‘This is not a dirt car’: How Christopher Bell was made into a road course winner

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The routine post-victory remarks, of which NASCAR drivers are too often guilty, include shoehorning sponsor mentions, shouting out the boys back in the shop and, curiously, an inability to thank anyone “enough.” The dialogue from Christopher Bell, though, was different.

Following a surprise win on Daytona’s road course last February, the 26-year-old driver earnestly thanked Michael Self, his road racing coach.

“Thank you to Michael for coaching me,” Bell said. “I would say he’s been a part of this success as well.”

As it turns out, Self, a former driver in the Xfinity Series and ARCA, drilled Bell on the finer points of braking and right-hand turns and instilled in him a confidence that didn’t previously exist.

“Everyone should be doing this”

Self, a native of Park City, Utah, cut his teeth on road courses, driving shifter karts and touch-and-go (TAG) karts, eventually transitioning to stock cars predominately on ovals. He fared well enough, winning eight times in what is now the ARCA Pro Series West and nine times in ARCA’s national series. He made seven starts in the Xfinity Series for JD Motorsports in 2017, with a best finish of 11th at Road America.

But even while he was forging his own driving career, he was pulled into coaching. He initially served as an instructor at Salt Lake City’s Ford Performance driving school. He was later hired as a private coach to Justin Haley and, soon after, Matt Tifft, tasked with enhancing their skillset for NASCAR K&N Series (now ARCA East and West) road races. In doing so, Self discovered Trans Am’s TA2 Series, comprehending a relevance to NASCAR that may previously have been unforeseen.

“I’d thought of Trans Am as what it was back in the seventies,” Self told NBC Sports. “You know, it was a big deal back then, but frankly, I thought the series had died out a little bit. But (Haley and HScott Motorsports) brought this car and we went down and it was our first test at Sebring … I got in the car and I was like, ‘Man, this is just like the K&N car.’

“It was the same transmission that the K&N cars run, it was a very similar tire. The car was a little bit lighter, but I was like, ‘Everyone should be doing this.’ This is very relevant to what we’re doing on the K&N side of things.”

Haley would eventually compete in 22 TA2 races from 2015-19, amassing nine top-five finishes, while also recording good results in NASCAR road races, including a Truck Series win at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in 2018.

His success, and work with Self, was noticed by Toyota Racing Development. With top prospect Bell in need of extensive road course training — “I didn’t even know what a right-hand corner looked like before I got in the Truck Series,” Bell admitted — TRD asked Self to run point on what turned out to be a mentally exhaustive training program.

“I just want to know if I suck or not”

Testing and eventually racing TA2 cars was at the core of Self’s plans for Bell. In addition to the testing, there’d be learning, thanks to video and data analysis.

A testing session at Mid-Ohio saw Bell joined on the track by Joe Gibbs Racing driver Brandon Jones, with JGR crew chiefs Chris Gabehart and Jason Ratcliff observing. In an early session, Bell “drove so hard, but there was no method to it,” according to Self, who used video to relay his lesson.

“This is not a dirt car,” Self bluntly told Bell. “You’re fast for no good reason, because you’re just throwing the car sideways into the corners and kind of getting it pointed and then jumping on (the gas) and coming out of the corner. That’s going to work for you for a couple of laps, but you’ve got to be way, way smoother.”

Bell went out again, tried to be smoother, but still required a lot of work. For as decorated as he was in dirt open-wheel racing, this proved to be an arduous, frustrating process. The frustration eventually boiled over, in front of Gabehart and Ratcliff and to the surprise of Self.

“I want you to tell me,” Bell asked of Self, “do I suck? I just want to know if I suck or not.”

The question stopped Self in his tracks.

“You’re Christopher Bell,” Self told him. “You don’t suck by any means. You just need to know what you’re doing, just have a method here to be fast and it’ll stick with you.”

Bell would later tell Self it was the best day of coaching he’d ever had.

“For me, when a guy like Christopher Bell tells you that, I’m like, ‘Wow,’ you know, that’s a really big deal,” Self said. “That’s really flattering to hear because for me, it was just another day of coaching.”

“I didn’t expect that to happen”

That test set the foundation for Bell’s relationship with Self, which fostered incremental improvement.

“I didn’t love road course racing at the time,” Bell said. “I wasn’t exceptional at it, but I didn’t suck at it. I just didn’t care for it.”

Bell finished fifth in his first NASCAR road course race (a 2016 Truck Series event at CTMP) but by comparison to his dominance in a seven-win Xfinity Series season the next year, finishes of ninth, 11th and 23rd in the three road races were pointed to as proof that he needed more seasoning, especially on the road courses.

He continued working with Self, traveling with him to Road America and, eventually, Circuit of the Americas, driving cars from Silver Hare Racing, the TA2 team for which Self now serves as general manager. Bell first won on a NASCAR road course in 2019 at Road America and sharpened rough edges along the way prior to his breakthrough last February.

His win wasn’t a woodshed-whipping, but the sheer statistical performance put on by Bell suggests a driver in a comfort zone on a track type miles from his origin. He averaged the race’s fourth-best running position and recorded a surplus pass differential 12 positions greater than his statistical expectation, a total besting every driver except A.J. Allmendinger.

Bell’s focus on road course training should have legs beyond the Daytona win. There are six road course races left this season and NASCAR’s interest in street courses could manifest in an expanded road course schedule in the Next Gen era.

Neither driver, nor coach are taking chances.

“We’ve already gone to COTA and had a really, really good test there, somewhere where I’m really excited for him to get back to in a Cup car,” Self said. “We’re talking about what tracks make the most sense and what fits in his schedule. I do anticipate him doing a little bit more and him being in our TA2 cars a couple more times this year.”

Road courses don’t host the kind of racing Bell signed up for when he fell down the NASCAR rabbit hole, but he pushed past his initial frustration and can now point, with pride, to the fruits of his labor.

“To win my first race at a road course, I didn’t expect that to happen,” Bell said. “I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for the guys that are good at road racing because I feel like it showcases talent. The cars, especially (with the) the low-downforce package, they’re slipping, they’re sliding, you’re kind of riding the car more than you’re driving the car.

“It was just surreal, man.”