % of talent, and if you’re not those or are those even, you have to stand out! You have to be a Raikkonen that never says hello. You have to be an Eddie Irvine character from the day, who used to fly down supermodels in jets. You have to do something. People love characters; and a lot of the young drivers today are fantastic drivers, great guys, but are petrified by corporate responsibility into being very vanilla. And you wouldn’t have made RUSH about most of the drivers we know today.
MLAS: I think that’s an interesting something you bring into it. If memory serves a while back on ESPN, you were explaining the corkscrew at Laguna Seca and sent a poor fella down the corkscrew – on a Big Wheel. I found that to be absolutely hilarious.
JB: Oh thank you. You have to do those things just to try and do it, and they often restrict me as much as they can and let me do what they can. They don’t know quite what to do with me half the time, but the fans seem to really enjoy it. It’s really good. I hope I’m involved next year. I think there could be some really, really fun things happening with the series. I’m very excited. I look forward to being a part of it.
MLAS: You have a very interesting Instagram account. I particularly enjoyed the video you did at Petit Le Mans when you showed the wraparound of the tiny room you guys were scrunched into. Geez man, that room was small!
JB: Yeah exactly, seeing the inside and you know it’s definitely something I’ve got to develop and work more on a little bit, and get more social media following. But I think the more people start to know you have the fun perspective on things, the better it goes. It’s really great.
MLAS: As you said you drive what you like on World’s Fastest Car Show, and I read your comments about the beautiful Jaguar F-Type Coupe. Besides that one, is there any other car that you really want to get your hands on?
JB: For the show, I have to say I really want to drive the Porsche 918 next year, and I know a lot of my contemporaries have driven it, but I think we can do a really good, interesting take on it. I really want to drive the new Mustang as soon as I can, just because I’m a fan and I really think it’s going to be a tremendous car. Believe it or not, I drove the Corvette Stingray at Laguna but that was it. I didn’t drive it on the road or have much chance. It was a go around and go sideways – one lap. I really want to drive that. I think I’m going to do a pretty fun adventure in the new Range Rover. You know to me, if I had to have one car for the rest of your life, one car, it would probably be a Range Rover because it does everything. Take it to a fancy restaurant or climb up a mountain. It’s really the only car you could easily say, that one car I’d have to have. But you know everyone’s design is so exciting right now in cars. The technology is so exciting. I think we’re going to have good access to some really special vehicles.
A Final Word
Thanks to Justin Bell for taking time out of his incredibly busy schedule to chat with me, especially so close to the holidays. Do look out for an all-new episode of World’s Fastest Car Show on Friday December 20, 2013 where Justin puts a Lexus IS F through its paces. I’ve been told that on December 28th they’re going to release a recap show featuring Justin’s Top 5 moments for the season. That should be a real treat!
You can connect with Justin Bell via social media.